Raheel Sharif: The man of every hour

Updated Mar 28, 2017 11:48am


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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

Lutf Amim Shibli died in Karachi on November 30, 2016. He had foretold his death.

A former labour leader, Shibli went on a “hunger strike till death” a month earlier, demanding that Raheel Sharif’s term as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) be extended. He apparently did not starve himself to death. Once Raheel Sharif’s retirement was confirmed, he poisoned himself. Shibli’s son read out a suicide note to the media. It was written two days after the appointment of the new army chief. “There is still time. If the whole nation takes to the streets, the government would be compelled to review its decision,” it read. This was a harrowing farewell.

Raheel Sharif also foretold his retirement. “I don’t believe in an extension and will retire on due date,” a tweet by the army’s spokesperson quoted the general as saying in January 2016.

This was significant in two ways. Firstly, it reaffirmed Raheel Sharif’s professionalism. Secondly, it marked his autonomy in deciding the length of his tenure. He would retire on time because he wanted to — not because he was under any pressure.

There should have been no doubt on the matter thereafter. Many people, including Shibli, still hoped, speculated, predicted and pleaded for a different outcome — for different reasons. His supporters demanded the government “request” him to stay, disregarding his own announcement. His critics pointed to history and doubted his word; almost to his last day in office, many insisted that he would arm-twist Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into getting an extension.

Hunger strikes, prayers and posters in favour of extending the tenure of an army chief are par for the course in Pakistan. The “stay on” crowd, however, is fickle; it is more loyal to the post than to the individual occupying it. Once the new chief arrives, this crowd starts building his image as the new saviour. That requires a situation to save — and often implicit in it is the failure of the previous saviour.

The one enduring exception has been Field Marshal Ayub Khan, whose portraits are still painted in all regal glory on the back of trucks plying the Grand Trunk Road. Raheel Sharif’s stoic face – now spotted on trucks with increasing frequency – could be the second most ubiquitous portrait in the country these days. How long will it stay in the public imagination, though?

This is seemingly an oblique way of approaching his departure and legacy, yet it captures the essence of the feelings towards his tenure — ranging from fanatical personal devotion to the belief in an army chief’s ability to set the country right, and everything in between.

Raheel Sharif was heralded as the “soldiers’ soldier”, a vague phrase used to welcome almost all new army chiefs in Pakistan. In his case, it was often used to distinguish him from his predecessor, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was consistently referred to as a “thinking general” — an apparently pejorative title in an anti-intellectual, ‘over-thinking’ kind of a way, politely equating his propensity to think with inaction. Raheel Sharif, on the other hand, has been all about action, and a pedigree to match those steps.

Kayani took over from a dictator in his twilight zone. Pervez Musharraf was a defeated man long before his official farewell. His chest-thumping and arm-waving in his last year in office had become sad and hilarious in equal parts. Even past cronies were embarrassed of associating with him. The army’s popularity under him was, probably, at its lowest — at least since the secession of East Pakistan and Ziaul Haq’s days in power. Kayani had his work cut out. The memory of Musharraf had to be erased and a fresh start made.

Cover of the Herald, January 2017
Cover of the Herald, January 2017

Raheel took over from a tried and tired Kayani — who went after the militants but not thoroughly; who made life hell for the civilian government, leaving it wounded, but refused to deal it one last, deadly blow; who overstayed his welcome and was resented by the troops for accepting extension as a bribe from the civilian government; whose brothers became real estate billionaires involved in shady deals with everyone’s cousin’s neighbour.

On June 15, 2014, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the army’s media wing, announced: “[The] armed forces of Pakistan have launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan Agency.” This was the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

One week earlier, militants affiliated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had attacked Karachi airport, leaving at least 28 people dead. Six months before that attack – in January 2014 – Nawaz Sharif appeared in the National Assembly after a six-month absence to respond to a wave of similar TTP attacks. He described how his government had attempted to find a peaceful solution to Taliban’s violence and how those attempts had been sabotaged by them through continued attacks. It seemed inevitable that he would announce decisive action. The National Assembly was ready to burst into applause. After a pause, throat-clearing and shuffling of feet, Nawaz Sharif sheepishly announced: “peace will be given another chance”. He set up a committee to hold talks with militants who, a few hours ago, had killed three rangers’ soldiers in Karachi.

