Who is in the driving seat?

With retirement looming for Pakistan’s current army chief, Rahimullah Yusufzai takes a look at the much discussed and sometimes ambiguous relationship between the country’s civilian and military leaderships.

The never-ending debate about civil-military relations in Pakistan was given a boost when the Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif made an unexpected announcement recently that he will not seek any extension to his service when he retires in November this year.
This news caught the nation and the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by surprise and triggered a discussion in the media and elsewhere as to the timing and objective of the announcement, reigniting the debate about civil-military relations in Pakistan. This relationship has always been uncertain since the all-powerful military has directly ruled the country for almost half of its existence and impacted on decision-making in key policy areas, even if not in power.
In a statement delivered through military spokesman Lt General Asim Bajwa, the army chief said he does not believe in extensions and will retire on the due date. Gen. Raheel Sharif was appointed by Nawaz Sharif as the Pakistan army’s 15th chief for a three-year term on November 27, 2013. He replaced General Ashaq Pervez Kayani, who had held the position for six years after getting a three-year extension from the PPP government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari.
Raheel Sharif is a popular general. His frequent visits to the frontlines and his forceful statements to, and frequent coverage in, the media have made him a household name in Pakistan and given him almost cult status.
He belongs to a family of soldiers and his elder brother Major Shabbir Sharif was given Pakistan’s highest gallantry award, Nishan-i-Haider (Mark of the Lion), in recognition of his bravery in the 1971 war with India. As the army chief, the younger Sharif—who is known as a professional soldier rather than an intellectual general like his predecessor General Kayani—has earned praise for ordering tough action against militants all over the country, particularly in North Waziristan and Khyber tribal regions. He has even been credited with restoring a semblance of security in Pakistan.
Many Pakistanis believe that he will somehow be persuaded to eventually accept an extension to his service. In fact, a campaign has been started to extend his role as army chief by another three years so that he can bring the war against terrorism to a conclusion, and public rallies have been held in different cities to demand this. However, the rallies were not very big and no prominent politician or famous person took part.
Some political parties and members of parliament are asking the general to retract his decision not to prolong his service. On the other hand, this decision has been hailed by most commentators, who say he has set a good precedent by deciding to retire on the due date.
But it seems the general may have made a premature announcement of his retirement to quash rumours about a possible extension, and many analysts believe this is not the end of the story as Sharif may still be asked to continue as army chief. Emotional appeals have been made to him by different organisations and individuals to take back his decision. Certain politicians even demanded that the issue be discussed in parliament. Arguments have also been put forward that the war against terrorism may not be sustained without General Sharif’s leadership and commitment.

The recent acquittal of Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the 2006 murder of Baloch tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti showed how difficult it is to bring even retired army officers to justice
The recent acquittal of Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the 2006 murder of Baloch tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti showed how difficult it is to bring even retired army officers to justice

Nawaz Sharif’s government was caught unawares by General Sharif’s abrupt announcement, as he had not taken the prime minister into his confidence before it. Defence minister Khwaja Asif, who is considered close to the prime minister, tried to downplay the announcement by claiming that the government was not considering any extension to the army chief’s service.
Around this time, pictures of General Sharif driving Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a military jeep in Balochistan province were published. This led to uncharitable comments that the army chief was in the driving seat and the democratically elected prime minister was a mere passenger. Though it is true that General Sharif has a dominant personality and is leading his troops from the front, the fact remains that the prime minister is heading a stable government with a comfortable parliamentary majority. General Sharif was his choice to be army chief out of three possible generals, and he made the decision because he trusted him. The two are frequently seen together at home and abroad and this is cited as evidence of their close relationship. However, it is also true that the long anti-government agitation in 2014 by opposition politician and former cricketer Imran Khan in the federal capital Islamabad weakened the prime minister’s position and increased his dependence on state apparatus, including the military, to get things done.
The 193-kilometre-long Gwadar-Turbat road along which the army chief drove the prime minister is the newly built portion of a motorway that is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the Gwadar seaport, which is the last point on the corridor starting from Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. The completion of the road in 18 months at a cost of Rs13 billion was hailed as a breakthrough, as the Gwadar port, operated by the Chinese, is to be linked through the central, western and eastern routes of the corridor. CPEC projects worth $46 billion provided by China have been described by Nawaz Sharif as a game-changer in the region. The army chief has also been playing a key role in CPEC by raising an army brigade to secure the corridor and its many auxiliary projects, and warning that he will brook no opposition to it by internal or external opponents. It was obvious that the military under General Sharif’s stewardship was critical to almost every aspect of life in Pakistan, from fighting militants, separatists and criminals to securing the country’s economic future by guarding CPEC and restoring the rule of law in Pakistan’s biggest, richest and most industrialised city, Karachi.

The recent acquittal of former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf for the 2006 murder of Baloch tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti also showed how difficult it is to bring even retired army officers to justice. It is true the case against Musharraf was weak, but it was always going to be challenging to win a conviction against the former army chief and president.

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