People & Society Persona

Raheel Sharif: The chief who could be king

Updated 05 Dec, 2016 02:52am
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty

While driving towards Kunjah, about 10 kilometres to the west of Gujrat city, it is difficult to miss the change in scale; towns and villages, roads, shops and tea stalls, everything looks smaller than it does on the Grand Trunk Road that links Gujrat with Rawalpindi, to the north, and Lahore to the south. Within Kunjah, the scale shifts again — from small to narrow: bazaars are narrow, streets even narrower. It is hard to imagine that this is the native town of Raheel Sharif, arguably the most important, most powerful person in Pakistan.

In this old town of about 50,000 people, a labyrinth of narrow lanes leads to a blind alley where a dilapidated two-storey locked house wears the same aura of mystery that all empty spaces acquire after their occupants have left long ago. This is where Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif’s grandfather, Mehtabud Din, lived — as did the general’s father, Major Muhammad Sharif. It was also in this house that his elder brother Shabbir Sharif was born and raised until he joined the Pakistan Army in the early 1960s.

During the 1971 war with India, Shabbir Sharif was posted near Okara as a major. He died fighting there and won the highest military award, Nishan-e-Haider, for his gallantry. People in Kunjah are proud of him and, therefore, regard his ancestral home as a historic place.

Raheel Sharif, who is 13 years junior to Shabbir Sharif, spent most of his early life in the shadow of his illustrious brother. “At the Pakistan Military Academy [Kakul] and later in the army, there were always people, especially close friends of Shabbir Sharif, who had high expectations of Raheel Sharif. He had to work hard to come up to their expectations,” reminisces an old friend of the general in Lahore. “Being Shabbir Sharif’s brother was a heavy burden on his shoulders,” says the man who in 1974 shared a room at the military academy with Raheel Sharif and later served with him in the same platoon. “It was only slowly and gradually that Raheel Sharif was able to create his own identity and place in the army.”

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Raheel Sharif could see any of his elder brother’s army friends, including Pervez Musharraf, whenever he needed to. Being on such close, personal terms with one’s seniors could be a big advantage for a junior officer. They may help one get prized postings and quicker promotions. “Such suggestions always hurt him deeply, though they did not stop him from calling on his brother’s friends,” says his Lahore-based friend.

Raheel Sharif was not born in Kunjah. No one there has any memory of having seen him in town. He was born in Quetta where his father was posted as a major in the army. The family, indeed, had left Kunjah much earlier than Raheel Sharif’s birth in 1956. Only a few old people in the town can claim having known and interacted with his father and elder brother.

One of them is Haji Abdul Ghani, a retired soldier. He remembers Raheel Sharif’s father as someone who would always “help the people from Kunjah”. Even though Muhammad Sharif never returned to his home town once he left for wherever his army career took him, he continued helping local residents – including Ghani – to get into the army.

Ghani has never seen Raheel Sharif in person but he says the general, like his father, has a “soft spot for Kunjah and its residents”. Why else would he call Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and ask him to upgrade the Shabbir Shaheed Rural Health Centre in Kunjah? “When some people from our town met [Raheel Sharif] to condole the death of his mother in 2014, they complained to him about inadequate public healthcare here,” Ghani says. That promptly occasioned the call to the chief minister.

Raheel Sharif, like his predecessors, considers it his obligation to do “what he thinks is right regardless of its constitutional or democratic appropriateness.”

The general comes from a religious family. His grandfather, after whom their home street is named as Koocha Mehtabud Din, was a known religious scholar in the area, whose forefathers had settled in Kunjah in 1840. A younger cousin of Raheel Sharif who still lives in Kunjah knows the general as a friendly person who does not let anyone feel insignificant in his presence. “He knows how to give respect to others and how to command respect from them,” the cousin says without wanting to be named. Raheel Sharif also loves driving cars and hunting game, according to his cousin. “Being a chain-smoker, he looks out of his element when he cannot smoke.”

Within the military, says one of his old friends, Raheel Sharif is known from his early days in uniform as a man of strong character and steely resolve. “I remember a boxing game at the academy in which Bobby [Raheel Sharif] was pitted against a tough opponent. I do not remember who won the contest but he bravely took all the punches from his opponent, with the same expressionless face you see on television channels, and never left the fight.”  

Raheel Sharif is also considered to be one of the most popular army chiefs in recent times. “His ability to inspire confidence and love in the troops is quite remarkable,” says his friend from the military academy.