When ISPR announced the launching of Zarb-e-Azb, Nawaz Sharif could do nothing but endorse it. He tried to salvage a semblance of civilian supremacy by making a formal announcement about the operation in the same National Assembly where he was advocating a negotiated settlement, half a year earlier. He sounded like he was reading an ISPR press release (he probably was). General Raheel Sharif: 1, Nawaz Sharif: 0.

When Raheel Sharif visited the injured students immediately after the attack, he made the prime minister look callously indifferent.

In a matter of days, consensus in the media and mainstream political discourse changed — from being “our estranged brothers”, Taliban came to be called our worst enemies and the operation against them “the existential battle for Pakistan’s soul”.

Manufacturers of the consensus wanted no questions asked about the conduct of the operation, no awkward queries made about collateral damage therein and no probes launched as to who was being attacked. We were pushed into George W Bush’s binary world of “either with us or with them”. Questions were “unhelpful and undermining the overall national effort”.

On December 16, 2014, Pakistan suddenly became a different place — it looked, smelt and felt different. The realisation that history will now have a pre- and post- format with reference to that day’s terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School was hard to miss. Nawaz Sharif and the rest of the Pakistani leaders went into a hurriedly called meeting the very next day. Expressing his grief in a press conference after the meeting, the prime minister sounded unsure if his words convinced his audience. The only time he seemed natural was when he made a sorry attempt at a “container joke” about Imran Khan — “I would have joined him at the container if I didn’t have to go and call upon the [injured] children in the hospital.” He laughed and so did his cronies; the rest were stunned — has this man got no sense of timing?

Nawaz Sharif did not go to see the injured children on the day of the attack (he did that later). His party members say in hushed tones that he was asked by the army not to do so because of security concerns. Given the history, this is entirely plausible. but if Nawaz Sharif wanted to really, really visit, how would anybody – even the army – stop him? So, when Raheel Sharif visited the injured students immediately after the attack, he made the prime minister look callously indifferent.

The subsequent National Action Plan (NAP) to fight extremism and terrorism, formally acknowledged the military’s supremacy. It made political parties unanimously agree to the formation of summary military courts for terrorism trials. The decision was the army’s but the entire parliament stamped its seal of approval on it. The government also lifted the moratorium on death penalty, without even feebly linking it to the attack on the school. The suppression of fundamental rights was probably proposed by the army but it was Nawaz Sharif’s hand that executed it. With the formation of apex committees to monitor internal security, the army formally pulled a seat for itself on the table of all provincial and federal matters.

Pakistan Army has had a constituency in the public since the 1950s. It was cemented by Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. The major part of this constituency comprises Pakistanis of urban, middle-class, religious and Punjabi origins. Incidentally, this coincides with Nawaz Sharif’s voter base. One wonders if this was one of the principal reasons for disagreement between the two Sharifs.

In any case, the constituency expanded under Raheel Sharif. Even some from the perennially anti-army Pakistani liberals joined it in the name of fighting religious extremism and militancy.

Pakistani liberal is an amorphous term and has had varying characteristics over the past three decades. Yet, the two individual’s defining positions have remained consistent — firstly, opposition to the excessive role of religion in the affairs of the state and to the state’s patronage of radical religious groups; secondly, opposition to direct and indirect interference by the army in government.

Historically, these positions have been complementary to each other. One brief exception occurred when in 1997-1998, Nawaz Sharif sought to have himself declared Amirul Momineen (Commander of the Faithful), and perhaps in the first few months of Musharraf’s government, when he made a shabby effort to present himself as Pakistan’s Ataturk.

Raheel Shariff’s legacy, undoubtedly, is of a leader who did not have so much as a whiff of scandal around him.

