Gen Raheel Sharif: ‘There is a god on the ground’

The recently concluded visit to the US by Pakistan Army chief Raheel Sharif has been observed with much interest and concern by Indian policymakers. In Pakistan, however, observers argued that the visit carried more weight than the trip by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif three weeks earlier.

The message is clear. Raheel Sharif has comprehensively pushed out Nawaz Sharif, who took power in 2013, from Pakistan’s power dynamics. India has reasons to feel uncomfortable as Raheel is known to be a hawk.  The army general had lost an elder brother in the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and he often mentions it while discussing the Indo-Pakistan security scenario.

It goes without saying that Nawaz Sharif is suffocating and trying to break away from the yoke of the army. Such an attempt was represented by how he and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi issued a joint statement at Ufa, which did not mention the Kashmir issue but expressed a resolve to fight terrorism and bring to book those involved in the Mumbai terror attack.

It is now a war of nerves between the army and the civil administration in which the former is predominating. Raheel Sharif went to the US uninvited. However, almost all the top officials of the US administration met him. On the other hand, the army too had to swallow a bitter pill when a blanket ban was imposed on the media coverage of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, an arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organisation which allegedly receives patronage from the army.

Observers, however, point out that the army acquiesced in the ban as its eyes are now fixed on a probable $360 billion US military aid. Moreover, there exists the possibility of a civil nuclear deal with the US.

Nawaz Sharif had started to lose his grip on the country and the administration last year when opposition parties staged massive demonstrations against him, alleging electoral malpractices. Javed Hashmi, a former president of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, spilt the beans some time back disclosing that Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a former director general of the ISI, had used Imran Khan to organise countrywide demonstrations against Nawaz Sharif. The army stepped in at a convenient time, assured the Nawaz government about its continuity. However, the military-intelligence establishment extracted its pound of flesh. The implicit message the army conveyed to the Prime Minister was that he had to cede de facto control of the country’s defence and foreign affairs to them.

Therefore, it was only natural that Sartaz Aziz, a close confidant of Nawaz Sharif would lose his position as the National Security Advisor. The new incumbent Naseer Khan Januja, a retired Lieutenant-General of the army for whose appointment Raheel was pressing for a long time, is a known hawk. His appointment does not augur well for Indo-Pakistan relations. He is the formulator of Azm-e-Nau, a Pakistani military exercise aimed to take on India in the battlefield. “There is a god in the sky and on the ground: there is Raheel Sharif,” a small businessman in Karachi recently said, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal. True, the army has brought back a semblance of order to Karachi, Pakistan’s most trouble-torn city, by its National Action Plan (NAP) or armed operations against drug mafias and terrorists.

But it means that Nawaz Sharif has actually abdicated normal governmental functions to the army. By creating Provincial Apex Committees, his brainchild in the NAP, Raheel Sharif has virtually eliminated political parties in Pakistan more than he has been able to eliminate terrorism. The apex committees consist of local politicians, the army commander and ISI representatives. But politicians have virtually no say in these committees.

The army has prevented Nawaz Sharif from honouring any of the three most important promises he had made before the election: the beginning of a peace process with the Taliban, bringing Pervez Musharraf to book for his alleged illegal acts and normalisation of relations with India. However, by unilaterally launching military operations in North Waziristan without governmental or parliamentary approval, Raheel Sharif stymied the first one while the other two have also been given quiet burials.

Kamran Khan, a leading Pakistani journalist, thinks “there is a growing public demand for General Sharif to be given a second term after November 2016”. Raheel too is enjoying the scenario. In a smug way, he describes himself as a ‘soldier-statesman’ and avers that a lack of good governance in Pakistan has forced him to take the role of a new messiah.

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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