By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD, Oct 4 (Reuters) - One of Pakistan's most powerfulmen, General Ashfaq Kayani, is likely to stay head of themilitary with a new title when he steps down as army chief nextmonth, government and security sources said, taking over some ofthe duties of his successor.
The expected move comes at a time when Islamist violence ison the rise in Pakistan, tension boils with arch rival Indiaover disputed Kashmir and as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seeksto shore up a stable government just months into his job.
And for the United States, it would mean continuity inPakistan's approach ahead of a pullout of most foreign troops inneighbouring Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
There has been speculation over who will take over as chiefof the army, which has ruled the nuclear-armed South Asiannation for more than half of its history since independence in1947, when Kayani steps down.
Sources and aides close to Kayani said Sharif wanted to makehim head of a revamped and more powerful Joint Chiefs of StaffCommittee (JCSC). One senior intelligence official said Sharifplanned to overhaul the JCSC, a largely ceremonial office, intoa "central defence body" by restoring its command over theentire military establishment and giving it additional powers.
"The new JCSC chief will be in charge of the nucleararsenal. He'll decide on action against terrorists," said thesource, adding that new powers included the right to promote,post and transfer key military officers.
"Basically, the JCSC office will be what it was alwayssupposed to be. The overall boss."
Sharif has a history of bitter relations with the army butis keen to preserve a semblance of continuity at a time whenPakistan is struggling to contain a growing Taliban insurgency.
But keeping Kayani in a powerful role would entrench thearmy once again as the real decision maker in Pakistan, with thecivilian government playing second fiddle.
Military officials did not return repeated calls seekingcomment. The government's spokesman said he also could notcomment until an official announcement on Monday when thecurrent JCSC chief is due to step down.
"THE DEVIL THEY KNOW"
Kayani's post had already been extended for three years in2010 - to the discontent of some climbing the ranks below him.Sources close to Sharif said he was unlikely to give him anotherextension, which would allow movement in the top ranks.
"The JCSC chairmanship is the most likely option forKayani," said a close Sharif aide. "He's an expert on thePakistani insurgency. He understands the war in Afghanistan."
Under Kayani's command, the army has launched severaloffensives against al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in thetribal regions on the Afghan border. In response, militants haveextended their attacks to major cities across Pakistan.
Pakistan is trying to bury the legacy of military rule andthis year, for the first time, a civilian government completedits full term and stood aside for Sharif's team to be elected.
Sharif has a difficult relationship with the army, andpicking Kayani's successor will be a defining moment of hissecond term. Kayani was once intelligence chief to PervezMusharraf, the army chief who overthrew Sharif in 1999.
Lieutenant General Rashad Mahmood, chief of general staff,has emerged as a possible successor and a Kayani favourite.
Other possible candidates include General Tariq Khan,considered pragmatic on U.S. relations, and Lieutenant GeneralHaroon Aslam, the most senior official after Kayani.
"Nawaz wouldn't want an overly strong army chief and ifKayani plans to stick around in uniform, then he would prefersomeone close to him," a senior retired army officer said."Rashad is the man."
Either way, Kayani is widely expected to stay on in one formor another. "He won't simply retire and disappear quietly," oneWestern diplomat in Islamabad said.
The relationship with the Americans is also key.
The United States has a long-standing alliance withPakistan, but ties have been strained by concerns that Islamabadis supporting militants fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan andover U.S. drone strikes on militant targets inside Pakistan.
Fears for Pakistani sovereignty peaked in May 2011 whenOsama bin Laden was found and killed in a town not far fromIslamabad in a secretive operation by U.S. Navy SEALS.
"Kayani has a good rapport with the Americans and has workedclosely with them in Afghanistan," the prime minister's aidesaid. "For Sharif and the U.S., it's better the devil theyknow."
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- Ashfaq Kayani