The change of guard at the army GHQ in Rawalpindi, whenever it takes place, is the most important political event in Pakistan in terms of significance other than general elections. This is not only because of the historical — even if unconstitutional — role that the army leadership has played in arbitrating the political fortunes of the country but also because, as the commander of one of only seven nuclear arsenals in the world, the army chief of Pakistan cannot be trifled with.
Add to the mix the army’s role in being partners with the US and the West in one of the history’s most significant military and intelligence operations (bringing down the Iron Curtain in the 1980s) and the fact that the Pakistani military establishment has strategic interests in Afghanistan (1990s with the birth of the Taliban and post-9/11 Afghan occupation, and now a transition), it becomes all the more important who replaces an outgoing chief.
Enter General Raheel Sharif, the incumbent army chief. In keeping with general tradition, he was handpicked by an elected prime minister rather than finding himself at the helm by virtue of his seniority. The 15th in the line of COAS of Pakistan, Gen Sharif, when he assumed charge in the fall of 2013, was the first new chief in six years and only the second in 15 after Gen Musharraf was appointed in 1998, even though in this period at least five should have served and gone home and a sixth should have been in office if Pakistan were a normal state. Also in keeping with tradition, whatever strategic policy Gen Sharif pursues will affect Pakistan deeply and, arguably for decades if the stained legacies of his predecessors such as Zia, Musharraf and Kayani are any yardstick. So what is Gen Sharif all about — what is he up to and, perhaps more importantly, why?
Since generals cannot be compared with politicians, they have to be evaluated against their ilk. The first, and inescapable, indicator is the contrast in the backgrounds of Gen Kayani and Gen Sharif. The former served as the chief of ISI before being appointed army chief. The latter served as inspector general of training and evaluation, enhancing military colleges and incorporating counter-terrorism and unconventional training for all troops and officers, before being appointed the new COAS. He also authored a new counter-terrorism and counter insurgency doctrine that underpinned the new enhanced trainings.
While Forbes placed Kayani in the top 30 most powerful people on the planet a year before his retirement, his lasting legacy was the infamy of Osama bin Laden being discovered in Pakistan under his watch as the Americans took him out and the indictment (by the former ISPR chief no less) of being agonisingly indecisive ultimately inactive when it came to launching the Waziristan operation despite getting the advice of the security establishment that it had become inevitable. For someone with an intelligence background, it is ironical that under his watch Pakistan-American intelligence and military relations touched their lowest ebb ever.
Gen Sharif, on the other hand, within the first year of his service as chief has been termed by The Economist as being the most clear-headed and unambiguous in strategic policy among Pakistan’s recent army chiefs: “Unlike his predecessors, General Sharif sees jihadists, principally in the form of Pakistan’s own Taliban, as the country’s greatest threat, and has sought the help of the Americans in countering it.” This strengthens both the perceptions that he has fashioned a decisive and clear-headed policy about military solution to the Taliban problem and also that military and intelligence ties with the US under his watch have acquired a dramatic turn around.
In short, Gen Kayani — more interested in game theory than actual action — said, “it is our war” but did not, ultimately, fight it while Gen Sharif in his first 100 days unambiguously not only declared “this is our fight” but also sought a go-ahead from PM Sharif and the political forces for approval to launch the Waziristan operation. PM Sharif despite getting approval from his cabinet for it at the last moment got cold feet, a la Kayani, and launched “talks” with Taliban instead, surprising Gen Sharif.
When the talks collapsed, as they would always have, Gen Sharif simply launched Zarb-e-Azb, embodying the doctrine that he developed. He comes across as a general whose world is black and white as opposed to man Kayani who only saw grey. So while Kayani was simply reviewing Gen Sharif’s doctrine, the latter is implementing it as soon as he got a chance. One chief dithered for six years and the next took merely six weeks to decide the army will not persist with a policy that was simply hurting it.
The timing of the ascension to the post of COAS is also important. Gen Sharif uncle (Aziz Bhatti) and brother (Shabbir Sharif) are recipients of the highest military honour of the land, Nishan-e-Haider. He has a family legacy of professionalism that he probably wants to uphold and it came to the fore at a time when opinion among the highest and second-tier in the army was changing. His rising-through-the-ranks fellow officers among the corps commanders and their associates of the ranks of colonels, majors and brigadiers, have seen action in Swat and Tribal Areas and have seen soldiers and officers killed by the Taliban.
The important thing is not that there is enough critical mass of opinion going against the Taliban among the ranks to transform into policy but that Gen Sharif swiftly underpinned it with his CT and COIN doctrines, converting rationale into resolve. The brutal Taliban attack on innocent children of mostly military families in Army Public School is the proverbial last straw that provides Gen Sharif all the inspiration he needs to speak through action, unlike his broody doubting Thomas of a predecessor. Gen Sharif already has a profile of simply not entertaining any ifs and buts.
If Gen Sharif is more professional than political, does this mean that the Pakistan Army — forever heavily branded in its outlook by the personality of the man who leads it — under Gen Sharif will barter its unabashed political interests for support from political classes and parliament for greater military professionalism to redeem the prestige of the military? Don’t bet on it. Gen Kayani was deputy to Musharraf for six years and then six years himself chief but never could decide what he wanted and how much of it — that’s why he held not just the military but political Pakistan hostage to indecision. Gen Sharif never has had this kind of baggage. He seems inclined toward action than scheming. He is angry but calculated and active while his predecessor merely sulked.
Gen Sharif seems to know what he wants and is impatient to do what is necessary to get it. He seemingly wants a fight with the Taliban. This should bode well for a Pakistan that has had its fill of Taliban and all the convoluted evil they stand for, if he is going to be in charge of taking them on all hammer and tongs. But what if he develops an interest in also setting right politics that he sees as falling short? After all we’ve been there before — several times.