The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Nawaz Sharif government has decided in principle to politely but firmly decline any plea made for extending Gen Raheel Sharif’s tenure as army chief. The manner in which the government continues to dance around the issue, ducking it every time it is raised, indicates that its mind is made up on this score.
In informal conversations, the Nawaz camp’s pro-extension members also speak less of their stance and more of what the consensus in the party caucus is. They also say that, barring an engineered calamity, a self-inflicted wound or a forced change of heart by the prime minister, very few factors would be able to alter this decision in the coming months.
The reasons for this policy course, to use a legal expression, can be noted later; for now the more significant side of the decision is that if it has been taken with a finality seal etched on it, how will it be received at the national level?
There will be an uproar in certain quarters, a storm of complaints and slurs. Known mandarins in the media would hype this as a betrayal of the highest order, a grave breach of national security – citing any number of mindless theories to prove that the heavens would fall come the departure date for the good general. These screaming sirens can be ignored, if not prevented. Their argument’s merit is totally compromised by their own vested interests.
They don’t love General Raheel Sharif. Or believe in the sanctity of the office he holds. They are interested in protecting their own vested interests that get built around any powerful post over a period of time. They would like to create an ‘end of the world’ scenario because their existence and the benefits they draw from that existence hinge on playing the ‘general’s jiyalas’. Without the man, they fear turning into mice overnight.
More crucial will be the way this decision is seen by more professional eyes within the army. There are legitimate concerns around General Raheel Sharif’s tenure coming to an end this year. Some of the work he started when he took charge is yet to see closure. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, while a thoughtful and important manoeuvre yielding notable successes, is still in the gains-consolidation phase. The displaced are in huge numbers, awaiting life to begin again in the lands they had to vacate two and half years ago. Reconstruction in the damaged and destroyed towns and villages is nowhere near completion.
On a related front, the urban crackdown against terrorists has been haphazard, hobbled by legal, administrative and planning glitches and deficiencies. Karachi, while seemingly a battle of nerves between the federal government and provincial authorities, is actually an example of the treacherous nature of the terrain counter-terror and the fight against organised crime offers to determined efforts at eradicating them. Karachi is stable but every now and then moves closer to its horrid past.
The Rangers’ operations in Punjab halted after the Chuto Gang bust which, as we now discover, did not yield evidence of political protection or high-grade terrorism connection. Balochistan is quiet but like the urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, incidents of killing and sabotage occur regularly. However, these are not spectacular enough to catch sustained attention.
Borders are tense. India’s killing spree in Occupied Kashmir and the Kashmiris’ resurgent push for freedom has made the Line of Control a live wire around which anything can happen. The Afghanistan side of the border is low on predictability. Recent episodes of cross-border shelling and firing resulting in casualties leave no room for positive assumptions. Nato’s extended stay will make Pakistan’s north west a hot potato. An unsettled Afghanistan with no prospect of conflict-ending negotiations taking place between the Taliban and the Afghan government keeps security in high alert.
Relations with Iran too are precariously balanced. The embarrassing episode that unfolded during the Iranian president’s visit to Pakistan has left behind bitterness that damage-control hasn’t fully sweetened. Then at a distance – and yet so close – is the Middle East where the Saudis have clearly articulated expectations of security and assistance from friendly states like Pakistan. Preparing to meet these demands entails additional work that is so strategic because of the involvement of the House of Saud that it cannot wait. And of course the CPEC, which even though the Chinese say is being implemented smoothly, needs to be brought on terra firma.
This is a lot of pending work. A commander can genuinely obsess about not leaving it half done. But a closer look at this list of in-the-works issues would shows that most, with the possible exception of Zarb-e-Azb’s aftermath in North Waziristan, will always remain half complete because these are long-term matters. There is little any army chief can do other than to address them as best as he can in the short tenure of three years. Another year or even a full tenure offers no guarantee that there won’t be yet another – and even longer – list of things to do.
The dynamic nature of Pakistan surroundings are influenced by a world in flux. These will always remain challenging, throwing up new situations that instigate old problems. There isn’t a tenure long enough to ever fully manage Pakistan’s security complexity.
Yes the desire is genuine and understandable to see through a pet project like Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Soldiers are trained to leave dean marks, impact events, create a bit of history and generate reference points if not lasting legacies. Official narratives have made General Raheel Sharif and Zarb-e-Azb as synonyms: success of one is automatically projected as feathers for the other.
It would be nice, from General Raheel’s point of view, to cut the ribbons of a brand new North Waziristan with metallic roads, booming markets and a satisfied population endlessly thanking the Lord and the saviours for a miraculous transformation in their lives. That would be a fair culmination of a significant enterprise. But realistically assessed, North Wazristan will not be close to becoming that Utopia in any number of years; the glistening ceremony opening the doors of a heaven in the midst of chaos is good food for thought but isn’t going to emerge from the head and land on the ground.
It is worth the dream but not worth the wait especially if the wait creates legal, constitutional and moral complexities for a commander who has been exceptionally careful cultivating an away-from-the-ordinary image and reputation.
At any rate the idea that a commander must finish what a commander starts is somewhat insulting to those who are fully capable of taking the torch forward. The Pakistan Army is a not a family business run by an elderly figure who fears for the future of his initiatives as he looks at his own mortality and the incapacity of toddlers running around in the backyard. It is a remarkably professional organisation of equals at the top who reach the pinnacle through a grinding process with total premium on established merit and proven qualification.
Leaving aside rare slippages, the internal ladder of capable commanders is well-honed, offering leaders at all rungs. A good commander must have faith that those following him will not just finish his work but outdo his achievements. To not have that faith is to cast a vote against one’s own institution, and that is hardly a trophy anyone should wish to obtain in any career. Therefore, General Raheel Sharif’s timely completion of his tenure ought to be seen as an apt professional and natural conclusion of a professional at work. There is nothing to be cut up about – and everything to be happy about.
For the Sharif government it is vital that the implementation of the decision is done in an honourable way. Regardless of how the government perceives the Raheel years, its statements must remain wedded to the principle of legally-mandated requirements. Appointing a chief or seeing off another are not decisions that can be based on political considerations. There is a constitutional process to follow, and to follow that process itself establishes the merit of its outcome.
How a chief has fared in his tenure and how a new one ought to carry himself is for historians and journalists to document and comment on and not for governments to judge and debate. General Raheel Sharif’s retirement on time makes perfect professional sense. Altering the decision will be foolish.