Raheel Sharif brought these two tenets into direct conflict. Cultural critic and political commentator Nadeem Farooq Paracha believes the signs of his opposition to religiously-motivated militants were visible even before his appointment as the army chief. “When he was posted at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, he wrote a thesis on how the principal threat faced by Pakistan was internal and not external. That is significant,” Paracha says in an interview.

In the post-school-attack Pakistan, the narrative of militants as “strategic assets” needed to change; if not for the sake of principle then for the sake of strategy. Even if a divorce seemed unlikely, an immediate, public separation was in order. The troops had to be prepared to fully take on the TTP and its affiliates, and the nation and the media had to support the action. This required undoing three decades of “Muslims don’t fight Muslims” sloganeering that explained the Taliban phenomenon only as a reaction to American imperialism. Even before the APS attack, Kayani faced similar challenges in such security operations as Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijat. He dealt with them as he dealt with most challenges he faced — by not rising up to them. The hallmark of the Kayani doctrine was “almost, but not quite”.

Cracks between religious groups and the army had started appearing even before Raheel Sharif took over as COAS. In November 2013, only weeks prior to his appointment, Munawar Hassan, the then chief of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), stirred a storm by saying that if American soldiers killed in battles with Taliban were not martyrs, then neither were Pakistani soldiers who were American allies. The army responded with a strongly worded statement: “The sacrifices of our Shuhada [martyrs] and their families need no endorsement from Syed Munawar Hasan.”

On the other hand, in a bizzare statement, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, said, “Anyone killed by the United States is a martyr, even if it is a dog.”

JI was the frontline political ally of Haq in his Afghan jihad; Rehman was an ally of Musharraf.

The operation to restore order in Karachi went on with even more vigour and fanfare.

This estrangement reached a climax when Sajid Mir, an Ahle Hadith cleric who is also a senator representing the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, mounted an unprecedented attack against the alleged religious beliefs of Raheel Sharif’s possible successor. In a video statement in November 2016, he said: “Pakistan Army is the world’s largest Islamic army and cannot be headed by a non-Muslim. There are news reports that one of the candidates for the chief’s position belongs to a family which does not believe in the Islamic principle of the finality of prophethood. This is very dangerous and the government should refrain from considering [that person] for appointment as the army chief.”

Mir apologised in another video message on the very next day, and claimed that he was misinformed. His demand, however, was breathtaking in its audacity and malice.

In his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx talked about people learning a new language. He said they habitually translate the new language back into the one they already know. The new Pakistan post-December 16, 2014 needed a new language and Raheel Sharif’s ISPR came up with one, though many people still interpreted it in the idioms they already knew. This is why both the army’s traditional constituency and those opposed to the army read – or perhaps misread – the ISPR’s media campaign of building Raheel Sharif’s image, as a superhero, a larger-than-life character, as the laying of ground for a coup.

“The crowd that says the military is our saviour and should take over power and those who say everything evil is happening in the country because of the ‘establishment’ have more in common than they think,” says Zarrar Khuhro, a journalist and talk-show host, as he explains this new ideological convergence.

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 new language redefines, in significant ways, what Pakistani nationalism means: Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are to be eliminated because they are “anti-Pakistan” — not because “they are not Muslims”; China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been elevated to the most important pillar of the state’s new strategic ideology (the other pillars being Kashmir, opposition to India and Islam in the same order).

Pakistan continued being a security state under Raheel Sharif, perhaps even more so than under Musharraf and Kayani, but its religious fervour gave way to a jingoistic nationalism equally capable of and inclined to inflict violence. Balochistan was governed with an iron grip to the extent that even coverage of those gone “missing” became next to impossible. Tribal areas remained an outback where whole markets were blown up as collective punishment. The operation to restore order in Karachi went on with even more vigour and fanfare.

In Raheel Sharif, the ISPR found a person who personified the new paradigm. His is the only family with two Nishan-e-Haiders (one given to his brother Shabbir Sharif; the other to his maternal uncle Major Raja Aziz Bhatti); he has personal charisma and enjoys respect and credibility among the troops; and he carries no religious and ideological baggage as Haq and Musharraf did.