The family member of a student killed in Peshawar school attack with the COAS | ISPR
The family member of a student killed in Peshawar school attack with the COAS | ISPR

Musharraf, who was a course mate of Shabbir Sharif, is also a big admirer of Raheel Sharif. “He has been to the most dangerous places in the (Zarb-e-Azb) battle zone. Many others would not dare go near those places fearing for their lives,” Musharraf says. “It is Raheel Sharif’s strong character and compassion for his juniors that sets him apart from the rest of the pack. He is not just a commander but a leader — the one soldiers happily obey and follow in war,” the former president says in an interview in Karachi.

In 2015, Raheel Sharif’s popularity grew out of the barracks and spread across Pakistan, making him more popular than any politician including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan. A mosque in Islamabad was named after him last year and his portraits could be spotted on the back of trucks and autorickshaws everywhere. Banners and billboards featuring his image still adorn the streets of almost every big city, particularly Karachi, and many contesting the recent local government elections put his photo on their publicity material to attract voters. Even on social media, a #ThankYouRaheelSharif hashtag has trended for months.

General Raheel Sharif arrives at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake on June 5, 2015|AFP
General Raheel Sharif arrives at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake on June 5, 2015|AFP

The reasons for his popularity are not difficult to comprehend in times of rampant terrorism, insecurity, corruption and a general disappointment with politics. He is widely credited with improving security in the country in general and Karachi in particular. He is also hailed for launching an anti-corruption drive, mostly focused against politicians.

Then there is this other argument advanced by scholars such as Aqil Shah, the author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. The surge in his popularity has been choreographed by the army’s public relations wing – Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is how this argument goes. “One key factor (behind the general’s popularity) is the relentless campaigns on news television channels and social media,” Shah tells the Herald in an email interview from the United States where he teaches politics at the Princeton University.

The media campaign, Shah says, emphasises Raheel Sharif’s ‘can do’ leadership and “unwavering moral courage in the face of an existential threat” to Pakistan. It also compares him to “selfish, corrupt and dithering” politicians such as Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari and “glorifies him as almost a superhuman being, an omniscient commander of the faithful,” explains Shah.

This is not something extraordinary. The military’s public relations machine – consisting of an expanded and restructured ISPR and the Information Management Wing of the ISI headed by a major general or someone in an equivalent rank from the air force or the navy – routinely invest effort and money in constructing and maintaining a glorified public image of the armed forces, Shah says. “The retrofitted ISPR makes savvy use of social media and funds glitzy hyper-patriotic videos, songs and films, with the active collaboration of artists, actors, movie directors and writers. The ISI … metes out both sticks and carrots to journalists. Any journalist who dares question the picture-perfect image of Raheel Sharif or the military’s policies in, say, Balochistan can only do so at his or her own expense,” he adds.

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The mass media’s role is central to this public relations exercise. “The military views the media as an ‘element of national power’ essential to mould public opinion and develop a consensus on national security,” Shah says. That is why hardly any days go by when Raheel Sharif’s images are not flashed frequently on television screens or across front pages of the newspapers.

The ultimate objective of the image-building exercise, however, is not just to glorify a general or provide heavily sanitised information about the military’s anti-militancy operation in the tribal lands of Waziristan or its anti-crime and anti-corruption efforts in Karachi. It is aimed at securing a bigger prize: exclusive power over the twin domains of national security and foreign policy.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

The image-building, thus, has gone hand in hand with Raheel Sharif overshadowing the political landscape as far as handling internal security and foreign policy is concerned. He has been calling all the shots – or at the very least his has been the most important voice – in these two sectors.

This has not been lost on Pakistan’s foreign interlocutors. When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made his first visit to Pakistan in 2014, he drove straight to the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi to meet Raheel Sharif before seeing the civilian leadership in Islamabad. The general spends a lot of his time visiting capitals across the globe – from London and Washington to Beijing and Kabul – to meet monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and, yes, his own counterparts in other militaries. No important foreign dignitary visiting Islamabad leaves Pakistan without having a meeting with Raheel Sharif.

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Even though the rise in his public and official stature seems personal, it is not. It cannot be separated from a number of other developments that mark a massive increase in the military’s pre-eminence in national affairs. The passage of the Protection of Pakistan Act shortly after the launch of Zarb-e-Azb in July 2014, the announcement of the National Action Plan (NAP) in the aftermath of the Peshawar school attack in December that year and the passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution early in 2015 put together, according to Shah, “effectively took away the initiative from the civilians and handed it over on a platter to the military.”

