In conversation with Pervez Musharraf
Nasir Jamal: How do you know General Raheel Sharif and since when have you known him?
Pervez Musharraf: Firstly, his elder brother Shabbir Sharif and I were course mates. But apart from being just course mates, Shabbir Sharif was also a good friend. In the final term of the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Kakul, there are appointments to sort careers. He was an honour student and was the battalion senior under officer. I was also in the run and I was a battalion junior officer. Our rooms were right next to each other in the academy. No cadet could pass in front of our rooms. It was a custom in PMA that no one could walk in front of our rooms as a show of respect. Whichever room we visited, everyone would stand up before us.
That’s how we became close and although he went into infantry and I went into artillery, our friendship continued. This is how I knew him [Raheel Sharif] — as Shabbir Sharif's brother. When I was Major General in Okara – as General Officer Commanding (GOC) – he was a brigade commander there. Obviously, everyone in a brigade does not report to the GOC, only the brigade commander does.
I was about to make him my Military Secretary (MS) when I was President and Chief of Army Staff. I had already selected him and he was about to join, but the other military secretaries of the army told me about a course at the Royal Institute of Defence Studies. It is a top-level course, and I say that by experience since I was once part of it. The Crown Prince of Thailand was there, the future President of Barbados was also there along with the Air Chief of Mozambique. So this is the calibre of that course. This is why I didn’t make him my MS, because I thought he should attend this course.
Jamal: Tell me a little about when his brother (Shabbir Sharif) was martyred and you went to his place and told him that, “You are not alone in this, I’m here; I’m your older brother.”
Musharraf: Yes, I did go to meet him as an older brother and said whatever was necessary.
Jamal: Were you in contact with him after you stepped down from the presidency?
Musharraf: No, after that I went abroad. So other than the occasional conversation, I did not have any contact with him. This is because I didn’t want to embarrass him. You know about the political victimisation that exists in Pakistan and the overall political climate after my departure.
Jamal: Obviously, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was your immediate successor. But when you were choosing your successor, if you had the choice of Kayani and Raheel Sharif, who would you have chosen?
Musharraf: In hindsight, I would have chosen Raheel Sharif most definitely.
Muhammad Badar Alam: What would be the reason for that?
Musharraf: Look, Raheel has certain qualities. Firstly, he is a thorough gentleman. In PMA, we are taught that we are not only cadets; we are gentlemen first and then cadets. So, he is a gentleman, in terms of his character and dealing. He is refined and cultured and knows how to carry himself and how to talk like a commander.
Jamal: So he is a leader, and not just a commander?
Musharraf: Yes, that is absolutely right. Everyone in the army knows operational strategy and tactics. You get to know about the true qualities of a soldier when you are at a time of war and there is a threat of dying. When there are bullets being sprayed everywhere. This is the moment, when such a man is followed by others.
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Alam: Do you think he has provided the kind of leadership you are talking about during the entire Zarb-e-Azb operation?
Musharraf: Yes, certainly. I think a lot of big people out there will be terrified to go to the places he visits. They will be scared about getting blown in their helicopters in these sensitive areas. It’s not easy if there is a machine gunner sitting somewhere and he shoots down your helicopter. But Raheel Sharif has tremendous guts.
Jamal: In the last year, there has been a peak in his popularity, even outside the military. But there is also criticism that the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has run an extremely sustained campaign in this regard. Did you ever feel you were so popular?
Musharraf: I knew I was popular. However, in 2007, I also knew my popularity was going down. We get the pulse from the bottom; intelligence agencies provide us with data and reports about what the public opinion is. This is one of the most important things commanders need to know, who they are and where they stand. I knew the importance of this.
When you say his popularity is linked to the ISPR’s campaign … I would just say it is best not to overdo it because then there are negative consequences of such actions. His popularity is inherent irrespective of his pictures being on show or not … people have come up to me and have been critical about these pictures, giving negative remarks … I think they should refrain from doing this because he is already popular and by doing things like this, people start talking.
