Field Marshal Raheel Sharif?


A SUGGESTION to elevate Gen Raheel Sharif to rank of field marshal is rumoured to be under consideration. Some media reports maintain that a decision has already been made. There is, however, no confirmation or denial from either the government or the military spokesman, raising questions about the credibility of these stories. There are some reports that the offer came as an alternative to a request made by the general seeking an extension of his tenure that the prime minister is reluctant to grant.

It all sounds so surreal as only months ago the general had promised to bow out at the end of his term in November this year. It would tarnish the image of a good general were this report about his impending elevation true. He certainly does not need the grand but ceremonial title of field marshal in recognition of his great services for the nation. Indeed, Gen Sharif must be given credit for leading from the front the fight against the militants challenging the state. But one must not ignore the contribution of other commanders too in this war that has been going on for more than a decade.

It is most intriguing how the rumour about a mere proposal was circulated and politicised. Is it a game of deception? Firstly, it will not be easy to create this position without a constitutional provision, however ceremonial the title may be. Then there is also a problem of altering the command structure of the armed forces if his role is to be made more effective.

There is certainly no such move yet. So what is the rumour all about weeks before the appointment of the new chief? It has generated unnecessary controversy casting shadows over the transition of the army leadership that should be following the normal process.

It is most intriguing how the rumour about a mere proposal was circulated and politicised.
Field marshal is usually the highest rank in the armed forces and it requires extraordinary achievement by a general winning a major war. But in Third World countries we have seen many examples of military rulers appointing themselves to that position. Ayub Khan, the first Pakistani military dictator, assumed the position of field marshal in the 1960s without fighting a war — maybe in order to usurp power. The main purpose was to stay as part of the military, the source of power. But that title could not save him in crunch time.

Interestingly, Egypt that remained under military rule for most of its recent history had appointed eight field marshals over the past four decades despite the country having been humiliated in conflict against Israel. Most recently, the country’s new military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared himself field marshal after ruthlessly crushing the resistance to the military takeover.

Afghanistan has seen field marshals in recent history. The last one was field marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim who served as vice president. He was given the title apparently for leading the Northern Alliance’s forces against the Afghan Taliban and capturing Kabul with the support of the US-led coalition forces in November 2001. This appointment was more to do with politics than his services in the military. There are several other instances of tinpot dictators harbouring self-delusions of grandeur assuming this title.

One wonders if Gen Sharif would be interested in getting his name listed alongside them. This kind of artificial title cannot further raise his professional reputation and stature. During his three years’ term that is about to end soon, Gen Sharif led his forces clearing most of the tribal areas including North Waziristan from the insurgents. This helped re-establish the state’s writ.

Gen Sharif has also been instrumental in pushing the government to act against the militant groups operating on the mainland, though he may not have been fully successful in his efforts. A thorough professional, he may not harbour any political ambition but he did assert the military’s authority when it came to taking decisions on critical foreign and national security policies. That also reinforced the perception of the military being in the driving seat.

Gen Sharif has tried to change the narrative on terrorism and religious extremism and has taken a much tougher stance on those two issues. That also won him the kind of mass popularity no other army chief had received. But there has also been criticism within and outside the military of over-projection of his personality by an overactive ISPR that tweets his every movement. His frequent foreign travels have also raised many eyebrows. One is not questioning the importance of most of those visits, but some others could have been avoided.

There is no denying Gen Sharif’s role as a leader, but it is the military as an institution that has made those successes possible. One must also not take away the credit from his predecessors who led operations in Swat, South Waziristan and other tribal areas. The North Waziristan operation could not have succeeded without other tribal regions having been cleared earlier.

Certainly, a lot more has to be done before the situation in the tribal areas can be stabilised and militancy eliminated from the country. But it does not depend on one person to take this existential battle to its conclusion. With the entire top brass battle-hardened there is little possibility of course reversal by the future military leadership.

One must learn from the past experience of generals getting extensions. The controversy over Gen Ashfaq Kayani getting a second term refuses to die down. However effective and brilliant one may be, no one is indispensable.

One expects that being a highly professional and dedicated soldier Gen Raheel Sharif will keep his promise and pass on the baton to the next chief who one hopes will take his mission forward. Also, the government must clear the ambiguity over the rumours about his appointment as field marshal. Such controversies demoralise the troops. That is the last thing the armed forces need when they are engaged in battle so critical for the country’s security and its survival.

The writer is an author and journalist.