The general’s legacy | Arif Nizami

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while addressing a farewell dinner for the outgoing Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif, showered him with accolades. According to him the khaki Sharif proved himself as the best COAS who always led from the front.

No doubt General Raheel Sharif deserves all the praise he is getting from different quarters, and perhaps more. He acquitted himself professionally, as much as a COAS can in the backdrop of unsavoury history of tense civilian and military relations.

Nevertheless, behind the thin veneer of enthusiastically lauding the retiring military chief, almost throughout his three-year tenure relations between the two Sharifs remained tense. Hence the prime minister and his close advisors will be inwardly relieved that a new start could be made with the yet to be named COAS.

Insiders claim that Sharif was loath to extend the tenure of the incumbent military chief despite being counselled by his own brother Shahbaz Sharif and close consort Chaudhry Nisar Ali to do so. But the prime minister stuck to his guns.

He had rightly surmised that the general, unlike the reckless and mercurial General Pervez Musharraf, was not a coupster by temperament. Another three years with General Raheel Sharif, whose approval ratings were much higher than the prime minister, would have been too much for him.

In any case under the Kayani doctrine the military — in the aftermath of three major coups in the past — had come to the conclusion that the army can have its pound of flesh through its vast and deeply ingrained intelligence apparatus and the power it possesses literally through the barrel of the gun.

General Kayani shrewdly used this power not only to keep the Zardari government on the run throughout its five-year term but also to pursue without hindrance security paradigms according to the military’s own agenda. In the process the general also managed to get his term extended for another three years.

Zardari, in a recent interview, has admitted that he extended General Kayani’s term to strengthen democracy and to strengthen him. But when I quizzed Yousaf Raza Gilani while he was still prime minister, after a litany of complaints against the military’s overbearing influence he quite candidly replied that he did not give the extension, Kayani simply took it.

Essentially General Raheel Sharif followed the example of his predecessor. But with an important difference: he did not employ Machiavellian schemes to wrangle an extension in his term. Nevertheless, had Nawaz Sharif offered him an extended tenure my feeling is that he would have accepted the offer, despite protestations to the contrary of his spokespersons.

Undeniably, General Sharif by his bold, professional and clear-headed approach towards terrorism did change the course of history. Since the late dictator and usurper General Zia ul Haq started using jihadists as the cat paw of the military in Afghanistan and across the LOC, the outgoing general was the first military chief to declare war on those who were destroying Pakistan through terrorism in the name of religion.

The general had no qualms in destroying the sanctuaries of the Taliban in North Waziristan, essentially no go areas for his predecessors. This was no mean feat. However, an even greater achievement was bringing the erstwhile sympathisers of the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) across the political landscape on one page.

The ruling PML-N government had an unsavoury record of cohabiting with the TTP as long as they did no upset their apple cart. When the TTP leader Hakimullah Meshud was killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan in November 2013, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan lamented that this was a drone attack on peace talks. Negotiations with terrorists were just a charade being carried out by the government.

On General Raheel Sharif’s page after building a consensus around removing what was now termed as the existential threat to Pakistan, the military decisively moved to crush terrorists now spread all over the country. Minimising the terrorist threat since launching the Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 is a success story for Pakistan.

Take the case of Nawaz Sharif. Just because at one time he naively thought of having cordial relations with Modi’s India he was accused by some of being unpatriotic
Another feather in the general’s cap is cleansing Karachi of extortionists, arsonists and criminals. Through backdoor political engineering for which primarily credit goes to Nawaz Sharif, the MQM’s back was broken. Split into several factions, it no longer has the power to shut down urban Sindh on a call from London where its supremo is permanently exiled.

However, to claim that terrorism has been eliminated and the terrorists are on the run cannot be backed by empirical evidence. Pakistan has still a long way to go to make the country terror free.

In fact the dictates of history and geography are against ever achieving this elusive goal in the near future. There are a lot of warts in our whole approach towards terrorism and militancy in the name of Islam. The mindset needs to be changed even before we can think of scratching the surface of terrorism in the name of religion.

Notwithstanding the kudos, on General Raheel Sharif’s watch the military sure-footedly encroached upon civilian space. Paradoxically, instead of civilian supremacy being strengthened under the first peaceful transition of power from one elected government to another, the government was forced to cede more space to the military.

The general master of optics himself was also helped by the ISPR, the military’s vast public relations wing, in building his image.

The underlying tension between the civilian and khaki leadership manifested itself in the so-called ‘Dawngate’ episode. The military leadership was adamant that those who leaked the proceedings of a high level meeting at the Prime Minister House on terrorism attended by the COAS and the DG Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) should be punished.

The Dawn story it is claimed was based on fabricated leaks that put the military in a bad light. The incident happening at the twilight of General Sharif’s tenure, the government has set up an eye wash of an inquiry committee to probe the source of the leak. Nothing is expected to come out of it, especially when the information minister, Pervez Rashid, has already been made to fall on his sword.

Nawaz Sharif has never had an easy relationship with any of the military chiefs he handpicked during his three stints as prime minister. First President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in cahoots with General Waheed Kaakar sacked him.

Subsequently he sacked his own military chief General Jahangir Karamat for making a statement mildly critical of the government. However General Karamat’s successor General Pervez Musharraf, handpicked by Sharif, ousted him in a coup in October 1999.

Despite the under currents, with General Raheel Sharif the civilian Sharif was able to maintain a façade of cordiality. Nonetheless, to entirely blame Sharif for not keeping the army leadership happy would not be fair.

Historically, relations between the military and civilian governments have never been tension free. In the backdrop of overtly ruling for more than thirty years it is not easy for the military to cede space to the civilians.

In the name of being the guardians of the ubiquitous national interest, apart from its mandated job the army considers itself the arbiter of security as well as foreign policy. In unison with a section of the media, politicians are routinely branded as a security risk.

Take the case of Nawaz Sharif. Just because at one time he naively thought of having cordial relations with Modi’s India he was accused by some of being unpatriotic. It is wrongly alleged that he has never condemned in unequivocal terms the incarcerated RAW agent Kalbhushan Yadev.

Whether all this will change under General Raheel Sharif’s successor? Probably not. It is claimed that whomsoever heads the military does not make a difference as it is the institutional view that matters in the end.

But persons who lead do make a big difference. General Raheel Sharif brought a sea of change in the army’s mindset about jihadists both by dint of circumstances and by virtue of his own personality.

Hopefully his successor will complete the mission of getting rid of terrorists of all hues and colours without making any distinctions. And also strike a new balance with the civilian leadership.