Alam: Why do you think he is popular among the people outside the military?
Musharraf: I think the biggest reason is his action against terrorism. Operation Zarb-e-Azb is no doubt the single biggest factor. You can see that the entire nation was behind this operation; the only people against it were religious fanatics.
One of the biggest reasons for his popularity is that he targeted the roots of the terrorists. I say ‘roots’ because in North Waziristan they had an indoctrination centre. They used to indoctrinate suicide bombers … [and] provide them training.
Also other than the fight against terror, Raheel Sharif is now involved in eliminating corruption, which is another curse in our society responsible for not allowing our nation to progress. Instead, it is heading backwards.
Jamal: Have you ever thought about how the civil government’s weaknesses have resulted in Raheel Sharif's popularity?
Musharraf: Yes, absolutely. In between their weaknesses and misdoings, there is one person — in fact, an entire organisation’s head. The fact that he speaks against them makes him popular. There is this huge ocean of corruption and nepotism which is engulfing the nation. Therefore, if there is a person who is against this whole process and is standing up to this, he is bound to be popular.
Alam: If we examine the flip side of this, we can see a number of people who are critical of the military’s intervention or interference in these sectors. Do you think this is a positive sign for the development of a stable, democratic Pakistan?
Musharraf: Theoretically, it is not. The government should have a thorough foreign policy and should do everything themselves. But I believe in Pakistan first. Pakistan is going on a downward spiral, Pakistani people are becoming shabby and there are no checks and balances. There are no constitutional checks.
Look at Australia; in five years, five prime ministers have changed there. There was a check there. They wanted to change a prime minister for whatever reason and they changed him. Over here, the Pakistan People’s Party phased through five years and I don’t think there will be a single Pakistani who would praise that term other than their own people.
Why were they not replaced?
Then people come running to the army. In my own experience, when I was chief for one year, the situation wasn’t as serious as it is today, but even in those days people used to come up to me and say: why don’t you take over? What are you waiting for — for Pakistan to finish?
At that time, we only had $400 million left in our national reserves, our economy was completely shattered. In this instance, people ran after the army; [we were] in a fix. It’s difficult to find constitutional solutions to deal with these issues, so that the army doesn’t need to intervene. Why should the army come forward? It shouldn’t. I’m a strong believer of that. But, Pakistan comes first and we cannot let Pakistan get ruined by sticking to the rules. Everything is for Pakistan. All rules and the entire constitution is for Pakistan; Pakistan is not for the constitution.
Alam: So do you think this is a manifestation of his [Raheel Sharif’s] personality and leadership? Is it the military’s collective desire as well as his personal?
Musharraf: The military follows the chief. Our army is extremely disciplined. Luckily, we are not a banana republic. There is a chief who directs. There are conferences like Corp Commander Conferences and Principal Staff Officer Conferences where people speak their mind. People have this misconception that the chief is a dictator. People talk in these conferences more democratically than most other places in the country. However, the chief reserves the final word and gives orders irrespective of whatever discussion people are having.
Jamal: It is said that the military is taking over certain functions of the foreign policy and even internal policy. Is that a desire of the military establishment or is the chief’s assessment also present here?
Musharraf: Absolutely, the chief functions like that. The fact is that everything is analysed in the army. There are two directorates, the Military Operation (MO) directorate and Military Intelligence (MI) directorate; and apart from this the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provides input regularly.
Another thing, since you brought up foreign relations and the army chief going on foreign visits to meet heads of states, the fact is that in international affairs, there is a big interrelation between domestic performance and foreign relations. Your international standing is directly proportional to your domestic performance. You are not living in a vacuum. If you want to progress socially and economically, your international reputation should be good. This is linked to investments and other influences like debt servicing. Our debt services were the greatest in 1999-2000. I saw that five to six billion dollars were going in debt servicing annually. We tried to find out where all this money was going and found out it was going to Paris because of a 12.5 billion dollar loan we had taken out from them. After that, the process included meeting them, rescheduling the debt and finally writing it off. This happens when you have a standing domestically.
