Sharif Picks Up Sharif: The Politics Of The Portfolio
When it comes to picking up an army chief, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is quite fastidious. He also has a record of sorts in this field; as having appointed four Chiefs of Army Staff (COAS) during his three stints as prime minister. Despite his deep selection and favouring junior generals, Nawaz Sharif has not been quite lucky with his choices. In January 1993, he appointed Lt Gen Abdul Wahid Kakar, who later forced him to resign. In October 1998, he promoted Lt Gen Pervez Musharraf, who dethroned him a year later. He had also picked up Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt to replace Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, but the plan did not work as the latter succeeded in staging a coup d’tat.
Appointment of COAS in coup-prone Pakistan generates lots of interest and anxiety, as it affects the dynamics of domestic politics and international relations. All eyes were on Nawaz Sharif, when the tenures of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) and the COAS were nearing an end. On October 6, 2013, Gen Khalid Shameem Wynne, the CJCSC had retired from service but his successor was not announced. The COAS, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was asked to shoulder the additional charge of CJCSC.
There was a widespread speculation that Gen Kayani could seek an extension to his six-year COAS tenure or an appointment as CJCSC of a revamped and more powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee from Nawaz Sharif. The taciturn general scotched all rumours by announcing that he had no intention to continue in uniform after the expiry of his stint on November 29.
Because of the limited choices available and a commitment by Nawaz Sharif that he would go by the seniority in appointing the CJCSC and COAS, he waited till the last moment to announce his decision giving no chance to the out-going chief or lobbyists to react.
Admiral Asif Sandila, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS); Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt, Chief of Air Staff (CAS) and Lt Gens Haroon Aslam, Chief of Logistics; Rashad Mahmood, Chief of General Staff (CGS) and Raheel Sharif, Inspector General Training and Evaluation (IGT&E) serving at the General Headquarters (GHQ) were seen as possible contenders.
Admiral Sandila or Air Chief Marshal Butt was expected to become CJCSC as this appointment has not been held by navy or air force since 1997. Elevation of CNS or CAS would have loosened the army’s grip over Pakistan’s strategic plans division, which controls country’s nuclear arsenal.
Lt Gen Haroon Aslam’s chances of ascension were slim from the very beginning. He as a brigadier posted in the military operations directorate had vigorously carried out the instructions of his airborne chief, hovering over Karachi skies, to arrest Nawaz Sharif and his ministers. Spectre of troops clambering over the boundary walls of Prime Minister’s house in Islamabad on October 12, 1999 must be deeply itched in the memory of Nawaz Sharif, who would not have been comfortable with him being the CJSCS or COAS. Lt Gen Aslam was a seasoned campaigner; he had conducted Rah-e-Rast in 2009, a prolonged counter-insurgency operation in Swat Valley against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which forced Mullah Fazllulah, the current TTP chief flee to Afghanistan. He had commanded Special Services Group. The TTP rejoiced on Lt Gen Aslam’s supersession and subsequent resignation. Overlooking him for promotion is considered as a loss to the establishment in the military circles.
Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood stood good chances to become COAS. He held the coveted and powerful appointment of the CGS. He had commanded IV Corps at Lahore—his hometown and was considered to be close to Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz. Lt Gen Mahmood was Gen Kayani’s favourite too; and that perhaps went against him.
Lt Gen Raheel Sharif was least expected to become the COAS. He was lacking operational experience. He had commanded XXX Corps—a holding formation at Gujranwala; been the commandant of Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul and was serving as IGT&E. Due to his tepid curriculum vitae, he was not bookies’ favourite for either of the appointments.
Lt Gen Sharif as IGT&E has made an important contribution to the strategic thinking of Pakistan army. He was instrumental in making Pakistan army realise that the real danger to the country was from internal threats than India. In January 2013, Pakistan army adopted its new doctrine imbued with fresh threat perception.
Nawaz Sharif having burnt his fingers on earlier occasions did not opt for any “hot shot” general. Not to offend army too much, he chose to ignore the CNS and CAS. He superseded Lt Gen Haroon Aslam for obvious reasons and then stuck to the seniority by promoting Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood to CJCSC—a four-star rank and technically senior appointment to the COAS.
In the appointment of Lt Gen Raheel Sharif as COAS, analysts feel that Nawaz Sharif has thwarted the possibility of intimidation and interference from the army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the government’s functioning. It is well-known fact that any policy on contentious issues needs explicit sanction from the army and ISI. He would like the army and ISI to tow government’s line on major issues like dialogue with TTP, peace talks with India, post-2014 situation in Afghanistan and withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. Differing perceptions on these issues have sabotaged many a well-intentioned political and diplomatic overtures in the past.
Labelling Gen Sharif as laid-back general, disinterested in politics and power play may not be a summation of his persona and ambitions. Democratic leaders globally have often been ruthlessly set aside by generals whom they had handpicked, with loyalty as the prime quotient. An assessment of Gen Sharif as ‘no threat’ to Pakistan’s tenuous democracy is a judgement best left to posterity.
Transition from being the most powerful institution in the country to be subservient to political executives may not be an easy task for the Pakistan army; especially to its generals. As political executives gain strength and confidence, generals will have to swallow their pride and arrogance by yielding more space to politicians and bureaucrats. For Gen Sharif, acid test may come sooner than expected. What will happen to ex-military dictator Gen Musharraf, who is facing a treason trial amongst other criminal cases in Pakistan? Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would like to see his bête noir sent behind the bars in a normal prison meant for common criminals. Army generals would not tolerate such humiliation heaped on Musharraf, which may embolden the civilian government further. Previous COAS Gen Kayani had been successful in sparing Musharraf from any such humiliation, who is ensconced in his Islamabad farm house as a prisoner and not in the Adiala prison. In any case, would Gen Sharif like to be remembered as the one who sold Pakistan army to politicians?
Gen Sharif may be a conformist and pliable person, but what about his corps commanders? It is a common saying in Pakistan that three or four corps commanders can stage a military coup. Army has a dominant position and role in Pakistan. Besides apex position in the hierarchy, it controls resources worth USD 20 billion in the form of various ‘welfare organisations’. It would dislike any dilution of its authority. Civilian authority can only firm in and be visible to the public at the cost of military supremacy. Therefore, any transgression by civilian executives on military turf is likely to have serious repercussions.
Having got a trustworthy COAS, Nawaz Sharif may now take steps to tame the ISI, by appointing a less devious director general. Experiences in the past have shown that civilian appointee director generals have been treated like pariah by the army and not allowed to participate in the corps commander conferences.
Challenges before Gen Sharif are many. Pakistan’s internal situation is worrisome. Army has borne the brunt of insurgency raging in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Politicians are willing to negotiate with the TTP at any cost, which may be unacceptable to the army. Normalisation of relations with India was taken up with great expectations after Nawaz Sharif took over in June this year, only to be sabotaged by a combined effort of the army and ISI.
Post-2014 situation in Afghanistan will largely depend up on the role and objective of Pakistan army and the ISI. Pull-out of NATO forces from Afghanistan would also need consistent support from these two agencies. The US, disheartened by the double-dealing of Gen Kayani in curbing al-Qaeda and Haqqani network, would be expecting some consistency and integrity from Gen Sharif.
Is it the end of military supremacy in Pakistan? The mood is upbeat, because of uninterrupted five-year tenure of the previous government; a democratic transition of power and stamp of civilian authority in nomination of the COAS and CJCSC. There are many problems yet to be surmounted before reaching an amicable meeting point between the army and civilian government. At present they are like awkward partners keenly watching the other to falter.
By Colonel (Retd.) US Rathore
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