Perceptions and profanities


When Gen Kayani succeeded Gen Musharraf in November 2007, Musharraf had overstayed his welcome. We may continue to claim that it was the rule of law movement and Pakistan’s yearning for democracy that was Musharraf’s undoing. But the ultimate trigger might have been a collective sense within the army that Musharraf had become a liability for the institution and his exit was overdue.

Many may have forgotten our initial love affair with Gen Kayani. He was a larger than life character back in 2009-10.

Gen Kayani assumed command of the army at a time when the military’s popularity was at its lowest ebb since Gen Zia’s regime. The country was tired of Musharraf, and the man wouldn’t take a hint. Gen Kayani’s initial decisions as chief manifested his intent to lead the army back to being the apolitical institution it ought to be. His role in the 2008 election was seen as fair and non-partisan. He withdrew military officers from civilian jobs and brought the military’s focus back to military matters.

While building him up as a demigod, we projected Gen Kayani as ‘the soldiers’ soldier’ and the ‘thinking general’: the man who was trained to perfection, had done all the right jobs, was an avid reader, slept little and thought deep into the night, who restored the army’s image post-Musharraf, restored the morale of the troops (by gestures such as spending his first Eid as chief with the troops in Fata), and led successful military operations against terrorists (Rah-e-Rast in Swat and Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan).

And then came November 2010 – the scheduled date of Gen Kayani’s retirement – and he elected to overstay his welcome too. Up until that moment Gen Kayani was seen as being capable of doing no wrong: khakis loved him; he had stood by the constitution, ‘allowed’ the restoration of judges and exhibited no political ambition so the civvies loved him; he moved our national security thinking away from making deals with terrorists and decided to take them on while building a public narrative in favour of such military ops, and so the Americans loved him.

All that changed post-November 2010 when he chose to consume the forbidden fruit: accepting an extension granted by a civilian government. What would Gen Kayani’s legacy have been had he quit as he should have when the time came? Osama Bin Laden had not been found back in 2010. The 24 Pakistani soldiers had not been killed by the US at Salala in 2010. No one had heard of the Kayani brothers and their facility with real-estate deals back in 2010. In his first term, Gen Kayani had a touch of gold. In his second, nothing seemed to go his way.

Gen Kayani’s second term was consumed by his need to be liked. He was at pains to explain why he had accepted the extension after he had stated in town halls that Gen Kakar (who had gracefully walked into the sunset) was his hero. He became hesitant in military matters too. He decided not to cleanse Fata of TTP sanctuaries and refused to extend military ops into North Waziristan. While the blowback theory was his excuse, he seemed to think that the public might perceive him to be buckling under US pressure to “do more”.

Musharraf overthrew an elected civilian government. He made Pakistan the most allied ally of the US in its ‘war on terror’. He handed Pakistani bases to the Americans as well as Pakistani citizens without due process for head money. He offered India a peace plan for Kashmir that the army wouldn’t touch today with a barge-pole. But the impression is that he, unlike Kayani, is still liked in military circles.

Musharraf might have grabbed power from a civilian government but never accepted an extension doled out by civvies. By the prevalent khaki code of honour, Musharraf was an honourable soldier. He has been saved from the ignominy of a treason trial, but we hardly ever get to hear anything about Kayani. Gen K had two stains that stuck: his professional authority was tainted when he accepted the extension; and his moral authority was tainted when gossip spread about his brothers making dirty money.

Given Gen Raheel’s popularity thanks to his clear-minded approach toward terrorists attacking Pakistan, suggesting that he must retire on schedule is almost sacrilegious. This is also the essential attitude reflected in the #ThankyouRaheelSharif campaign. Part of this has to do with a society in which we love building demigods only to destroy them later. But an equally valid explanation is our entrenched ethic of sycophancy whereby no one wishes to get on the wrong side of the king by telling him that it is time, lest the king decides it is not.

It is profane to remind anyone in public that when Gen R was selected as chief, a general sense existed that some amongst his peers might have been better qualified to lead the army by virtue of their seniority or role in military ops against terrorists. Gen R was seen as the ‘safe’ choice by the Sharifs back in 2013. But that was then. Today the public perception effectively constructed and reinforced is that if there is one person preventing Pakistan from being driven into the abyss, it is Gen R. And hence he is indispensable.

The point here isn’t to undermine Gen R’s accomplishments, but to suggest that what has happened under his watch is no rocket science. Gen R’s key contribution to our national security doctrine probably is the assertion of a simple idea that the consequences of fighting terror can’t be overanalysed, and reclaiming Pakistan’s territory from terrorists and asserting the state’s writ aren’t matters to be negotiated, and so we must bear whatever the consequences of fighting terror.

His biggest strength seems to be his clear-mindedness as a soldier. Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched without much fanfare and he seemed eager to get on with the job. Post-APS, he brought a sense of urgency to fighting terror all across without being deterred by the blowback theory. The effect is for all to see: a significant decline in terror incidents and a change in the erstwhile perception that we might be losing to terrorists. While doing this Gen R has had a good sense of where to be and what to say to bolster the morale of the troops and the nation – and his own image.

The country got very excited about the announcement of military officers being held accountable under Gen R’s watch. While such internal accountability is a routine affair, shaming officers by releasing their information at a time when the Panama scandal had broken was a break from the military tradition of not exposing its dirty laundry to the public and a great image-building move.

In short, while there might be no one extraordinary thing Gen R has done, he has continued to do all the right things as a professional apolitical commander, soldier and public servant during his term, which in itself is extraordinary in these times. As we thank Gen R for his service to our country, why must we doubt whether the next commander will move forward in the right direction as he is handed the baton?

The senior most generals eligible to be considered all have the required training and experience to assume command. They have all participated in and led this fight against terror in various capacities. And soon enough we will eulogise whoever is appointed and build him up into a demigod.

If there is one lesson in all this for the Sharif government, it is this: no matter how carefully it picks the next chief, his allegiance to the army will trump his allegiance to any other institution or individual, and our civ-mil imbalance is here to stay for now.