Mysterious banners immediately appeared across Pakistan asking Raheel Sharif to “stay on”; television anchors in toe-curling embarrassment pleaded him to take over power. Television channels broadcast footage of him on a daily basis, showing him visiting troops on frontlines and inaugurating development projects in areas taken back from the militants. The coverage was fawning — without exception.

ISPR under Raheel Sharif also cut out the middlemen and learned to speak directly to people through Twitter and Facebook. These new tools were fully in display when ISPR quoted him in November 2015 as expressing concern in the corps commanders’ meeting about “governance” problems which hampered the implementation of NAP. The statement seemed all the more ominous as it followed a meeting between Raheel Sharif and Nawaz Sharif. Ali Dayan Hasan, a human rights activist, believes it was geared towards creating a “social buy-in” for the measures the army wanted to implement.

Mysterious banners immediately appeared across Pakistan asking Raheel Sharif to “stay on”; television anchors in toe-curling embarrassment pleaded him to take over power

On top of the list of these measures was bringing the media in line — and muzzling it where needed. Anonymous Twitter accounts started labelling a ‘traitor’ anyone who questioned the security establishment’s narrative. Hamid Mir, a Geo Television anchorperson, told the British newspaper The Guardian the story of a guest on his show who referred to Raheel Sharif without calling him general. “I knew immediately the words … would be cut.” To raise a question on the secret, opaque functioning of military courts was synonymous with being a terrorist sympathiser.

Censorship and self-censorship lurked in newsrooms and editorial meetings. Raheel Sharif, the individual, was rarely visible, his voice rarely audible; Raheel Sharif, the general and the commander, was ubiquitous, receiving and meeting foreign dignitaries and driving the prime minister in an open jeep on a newly-built road in Balochistan.

In September 2016, Raheel Sharif visited Karachi and declared the “dismantling of the nexus between terrorism and corruption” as one of the objectives of the operation in the city.

This was an unprecedented declaration, one with scary and unpleasant history: the army has conducted accountability of the corrupt in the past — always selectively, and under dictatorial regimes. Khuhro calls his statement “mission creep” — a military term, originating from the civil war in Somalia, that means an expansion of goals after initial success, often ending up being overambitious.

There was a feeling that Raheel Sharif was falling prey to his personal dislike of some politicians – namely Asif Ali Zardari and Altaf Hussain – and was using all means necessary to get them. The raid on the headquarters of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in August 2016 and the ongoing imprisonment and trial of Dr Asim Hussain, a former federal minister in the government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a confidant of Zardari, have unmistakable signs of his disdain towards the two parties. Karachi, as a result of the operation, has undeniably become safer than it was in 2013, but the civilian state has also evaporated in the city.

Raheel Sharif also took full control of foreign policy. The fact that Nawaz Sharif did not appoint a foreign minister only helped Raheel Sharif take charge without any hindrance.

Nawaz Sharif’s supporters insist he has been under pressure from the army to not appoint a foreign minister. It requires a significant level of gullibility to swallow this. For all his weakness, Nawaz Sharif has proven that he is in charge when it comes to making cabinet appointments. Khawaja Asif, for instance, has remained defence minister even when the army, both implicitly and explicitly, wanted him out.

Nawaz Sharif gave up foreign policy because he does not want it badly enough. Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and notable author on current affairs, believes the foreign minister’s appointment is not about “one gap in the cabinet” but about mobilising the Foreign Office as an institution. “[Nawaz Sharif] did not appoint a foreign minister because he does not believe in institutions.”

A really telling consequence of letting the military run foreign policy surfaced during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Islamabad in March 2016. The visit coincided with the arrest of Kulbhushan Yadav, an Indian intelligence operative who crossed over into Balochistan from the Iranian port city of Chabahar. After Rouhani’s meeting with Raheel Sharif, ISPR tweeted that the army chief had requested the visiting dignitary that India’s Research and Analysis Wing “should be told to stop [its] activities” launched into Pakistan using “the soil of our brother country Iran”. In a press conference the next day, Rouhani denied discussing the subject with Raheel Sharif.

