The prime minister supersedes more senior generals to appoint a supposedly apolitical army chief.
Pakistani general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani achieved rather little during his six years as army chief while his replacement this week brings back painful memories of past mistakes and missteps.
Kayani was General Pervez Musharraf’s successor as chief of Army Staff. When he took over in 2007, he was hailed, as is usual in the Pakistani press, as a reformer, a realist, apolitical and whatnot. By Pakistani standards he certainly was, given that the country had its first peaceful democratic transition of power under his watch. He is also credited with unverified reports of midnight diplomacy between politicians and judges to stave off a constitutional crisis.
But militarily he was no reformer. Pakistan’s green book, believed to be the core doctrine of army thought, retains its focus on India. This showed in Kayani’s conduct of counterterrorist operations. Pakistani troops remained just as deliberately ineffective in fighting the Taliban and other radical groups.
Under Kayani’s stewardship, American-Pakistani relations plunged to new lows — especially after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was found hiding on the outskirts of a Pakistani garrison town in 2011.
He also contributed in no small measure to the intelligence services’ increasing use of the media to malign the United States for conducting drone strikes in Pakistan’s territory only to request more in secret.
The general’s successor, Raheel Sharif, comes with the same stock descriptions used to justify the appointment of every army chief when overruling seniority. “Apolitical,” “not ambitious,” “confidante” of this person or that, “not too smart,” “reformer,” etc. Sadly every one of these epithets has been proven wrong over and over again.
The first such appointment was Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s in March 1976 by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the grounds that Zia was religious, apolitical and actively detested politics. The following year the “apolitical” Zia unseated Bhutto in a coup and two years after had him hanged.
The next appointment that ignored seniority and was based on personal whims was by that of General Abdul Waheed Kakar in 1993 by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his first term. Following a showdown with the supreme court and the president, Kakkar forced the political leaders to step down, ending Sharif’s first stint in power.
Sharif made the same mistake again during his second term in office. In October 1998, he appointed Pervez Musharraf, superseding several senior generals, on the grounds that Musharraf was apolitical, dynamic and forward looking. Exactly a year later, Musharraf deposed the premier, jailed him and finally sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Evidently the good prime minister hasn’t learnt his lesson. Yet again he has appointed an “apolitical” general while superseding three others.
What we know of Raheel Sharif, who is no relation to the premier, is that his elder brother died in the 1971 war with India and was awarded Pakistan’s highest military honor. Yet the general is supposed to have been instrumental in changing the army’s focus from fighting a conventional war with India to fighting militants inside Pakistan. As head of the training command, he apparently rewrote the manuals and initiated the training required for such a strategic shift.
Facts on the ground and sheer logic don’t bear out this narrative.
Violence within Pakistan remains high with no signs of any deployment away from the Indian border in the last few years. There has been no discernible increase in success in the fight against extremists within Pakistan’s borders which should be associated with a new strategy. Crossborder attacks into Afghanistan and safe havens provided to the Taliban remain in place. Either General Sharif isn’t very good at his job or the rumors about his determination to affect a strategic reorientation are false.
Similarly his “apolitical” nature seems fishy given his stated proximity to the prime minister’s family, a proximity that contributed to his sudden and unexpected triple promotion.
One hopes this time at least Nawaz Sharif got it right. But all the warning signs are flashing.