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The Games Generals Play

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Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif (C) looking at huge cache of weapons and ammunition recovered from terrorists during his visit to northwest Pakistan's Khyber Agency. At least 20 militants were killed and 18 others injured in an air-raid by Pakistani army in the country's northwestern tribal area of Khyber Agency

Pakistan’s military brass is embroiled in power struggle.  Like their political masters, the generals are deploying their charms to hold on power….writes Syed Shihabudheen

Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif (C) looking at huge cache of weapons and ammunition recovered from terrorists during his visit to northwest Pakistan's Khyber Agency. At least 20 militants were killed and 18 others injured in an air-raid by Pakistani army in the country's northwestern tribal area of Khyber Agency
Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif (C) looking at huge cache of weapons and ammunition recovered from terrorists during his visit to northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Agency. At least 20 militants were killed and 18 others injured in an air-raid by Pakistani army in the country’s northwestern tribal area of Khyber Agency

This is the new trick the top generals of Pakistan Army are learning to play—to force an extension of their term. This is better than carrying out a coup which carries a baggage full of liabilities and global incrimination. The Generals know, from Musharraf’s stellar example, that coups, howsoever successful, end up in snaring the doer. Musharraf is not the only who learnt the lesson the bitter way. His predecessors who took the coup way found that not only did it make untouchables in the international capitals but back home too. Remember, people used to spit on Musharraf’s portraits.

Musharraf’s hand-picked successor, Ashfaq Kayani, was the first one to learn the lesson and he was quick to implement it also, forcing Zardari and his men to bow to his wishes to hold on to the Rawalpindi hot seat for another three years. Kayani was of course helped in great measure by his American friends but then he knew that the grace period had its own limitation. By the time, his final year, that is the sixth one, came around there were enough indications, despite the bravado and false propaganda played out by his media and publicity wing, that people were beginning to question  him and his tenure. The Osama bin Laden killing in Abbottabad did him the most serious damage.

Now his successor, General Raheel Sharif, is gearing to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps by orchestrating a ‘Hail Genera’, ‘Let the Chief continue’, ‘He is the saviour, ‘the nation needs him’ campaign to push Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to a corner. This is an old game which Musharraf too played but then he faltered. But Raheel Sharif thinks, like all Generals in Pakistan Army, that he is smarter than the others and can play this game better than everybody else.

This is how he is laying out his pieces. In January this year, he declared that he was not going to seek any extension when he retires in September 2016. He is the good guy and will dutifully hand over the baton like a true soldier. His acolytes hailed his decision. He is a true soldier, they sang. But crafty General knew his next move well in advance. He was by then successful in throwing enough mud on his Prime Minister for some to stick around and put the elected leader on the defensive.

Raheel Sharif
Raheel Sharif

Soon after Raheel Sharif took over as the chief, it was clear that Prime Minister Sharif was caught in a Catch-22 situation. It was not that the General would not confront the elected leader, the question was how and when. The General, after making some pleasant noises, came to the point without much ado. He had a good reason to do so. The Prime Minister had the gumption to go to New Delhi to attend the oath-taking ceremony of the new Prime Minister of the enemy country. Then, on top of it, he began making noises about making friendship with India. It was too much for the Generals to bear and they soon put in the first plan in motion.

Out of nowhere, Imran Khan rose from his slumber and decided that Prime Minister Sharif should quit because of some unproved allegation of electoral malpractice which, truly speaking, nobody seemed to remember when and how. Khan was not the one to be deterred by facts; he had the support of the powerful Army and he rolled into Islamabad with all the bells and whistles he can muster. A  “massive“ protest was staged in Islamabad against the government; the crowd management was of course courtesy the Army.

Realising that Khan did not pull much attraction, the army then flew in their master player, Tahir-ul-Qadri, a rabble-rouser with well-oiled connections in key capitals of the world. He lives a luxurious life in Canada and is ready to stir the cauldron when his patrons in Rawalpindi want him to. So flew in one night, gathered a million or so of his supporters and blocked Islamabad while everything else and everyone else stood stupefied. Such was the power of the man from Canada, that the troops watched while Qadri and his men forced the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to stealthily enter the National Assembly premises through a back door. Wonder whether Pakistan Army was there to protect Qadri or the country’s Prime Minister?

Now after making this declaration that he was not interested in continuing as the Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif seem to have a change of hearts. Or is it that he never intended to and was merely throwing a weather balloon to figure out his chances? The latter seems to be more of a possibility. The Pakistan Army is not the one to be held back by promises and assurances and so the General and his men are now orchestrating the second part of their plan in Operation Rawalpindi.

According to a US commentator on Pakistan, Michael Kugelman, “Pakistanis simply cannot get enough of their army chief these days.“ Kugelman had tracked a whole lot of “`heady praise“ for the General. “ He has been lauded for his heroism and ironically credited with strengthening democratic institutions. One prominent TV talk show host dedicated an entire show to discuss public’s desire for an extension of Sharif’s terms…“Kugelman also found that on the social media, a popular trending hashtag is — #ThankYouRaheelSharif.

Pakistani religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri speaks during an anti-government protest site in front of Parliament in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan on Sept. 19, 2014. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday accused two protesting parties of "inciting people to opt for munity" but made it clear that few thousands people would never succeed in their "sinister designs" to derail the system.
Pakistani religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri speaks during an anti-government protest site in front of Parliament in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan (File)

Posters and bill-boards praising the Army Chief have been on and off littering the landscape of Pakistan’s main cities. This time around there is a new rash of such outpouring of love for the General. Interestingly, not surprisingly though, General Sharif’s beautiful mug also finds a prominent place in the campaign literature produced by Imran Khan’s party. To beat it, a new brand of men’s underwear carries the General’s now familiar visage with the brand name, Captain Men’s Wear.

All these are now out there and the General is sitting smug knowing fully well that the Prime Minister Sharif and his party are more worried about what the Panama Papers contain than the General’s omnipresent mugshots. The Generals are now slowly turning the screws on the present leadership to give in or face the Panama bomb. The Generals, once again, seem to be heading towards a self goal because if General Raheel Sharif wins, the ultimate losers are the people of Pakistan.