In any event, ISPR’s one-upmanship turned an opportunity of strengthening Pakistan-Iran ties into an unnecessarily awkward and tense encounter between the two countries. The episode highlighted not only the pitfalls of Twitter diplomacy, but also the dangers inherent in carrying the general’s domestic image of a macho straight-talked into foreign affairs. It also conveyed a disturbing message to the outside world: Pakistan is not looking to make friends. It seems to have found the “one” friend it needs and wants — putting all its foreign policy eggs in the basket of CPEC.

Foreign policy under Raheel Sharif has followed the assumption that there is going to be a second Cold War era, with China being one of its principal parties and Pakistan being China’s frontline ally. Great idea, except that it has one glitch — there is no cold war on the horizon. Even if there will be one in the near future, China would like to steer clear of it.

In October 2016, daily Dawn published the inside report of a top-level civil-military huddle. The reporter quoted the civilians as telling the military to “act against militants or face international isolation”. He went on to cite Punjab’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as complaining that the security establishment intervened on behalf of certain militant groups whenever action against them was taken by civilian authorities.

None of what was reported was unprecedented. Similar criticism had been made for a long time by politicians in government and/or in the opposition, both in their private conversations and public utterances, and also inside and outside parliament. The army’s response, however, was unprecedented. It wanted strict action taken against those who had “planted” the news, calling it a “breach of national security”.

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

It seemed that the army also viewed the report as an attempt to sully Raheel Sharif’s legacy — essentially undoing what ISPR had been doing for the past three years. The report said what ISPR had been ensuring was not said in public — that the army can make mistakes and that the civilians may sometimes like to discuss those mistakes, if not criticise them.

The episode also highlighted the fickleness of an architecture built on media coverage. That the same tool can undo that image suggests that a complete control of information in cyberspace and new-media environment is simply not possible.

The golden era of ISPR’s dominance may have come to an end with latest changes in the army’s leadership (the directorate has gone back under the command of a major-general as it was before Raheel Sharif). Rashid sees it as a positive change. “[It] is a healthy dip.” The building of Raheel Sharif’s image under the former ISPR chief, says Rashid, “was much resented by many … who thought of it as overblown and over the top”.

Rashid also points out that some of the goodwill Raheel Sharif won was running out towards the end of his term. This was mainly due to a “lack of support – even active resentment – for Raheel Sharif’s policies by the Nawaz Sharif government”. Rashid then adds: “[Raheel Sharif’s] advisors, many of them hawks” also contributed to the waning of his support by “not seizing the opportunity to engage differently with” the rest of the world.

Raheel Sharif won many battles. He deserves credit for taking the Taliban head-on. Incidents of terrorism dropped significantly under his watch. Law and order in Karachi has improved significantly. Pakistani nationalism promoted during his tenure is less religious. His legacy, undoubtedly, is of a leader who did not have so much as a whiff of scandal around him. He held high-ranking military officials accountable for corruption, showing how elected politicians and the civilian government were incapable of doing anything on the issue of corruption in high places. “Raheel Sharif is the most extraordinary army chief in terms of his resolve to act against the militants,” is how Rashid sums up his tenure.

Two things, however, remain to be seen. Firstly: how sustainable will be the improvement in internal security after him? In the post-Raheel Sharif Pakistan, it has become difficult for apologists of mass murderers to justify atrocities in the name of faith but it has also become equally difficult to champion the cause of human rights in Balochistan, Sindh and the tribal areas. Secondly, how successfully has Raheel Sharif’s tenure depleted Nawaz Sharif’s political capital and credibility in Punjab by keeping the prime minister perennially under pressure on election rigging and corruption? So far, Nawaz Sharif’s chances of staying in power or winning a re-election remain as bright or as dark as they ever have been.

The answers to the two questions will materialise only in the future. For the time being, it is safe to state that 2016 belonged to Raheel Sharif — truly and completely.

This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a lawyer and a columnist and a member of the Human Rights Watch.