However, our own leaders are unable to do this or influence this — for example, when America announced to stop the Coalition Support Fund. Why? The fact is that when these aircrafts, helicopters and tanks operate, millions of dollars are spent to maintain them. This is not a small expense from any dimension. The ammunition that is required for all these operations needs to be supported by someone.
So considering all of these things, I think about Pakistan first. If the government cannot meet these requirements and the army chief is helping out, what's the harm?
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Alam: Do you think Raheel Sharif is following the same principle: Pakistan First?
Musharraf: Most certainly. Another thing I wanted to add earlier was that these policies and strategies … if [they] are not being properly designed at the top or implementation at the bottom is not happening, people at the bottom start making their own strategies since no action is being taken from the top. Obviously, foreign policy is something the civilian government and the foreign affairs department are responsible for. But if their strategies were actually working, why would anyone interfere?
Let’s take the fight against terrorism, as an example. Why isn’t the government saying to go and kill them? I remember back in 2007, in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah became active and, in the south, Baitullah Mehsud was involved in terrorism. The six southern districts that we have which include Kohat, Bannu and Lakki Marwat were all affected by terrorism. The government over there was of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. I asked them to requisition the forces. They just wouldn’t. They didn’t allow the troops to go there. Now, you tell me, what should I have done? The government was silent. Then I sent them a message. I will be frank here; I made sure that they deployed troops there. We had to forcefully do it. Then I sent two divisions, one from Gujranwala and the other from Okara to Swat and Bannu.
We had a discussion at the MO directorate [whether] to strike them together or one by one and we decided to take them one by one. We thought it best to first take care of Swat and then head south. We finished off Swat in 2007.
After that, the elections took place and the Awami National Party (ANP) came to power. When the ANP arrived, they reversed our policy of pressure; they just stopped it. Sufi Muhammad, who was earlier in custody in Lady Reading Hospital, was allowed to come back and he declared jihad as soon as he was back.
If you look at the time period between March and April 2008 till October and November 2008, they burnt 13 girls’ schools and the beautiful ski resort of Malam Jabba. Once again, there was silence. Then people finally woke up and called on the army and the army took action. But it was too late at that point. We had one million internally displaced refuges. When the army attacked Swat, there was vast destruction, loss of life and property. There was no action from the civil government.
What Raheel Sharif has done in North Waziristan is that since the civilian government did not give any orders, he forcibly gave orders. Technically, you can say this was wrong of him to do, but I say Pakistan comes first. He did absolutely right.
Jamal: I am sure a number of people agree with whatever you are saying, but don’t you think it would have been more feasible that the civilian government was taken into confidence and kept in a leadership role?
Musharraf: I’m very sure that a lot of people would have been saying this. The ISI’s job entails telling the chief the reality of whatever is going on. It is important to note that the impact of this [operation] was not only domestic, but it was affecting things internationally. Our reputation was diminishing fast. Afghanistan was angry with us, the whole world was. America was saying horrible things about us and even China. I’m completely positive about the fact that the ISI gave the civilian government a briefing and I can also say the army must have given them one too. The army always invites them to come to GHQ and we will tell you what the ground reality is. It must have taken place for sure; it would only be possible to start the operation after that. But till when can you say no and stay quiet? It’s a judgment call that you sit for a year and wait for Pakistan to get destroyed. So this is a judgment call and the buck stops at the chief. The chief is a lonely man. On top, everything is very lonely.
Alam: You are saying that the army chief is a lonely figure because he has to make all these calls and then take responsibility for them?
Musharraf: Decision making is a Napoleonic theory. Two-thirds of every decision consists of analysis and data input from the ISI and the MI, whichever intelligence organisation you choose. The last third is basically carefully evaluating the data and making a decision.
Jamal: Whatever his decision is, [is that on] his shoulders completely?