These measures have helped the military encroach upon judicial terrain through the military courts set up earlier last year and override the elected administrations through apex committees at the federal and provincial levels. Even though these committees are not entirely dominated by the senior officials of the security and intelligence agencies, they give such officials a very prominent berth in civilian affairs constitutionally outside their domain. “The NAP codifies military supremacy over civilians as is evident in the structure and functioning of the apex committees … which place the generals above reproach and accountability,” says Shah.

When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for a third term in the summer of 2013, there was some optimism that the balance of power was finally swinging in favour of the civilian leadership. In the first few months of his tenure, civilian control over what the military traditionally considers its own domain – national security and foreign policy – seemed to be growing. The government initiated talks with Taliban militants in the tribal backyard of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and tried to open dialogue with separatists in Balochistan despite the military’s reservations on both counts. On the external front, peace overtures were made to India with promises of much-delayed liberalisation of bilateral trade; and Afghanistan was assured of any support it required for the resolution of its seemingly eternal conflict.

Emboldened by the relative ease with which the government could take these steps, Nawaz Sharif then overreached and decided to put former military dictator Musharraf on trial for high treason. The civilian administration blocked all his moves to get out of the country. And even while the military was acting behind the scenes to ensure that he spent his time either in a military-run hospital or in the comfort of his own farmhouse in Islamabad, the government did not have any trouble in continuing with the trial — until it suddenly did.

A crucial factor that changed the dynamics of the trial appears to be the choice of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s successor as the army chief.

The reasons for Raheel Sharif’s popularity are not difficult to comprehend in times of rampant terrorism, insecurity, corruption and a general disappointment with politics.

At first, and in strictly military terms, Raheel Sharif looked like a suitable choice for the post even though he was third on the seniority list and was not commanding a corps. He, however, was instrumental in creating a counter-insurgency doctrine – which focuses on training and preparing the army for anti-terrorism operations – as the Inspector General for Training and Evaluation. Those who elevated him to the post of the Chief of Army Staff perhaps did not know of his close family ties with Musharraf or if they did, they did not consider them a problem.

In an interview with the Herald, Musharraf acknowledges being in touch with Raheel Sharif since leaving the office of the president in 2008. Though he says the frequency of their interaction has decreased after Raheel Sharif became the army chief “so that he did not come under any criticism” for that, the two regularly exchange messages on important personal and social occasions.

That personal link between the two generals still does not fully explain how and why the tide started turning against the civilian leadership and the power balance started tilting back to the military’s favour. The rest of the answer is provided by two apparently unrelated developments.

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One of them was the start of the operation Zarb-e-Azb in the middle of 2014 when the military did not bother to seek permission from the civilian leadership and launched a massive campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan. The government, at that point, was still pursuing a policy of negotiated peace with the militants based in the tribal areas. It was only after the operation got well under way that the civilian leadership endorsed it.

The other development was the Islamabad sit-in by Khan’s PTI and Tahirul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) which also started in the middle of 2014 and continued till the terrorist attack on the Peshawar school. This is how the conspiracy theory goes: after the elected government resisted to share its authority with the military in areas the latter believes exclusively its own, the sit-in helped the military turn tables on the government. A mix of mishandling of the protests, the government’s stubborn resistance to negotiate with Khan and Qadri, and the willingness of the leaders of the protests to go to any extreme – regardless of how violent and destabilising it became – allowed the military to regain centre stage.


This theory was endorsed by Javed Hashmi when he resigned as the PTI chairman accusing Khan of forwarding the agenda of some generals to the detriment of a democratically elected government and parliament. Analysts like Shah also claim that the military leadership under Raheel Sharif “engineered the protests” to cut Nawaz Sharif down to size on issues such as Musharraf’s trial and Pakistan’s policies towards India and Afghanistan.

Syed Riffat Hussain, who heads the Government and Public Policy Department at Islamabad’s National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust) is not a believer in this theory. He does not think the military as an institution was involved in destabilising the government. He points out that Raheel Sharif, on the other hand, stepped in with a compromise formula to resolve the stand-off only when the situation became too tense and the protesters started attacking government buildings and installations in Islamabad. “He was willing to play a role for reconciliation between the government and the protesters,” says Hussain.

A pro-army rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
A pro-army rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Neither the government nor the protesters, however, were ready to listen to him. When no one showed interest in accepting his compromise formula that offered to address the PTI’s vote-rigging grievances if it dropped the demand for the prime minister’s resignation, he backed off, adds Hussain.

