ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf appointed a new military spy chief and made several other promotions on Friday, days after announcing his plan to step down as head of the army if re-elected president next month. Army appointments are closely watched at any time in Pakistan, as generals have ruled for more than half of the 60 years since the country was founded. But this year’s round of retirements and promotions has been keenly anticipated as U.S. ally Musharraf is going through his weakest phase since coming to power in a coup eight years ago.
The Supreme Court is hearing several petitions challenging his right to hold the dual role of president and army chief, the legality of being elected in uniform, and whether he can be re-elected by the current assemblies before they are dissolved for a general election due by mid-January.
A military statement said Musharraf appointed Nadeem Taj as director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and promoted him from major-general to lieutenant-general. Taj was formerly the head of Military Intelligence and also served as Musharraf’s military secretary at the time of the coup.
The move will harden expectations the replaced ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, will get one of the top jobs — either taking over from Musharraf as chief of army staff, or becoming his vice chief. The other front-runner for one of the top slots is Lieutenant-General Tariq Majeed, who has been replaced as Tenth Corps Commander based in Rawalpindi.
Majeed was stationed in Lahore during the 1999 coup, and ordered troops to take over the family estates of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted. Both officers are well regarded by U.S. counterparts, Western diplomats say.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan is an important non-NATO ally for the United States. Its support is regarded as crucial for the success of Western military intervention in Afghanistan, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda in tribal border lands.
Al Qaeda’s media arm As-Sahab issued messages on Thursday from bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahri, in which they declared war on the Pakistan army, and exhorted followers to take revenge on Musharraf for the killing of a rebel cleric and his followers when commandos stormed an Islamabad mosque last July.
Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad dismissed the call as “irrelevant” and said Pakistanis did not back bin Laden.
The changes in command come at a time when the army’s prestige has suffered several blows fighting militants in tribal areas like Waziristan, where 240 soldiers are being held captive.
In the past week, militants have slaughtered 32 members of elite commando units in a suicide attack and a raid.
Pakistan has lost over 1,000 troops battling the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the conflict has meant ordering the army to fight its own people, while suicide attacks against soldiers and police have multiplied since the storming of the Red Mosque.
Boosting the army’s morale will be a priority, a Western military official said.
Whoever comes out on top in the shuffle, analysts agree that regardless of loyalty to Musharraf, the officers should be loathe to involve the army in politics given sentiment nationwide. But there is speculation Musharraf might declare emergency rule, if the Supreme Court blocks his re-election.
Altogether six major-generals were promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general, according to the military statement.
Vice Chief of Army Staff General Ahsan Saleem Hyat and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Ehsan ul-Haq are both due to retire next month.
Others in the frame to replace them include Lieutenant-General Salahuddin Satti, chief of general staff, who as a brigadier led troops who arrested Sharif in the coup.
Lieutenant-General Khalid Ahmad Kidwai, the most senior officer, is considered a contender for chairman of joint chiefs of staff. Kidwai is director general of the Strategic Plans Division, which has oversight for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.