Musharraf: Yes. In civilian governments, there is always an element of blaming someone else. However, in the military, if you take the decision it’s your responsibility, since you are the leader. You are solely responsible. Irrespective of whom you got advice from, because the final decision is yours to make. If the impact of the decision means that the prime minister is displeased or the government will not be happy, he will still have to make the decision depending on what he thinks best. This is the time no one will help you.
Jamal: The 'two-thirds' part is already established at this stage, so when you had to do the 'one-third' part, how did you go about it?
Musharraf: As they say in the military, the remaining third is always a leap in the dark. In that they say the leader should be lucky and its either his gut reaction or sixth sense on which he makes his decision.
Jamal: Jamal: Do you think General Kayani had that in him?
Musharraf: Maybe he did suffer from… paralysis by analysis.
Alam: So you think there is more decision-making power in General Raheel Sharif?
Musharraf: Yes, I think so.
Jamal: Is the decision-making power in him similar to what you used to have?
Musharraf: In my opinion, yes.
Jamal: Meaning that in making a decision, like you, he is not afraid either?
Musharraf: Yes, I think so. The operation in North Waziristan was a big decision, it was not something small. Not a small decision at all. It’s not easy to kill so many people using tanks, helicopters and aircrafts. It’s not easy to kill thousands of people, especially because they are your own people.
Making this decision by going to villages and killing people is a tough task. I also used to think about the place where the operation happened. I also wanted to go there. We had a general called Tariq Khan. I had assigned him to that place. He was fully prepared. But there was only one problem he found while planning: all these places were very small towns in which the terrorists had infiltrated … and – obviously – there would be collateral damage.
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Alam: Civil-military relations are extremely fractured at the moment. This has been going on and there is immense friction. In eight to nine months, General Raheel Sharif is going to retire. A number of people predict this to be 1999 all over again. What do you say?
Musharraf: What happened with me is beyond imagination. If someone cannot even think and reach to that conclusion, that [a general] was coming back from Sri Lanka and his plane was not allowed to land, I have no words.
Now, talking about a repetition of 1999, as I said, my wish is that this civilian government continues to function properly, but there have been so many distortions that there is a need for a major reformation. We need reformation in the political system because there are no checks and balances in the government. Corruption and nepotism is the biggest curse and how should we stop it if the government is itself involved in it. They don’t see anyone beyond their relatives and dear friends and colleagues. They just want to have them work in big offices.
In 1999-2000 when I selected 14 ministers, I had never even seen the faces of 12 of them. My brother is extremely brilliant, he was a Karachi Electric Supply Company officer, but I didn’t place him anywhere. I had other very capable relatives; my own son went to Stanford, but I didn’t place him.
However, for these politicians, they can’t see beyond realities, beyond their friends.
Alam: Assume if General Raheel Sharif retires and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to choose the next general on his own terms. Is it then possible to have a repeat of what happened in 1999?
Musharraf: No, it’s the constitutional right of the prime minister to appoint the army chief. The military will not react; he [Nawaz Sharif] will choose whoever he wishes. We can only pray that he appoints the best from the top people and he does not appoint someone by just considering the person he thinks will listen to him the most.
Jamal: The last thing I want to ask you is that you had an interview on Dunya TV in which you said General Raheel Sharif should be given extension for another term. What was the basis for that?
Musharraf: In the same interview, they asked me if I think that other people are not capable, this is a double-edged weapon. They are obviously capable, all of them. Like I said, if someone becomes lieutenant general, there is only a marginal difference between him and the others, there is no doubt about that. Professionally, there might not be a big difference but the qualities of head and heart, as I talked about earlier, that is where there is a substantial difference. Now, you have a man who has exceptional qualities of head and heart, which are proven. And considering the times we are going through in Pakistan, Raheel Sharif is a perfect fit. Why should we remove and disturb him?
This interview was conducted in December 2015 as part of the Herald's Annual issue, in which General Raheel Sharif was a nominee for the title of Person of the Year. Sharif's profile appears in the Herald's Annual issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.