In either case, the government had to spend so much political capital on taking care of the protests, and their political fallout, that Nawaz Sharif and his senior aides were left with little energy and capacity to continue being in charge of national security and foreign policy. Musharraf’s trial, too, fell through the political cracks created by the sit-ins.

A heavily guarded compound of around 20 houses sits atop a hillock just behind the Zamzama Street on the confluence of the Clifton and Defence Housing Authority (DHA) neighbourhoods. The guards are all in military uniform. Anyone seeking to enter the area must have prior appointments and permissions. It is in this completely cordoned off – and very quiet – corner of Karachi that Musharraf now lives. Nobody can reach him expect with the military’s permission.

That is a perfect metaphor for the limits that civilian power has always had in Pakistan: the military enjoys exclusive spaces where civil administration cannot dare enter. Extend this to statecraft and what you get is a huge imbalance in power between the military and the civilian parts of the polity.

“This historical civil-military imbalance has endured because we treat Pakistan as a security state and see every issue through a security lens. Unless this trend is changed, the imbalance will endure no matter what,” is how Hussain explains this not-so-unusual phenomenon in Pakistan’s political history.

Since early 2015, the military has aggressively used this imbalance in its favour. In the latest manifestation of it, the military leadership has been breathing hard down the neck of the provincial government in Sindh on real or perceived connections between terrorism and corruption. Both the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are facing the heat generated by the arrests and trials of their leaders and activists, and by being constantly bashed in the media ostensibly on the military’s prompting. Media commentators routinely dub the two political parties as corrupt, supportive of organised crime and terrorism; also incompetent (in the PPP’s case), even unpatriotic (in the MQM’s case).

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani hands over a ceremonial baton to his successor General Raheel Sharif | AFP
General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani hands over a ceremonial baton to his successor General Raheel Sharif | AFP

And even while the government in Islamabad has supported the military’s stance on Karachi, the GHQ has not been entirely happy with the federal administration. This became apparent when in November last year, after a meeting of the corps commanders, the ISPR released a statement lamenting the lack of enforcement of various aspects of the NAP. Though some ministers in Islamabad tried to deflect the criticism in the statement towards the government in Sindh, the ISPR’s phrasing was too all-encompassing to be reduced to the failures of civilian administration in a single province.

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“The statement was issued only because of the ambivalence of civilian leadership on issues such as terrorism. When politicians leave their job for the military to do, they then have [no moral authority] to complain about the increasing role of the army in civilian territory,” is the rationale Hussain gives.

Like many other analysts in Pakistan, he believes the ISPR statement does not reflect Raheel Sharif’s personal assessment but the viewpoint of the military as an institution. “In the army, the chief may have the final say but he cannot be indifferent to the feelings of his corps commanders. If the corps commanders feel strongly about something, the chief has to convey their feelings to the government,” Hussain explains. On his own, he says, Raheel Sharif is not interested in politics.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

Hussain is also willing to give politicians some benefit of the doubt though. Long shadows cast by repeated military coups/military rule have shaped the expectations of civilian leaders about what is permissible, he says. That is an important reason why the military’s influence in civilian affairs endures. “As long as civil institutions remain weak, those with established positions on issues of security and foreign relations will continue to take advantage,” he adds.

If so, it does not really matter what kind of individual Raheel Sharif is when it comes to the military’s interference in civilian affairs. Whether he is interested in politics or not is irrelevant. “I don’t view Raheel Sharif as any different from other army chiefs as far as the military’s vital interests are concerned,” says Shah. Raheel Sharif, like his predecessors, considers it his obligation to do “what he thinks is right regardless of its constitutional or democratic appropriateness.”

Theoretically, no one can disagree with the supremacy of the constitution and the need for a democratic system of government. Not even Musharraf.

Comfortably perched on a Victorian chair in his Karachi sitting room, he is full of praise for Raheel Sharif’s personal and professional conduct before he starts explaining why the general is looming so large on the political horizon. “All rules and the constitution are for Pakistan, not the other way round. I believe that Pakistan is more important than any rules,” Musharraf says emphatically. The army has to step forward and intervene when Pakistan is going under, and no constitutional fixes are available to change the inept civilian leadership, he argues.

The logic of this principle is as simple as it is ominous; will Raheel Sharif, then, also do what Musharraf did in 1999 when he overthrew an elected civilian government?

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue as part of Herald Person of the Year section. To read more subscribe to the magazine in print.