Pakistan’s army chief is the most powerful person in the land, whether the government is civilian or military. Ashis Ray, who encountered the current incumbent in London, assesses whether he will retire without a last flourish
For the greater part of the past 60 years, Pakistan has been overtly or covertly ruled by its chief of army staff (COAS). At the same time, the military top brass have often eventually bitten the dust.
Ayub Khan, who appointed himself field marshal, bowed out after General Jayanto Chaudhuri, militarily his opposite number in India, got the better of him in the ferocious tank battles of the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
Six years later, General Yahya Khan was eclipsed by General Sam Manekshaw as Indian forces overran East Pakistan in a matter of a fortnight to liberate the territory and give birth to Bangladesh, leading to an abject surrender by nearly 100,000 Pakistani officers and men. Predictably, such an ignominious defeat resulted in Khan’s immediate ouster.
Seven years later, though, in another coup d’état, General Zia-ul-Haq brutally unseated an elected People’s Party leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed after controversial court proceedings. Ironically, Zia himself was blown up in a 1988 plane crash that remains mysterious.
Eleven years passed before General Pervez Musharraf evicted Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League and forced him into exile in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, his declining popularity compelled his departure, thereby ushering in a so far eight-year uninterrupted period of civilian rule, which has included the first full five-year term of an elected government, followed by a peaceful transition from one dispensation to another, in Pakistan’s history.
However, the situation of General Raheel Sharif, the current Pakistani COAS, is markedly different. Unlike the ups and downs of his predecessors, public esteem for him is at a zenith as he completes his three-year stint as his country’s most powerful person this month, with his influence magnified by his success in turning the tide against violent Islamists in Pakistan. Some of his compatriots not only want him to continue as army chief, but even to take over the government.
This has encouraged the General to intervene increasingly in Pakistan’s affairs, assuming the character of a de facto dictator. Take governance: he compares corruption in Pakistan to economic terrorism, and labels existing law enforcement bodies ineffective. This, he believes, gives him the right to extend his authority beyond his constitutional remit.
Such intervention has translated into a tussle with Nawaz Sharif, now back as Prime Minister. As the opposition leader, Imran Khan, and Pakistan’s Supreme Court pursue the Sharif family over their alleged stashing away of funds in Panama, there is much speculation as to whether they have the General’s backing.
But Pakistan’s India policy, which the COAS controls, has failed to yield dividends. General Sharif takes the same hard line as his predecessors, viewing Kashmir as an unfinished agenda of partition, and the rivalry with India as a war of survival for Pakistan. Since the Pakistani army realises it cannot match India’s conventional capability, it has focused on nuclear deterrence, with the army chief stressing the danger of an inadvertent nuclear event to get influential powers to put pressure on India over Kashmir.
However, more Pakistani soldiers are deployed on the Afghan border, tackling anti-Pakistan extremists, than on the United Nations-mandated line of control (LOC) in Kashmir, a possible sign that General Sharif prefers to lower the temperature with India. But he has made no personal effort to engage in a dialogue with India’s political leadership, unlike his prominent role in dealing with foreign governments, including China, the United States and Saudi Arabia. He was also unobtrusively received by David Cameron when he was Britain’s prime minister.
In his first 20 months alone as COAS, General Sharif visited Kabul no fewer than five times, calling on President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. He attempted to restore the close ties Pakistan had with Afghanistan in the 1990s, when it was administered by the Taliban, offering to broker peace between what is now a rebel movement and the new Afghan government. He also dangled the carrot of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), now under construction, saying it would benefit Afghanistan.
It was insensitive of the General, though, to suggest to Ghani and Abdullah that he held the key to declaring Kabul a war-free zone, and to categorise Afghan intelligence, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), as obstructing better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, when his endeavour stalled – it later collapsed – he complained to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, that India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, had ruined the peace process. He also prevented Nawaz Sharif from honouring the Indo-Pak Free Trade Agreement signed by the preceding People’s Party administration of President Asif Zardari in 2012.
The Pakistani military’s ambiguous stance towards terrorism – taking a ruthless approach against anti-Pakistan elements and a soft line towards groups hostile to India and the Afghan government, while claiming to be curbing them – might make it popular at home, but has not won it friends abroad. It will be instructive to see how this applies to the latest upsurge of violence in Kashmir.
The attack on an Indian military base in Kashmir on September 18, killing 18 soldiers, was blamed by Delhi on Pakistan-sponsored militants, which Islamabad denied. Later India said it had staged ‘surgical strikes’ across the LOC against would-be infiltrators from Pakistan, but Islamabad dismissed the claim, saying there was simply heavy shelling across the informal border, causing some fatalities.
Was this true, or was General Sharif seeking to avoid looking weak in the eyes of the Pakistani public? The answer should become clear before his scheduled retirement in November.
Ashis Ray, the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, covered Pakistan extensively for ITN and CNN