Nowhere in the world does the retiring of an army chief and appointment of his successor attract as much attention as in Pakistan. That alone attests the clout of Pakistan’s army in matters of the state, be it power politics, foreign policy, national interests, or internal and external security.
There had been great deal of speculations regarding the retirement of General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s outgoing army chief, until last week, when a military spokesman announced the general’s farewell visits to military formations.
A cursory glance at the role of army generals in Pakistan’s 69-year history provides a solid reason for the immense interest in the change of military command.
Previous generals staged three coups by imposing martial law and each time continued ruling the country for nearly or more than a decade. Pakistan’s periods under military dictators witnessed most of the country’s key developments, both good and bad.
Pakistan fought a full-fledged war with India in 1965 when the first military ruler, Ayub Khan, was heading the country as president. The 17-day war was sparked by Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar to seize territory in the Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. When I was a student, I learned from my textbooks that Pakistan won the war. I am sure Indian students of my age might have learnt something different.
In 1971, a new Muslim majority state, Bangladesh, emerged from the womb of then-24-year-old Pakistan. The Muslims of present day Pakistan and Bangladesh had struggled together for independence from British and separation from Hindus. While Pakistan came into being in 1947 on the basis of the ideology of Islam, the impetus for the emergence of Bangladesh mostly came from political, economic, cultural, and linguistic exploitation. General Yahya Khan was the ruler when Pakistan dismembered.
Apart from hanging an elected prime minister (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), General Zia-ul-Haq brought the scourges of fundamentalism and jihadism into Pakistan by making the country center stage for anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Talibanization in Pakistan and Afghanistan today is the offshoot of policies pursued by Zia and his coterie of generals.
General Pervez Musharraf, after overthrowing, imprisoning, and later exiling Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, decided to join the global war against terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Musharraf’s dual policy of both fighting terrorism and providing sanctuaries to the escaping Afghan Taliban resulted in Talibanization of Pakistan’s tribal region.
Before the overthrow of the Sharif government in October 1999, General Musharraf’s 1998 (mis)adventure in Kargil in the Indian-controlled Kashmir had almost sparked a full-fledged fourth war between Pakistan and India, both armed with nuclear weapons by that time.
It is against this backdrop that the appointment of an army chief has always been a matter of utmost importance for the public, media, and politicians in Pakistan. While General Raheel Sharif is being praised for his timely retirement without seeking an extension in his tenure, as has been given to previous chiefs, the real feather in his cap is the “successful” operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan.
Soon after taking office, Sharif launched a massive military operation against the so-called Taliban stronghold in Waziristan, along the Afghan border, in June 2014. The operation helped improve the security situation in the cities, where bomb blasts, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom had become almost a routine.
Soon Sharif became a most celebrated figure. His pictures began to appear on the back of lorries and auto rickshaws, in roadside tea stalls, and even in election posters alongside the candidates. The educated class, meanwhile, eulogized the general on social media platforms with the hashtag #thankyouRaheelSharif.
Unlike Raheel Sharif, his predecessor General Kayani dragged his feet on an anti-Taliban adventure in North Waziristan, fearing a severe backlash in the cities, while Pervez Musharraf was pursuing his double game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Sharif’s bold steps also boosted the morale and image of the Pakistan army.
But there’s more to Sharif’s legacy. Though the general did not impose military rule despite several upheavals on the political scene during his tenure as the army chief, his institution never missed a chance to humble the civilian administration and twist the arm of Prime Minister Sharif (no relation) on policies pertaining to India, Afghanistan, China, and the United States.
Soon after swearing in as prime minister for the third time after his party’s landslide victory in the May 2013 general elections, Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi nationalist, embarked on a resolute plan to strengthen trade ties with India and help resolve the Afghan imbroglio to promote trade activity in the region spreading from India to Central Asia via land route.
However, he found himself entangled in protests and sit-ins, mostly unnecessary, as well as controversies and scandals hardly before his administration could venture to take even the first steps toward materialization of that ambitious agenda.
The root of his woes points to the country’s strong security establishment and its supporters among politicians, the civil bureaucracy, media, and society. Sharif no longer discusses peace with India or action against jihadi networks and seldom mentions stability in Afghanistan in his public discussions.
Although the anti-Pakistan Taliban were pushed out of the Pakistani tribal areas under General Sharif, there has been no visible action against the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura, despite protests by Afghanistan and assurances by the Pakistani authorities.
Many observers salute General Sharif for his professionalism and high regard for state institutions. But no institution in the country was strong enough to drag ex-military dictator Pervez Musharraf to court in the case of high treason against him. No doubt Musharraf had the backing of the institution he had once headed as its chief.
Meanwhile, the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), overshadowed the civilian press information department and the foreign office by touching on issues relating to foreign policy, civilian administration, and law and order, which are otherwise the domain of the civilian administration. Earlier, ISPR was known for releasing statements on purely professional matters or military operations.
General Sharif often occupied more space in media headlines than the prime minister, mainly because of his visits to terrorist attacks sites, meetings with families of terrorism victims, offering funeral prayers, reaching forward positions in the tribal areas, and sometimes inaugurating projects and schemes.
Besides, Sharif and his generals have adopted the practice of lecturing, though in veiled statements, the civilians on better management, corruption, and law and order.
The General Headquarters or GHQ remained the focal point for all visiting foreign dignitaries, including presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers. The majority of the foreign dignitaries who have visited Pakistan in the past three years called on General Sharif, proving the military’s clout in matters of the state.
Since the emergence of dozens of private television channels in Pakistan in the past decade, it was generally believed that Pakistani media is now strong enough to avoid being hushed or challenged by a civilian or military ruler.
However, that notion proved wrong. Most television channels and leading journalists stopped openly discussing matters marked as “no-go areas” by the security establishment after an attack on prominent anchor Hamid Mir in April 2014. Earlier, journalist Raza Rumi narrowly escaped an attempt on his life while most recently columnist Cyril Almeida is being investigated for reporting about civil-military differences on issues relating to action against jihadi outfits.
So what the expectations are in the post-Raheel Sharif era? Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is appointing an army chief for a record fourth time. Each appointment must have broadened his understanding of dealing with the army and reading institutional thinking. Since PM Sharif still keeps economic prosperity as the most urgent task on his agenda, his selection process may focus on a person who would provide him some space to pursue that goal.
That means, at the bare minimum, restoration of normal ties and an end to border hostilities with India; an end to the ongoing diplomatic deadlock with Kabul and resumption of fresh peace overtures in Afghanistan; restrictions, if not a complete ban, on anti-India and anti-Afghanistan jihadis in Pakistan; and stern action against sectarian groups and initiation of talks with Baloch separatists.
PM Sharif may succeed in finding someone to support his agenda, but will rest of the army as an institution too share that vision? Only time will tell.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFERL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul.