A general hands over baton peacefully – and that’s unusual for Pakistan… writes Aadil Mir
As Pakistan prepares for its army chief’s exit, the three-year tenure of General Raheel Sharif would be remembered for being relatively uneventful — by Pakistan’s standards — and the professional and politically correct relations he appeared to have maintained with the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
He would also be remembered for the peaceful transition in a country fraught with the takeover of civilian governments by military rulers. For half of its 69 years, Pakistan has been under the rule of generals. General Sharif was true to his word — he had promised nine months back that he would not seek an extension and would retire on time, though few had believed him. He does so on November 29.
Despite his sometimes hawkish stance against India, including the latest missive that “if Pakistan were to launch surgical strikes, India would not be able to forget it for generations”, his reign was not marked by any misadventure with the neighbour, except for the “thousands of cuts” inflicted through infiltration of militants — which has been a part of the Pakistan Army’s covert tactics against India for long.
Even when the Indian Army announced its “surgical strike” into Pakistani territory in reprisal for cross-border terror attack on the Uri cantonment in Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistan Army simply denied it, dismissing it as routine cross-border firing, and made no attempt to overtly escalate the tense border situation.
The smooth transition in Pakistan has happened for the first time since former Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup on October 12, 1999, overthrowing the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had appointed him superseding several generals. The Prime Minister returned the compliment saying that General Sharif had “proved beyond a shadow of doubt that he was one of the finest military leaders of his generation”.
Speaking at a farewell dinner hosted in the general’s honour, the Prime Minister said: “As the Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel has made the most difference in the service of our country. We have successfully established the writ of the state and reclaimed every inch of territory under our sovereign control.”
This is generous praise from a politician who was so rudely dismissed by another general and sent packing to exile in Saudi Arabia for years.
Raheel Sharif came to the position after Musharraf’s nine years and his successor Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s six. He is seen as Pakistan’s most popular army chief and there were demands by many to give him an extension, including by Musharraf. Such was his clout that, in 2014, parties protesting outside the Parliament House tried to get the general to mediate between them and the government.
Public approval, however, came at a price. The rhetoric that was used to build the general’s public image had sought to hide the dark reality. Fears about the resurgence of terrorism, the unresolved issues in Karachi and Balochistan, and a failure to clear Punjab of terrorism nurseries are some of the issues that would not only continue to stain the general’s legacy, but would also be the principal challenges for his successor.
The high point of Gen Sharif’s tenure was the launch, in 2014, of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the restive North Waziristan against militant groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban. The operation which involved around 30,000 troops was carried out in the wake of the June 8 militant attack at Karachi international airport. The move was deemed to be a success.
Another instance which would be remembered as Gen Raheel Sharif’s test of nerves was when he kept himself and the army out of political controversy during the 2014 sit-in, when thousands of supporters of Imran Khan, Chairman of Tehrik-e-Insaf party, and Tahirul Qadri, a politician and Islamic scholar, entered the capital demanding Prime Minister Sharif’s resignation.
At one stage, when the situation turned violent, the Prime Minister sought the general’s help in resolving the issue. Raheel Sharif then invited both Imran and Qadri, holding meetings with them separately. The march was eventually called off by Khan when militants attacked an army public school in Peshawar, killing over 150 people, mostly school children.
On November 27, 2013, when the Prime Minister appointed him as the army chief, there were not much expectations from him as he was relatively unknown — his predecessor Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is believed to have recommended Gen Rashad Mahmood, currently the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, for the position. But within three years Raheel Sharif defied many odds to prove his critics wrong.
During his tenure, the army retained control over relations with neighbouring countries — India, Afghanistan, Iran and China — as well as with the US, while paying lip service to the civilian government. The general also helped to facilitate the Afghan peace process.
This approach was heavily criticised by the political leadership, especially the opposition, which repeatedly took issue with the ruling party’s deference to the military in key realms.
Pakistan’s military has always played a prominent role in the country’s politics, having staged three coups since independence in 1947. The army chief is widely seen as the most powerful person in the country — even above the Prime Minister.
This tradition is unlikely to end, even after the peaceful handing over of the baton to Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.