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COAS General Raheel Sharif is making headlines again. He says he is neither seeking nor will accept any extension in service beyond retirement in November 2016. He has also responded swiftly to the terrorist attack last week on the Bacha Khan University campus by ordering military intelligence to track down the planners, abettors and originators of terrorism and then called up President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul to present evidence of Afghan complicity. Both responses call for appropriate comment. General Sharif’s decision to step down this year as scheduled has received a resounding welcome from all. It is just as well that the PMLN government has quickly disclaimed rumours that it was even thinking of some such thing. General Sharif felt the need to make a statement because of late the media had begun to speculate on the subject and make it controversial. In view of the unsavoury controversies triggered by the extension granted to his predecessor, General Ashfaq Kayani, by the PPP government, which discredited Kayani, General Sharif rightly felt that he should scotch such rumours quickly, especially since his credibility is at an all-time high for being a soldier’s soldier par excellence. Some people think he should have ignored the speculation and carried on regardless because he has 11 months to go before retirement. They argue that he might become a “lame duck” in the middle of a critical campaign against terrorism for which initiative he has singularly been credited. Others have clutched at the need for “strategic continuity” at a time when Pakistan is confronted with multiple geo-political challenges in which General Sharif’s input is vital. The “lame duck” argument doesn’t wash. An army chief is an army chief until he doffs his uniform. The rigid discipline in the army ensures that his word is law until the new chief takes over. A forthright chief like General Sharif with so many laurels to his credit, and with strong public and institutional backing, is not about to become a lame duck. The “continuity” argument was trotted out in the case of General Kayani by the then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, even though what was urgently needed was not continuity in the military doctrine in practice at the time (that had become part of the problem rather than the solution) but continuity of the PPP government that was reeling from challenges to its authority from multiple sources and the extension was given to forestall any presumed latent ambitions of General Kayani’s. But in the case of General Sharif, the “continuity” argument carries more weight because he has been singularly responsible for the paradigm shift in anti-terrorism policy that needs to be carried to its logical end. However, this policy now has the unequivocal support of all sections of the political spectrum and public and any new army chief will not find it easy to change course. Indeed, General Sharif’s success lies in institutionalising this paradigm shift by promoting a new class of senior officers who generally share this outlook and will defend it vigorously. So there should be no disquiet on this front too. General Sharif has two bigger challenges to deal with this year. The first is to bring the Taliban to the table and nudge them to participate in a peace process in Afghanistan. The second is to stitch up some sort of stable relationship with India so that Pakistan can get on with confronting the challenge on its western border which is posing serious internal problems. Afghanistan, however, is going to be a long haul. The internal power struggle within the Taliban following the death of Mullah Umar will not allow any faction to take a “soft” or opportunist position vis a vis the Kabul regime. Equally, the ability of the Ghani regime to beat the Taliban to the negotiating table is decreasing by the day in view of the internal squabbles between the factions representing the Pakhtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks. So the quadrilateral dialogue may not take off. This has adverse consequences for Pakistan because it doesn’t give General Sharif any ability to leverage action against the Pakistani Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan from where they are launching their operations. Similarly, India is not about to bend over backwards to accommodate Pakistan. Following Pathankot, it will demand concrete action against the Jaish-e-Mohammad in general and Maulana Masood Azhar in particular. This is easier said than done. General Sharif will have to think twice before taking on the jihadis frontally at the behest of India. To add to his woes, the international community led by the US and EU are breathing down his neck to take stern action against the Lashkar-e-Tayba as well. If General Sharif can effectively tackle these issues, a strong case can be made out for his extension even if he is personally disinclined because so much is genuinely at stake in the national interest. But the time for that assessment has not yet come.