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Pakistan's new toast: Army Chief Raheel Sharif

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PAKISTAN ARMY CHIEF GEN RAHEEL SHARIF
(image by wikipedia.org/wiki/File:.JPG)
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Some two months ago, senior Pakistani politician Imran Khan, who heads Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, hailed the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, as the most popular person in the country today. He made the observation in a televised interview. Imran is believed to be in the good books of the Army and yet his public praise of the Army Chief came as a surprise to many observers.

Imran has justified his stand saying that Gen Raheel Sharif has achieved a turnaround in the Karachi situation after the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had failed to end the daily cycle of gang wars and consequent blood bath. The Army chief has also won kudos for his Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan which was launched by ignoring the Prime Minister's plans for a dialogue with the militants hold up in that lawless land on the border with Afghanistan.

As Syed Talat Hussain, a senior journalist with Geo TV, wrote in his op-ed "Larger than Life" in The News International, Imran's statement has been in sync "with the new narrative that is being built around the persona of General Raheel Sharif in social as well as mainstream media that he is the man who can turn mountains of troubles into manageable molehills, that he is a miracle-maker, a saviour". .

Pakistan is an unusual country. Here, the Army enjoys a larger than life image; it is acknowledged as the 'permanent establishment' of the country. Without exception, all the predecessors of Raheel Sharif from Field Marshal Ayub Khan to Ashfaq Pervez Kayani enjoyed 'hero-worship'. The fact that the Army controls a parallel economy with a string of profit making enterprises has contributed no less to their Holy Cow status.

According to the grapevine, General Sharif was not the first choice of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif two years ago when the post was about to fall vacant. He was indeed a dark horse. Moreover, a big minus was the fact that General Pervez Musharraf was his mentor. And Musharraf and Nawaz had scores to settle, since the General had staged a bloodless coup in 1999 to cut short Nawaz Sharif's second inning as PM and packed him off to Saudi Arabia.

Yet Raheel made the cut to the surprise of many in and outside the Pakistani army circles. It is because like Nawaz Sharif, he is a Kashmiri by birth, and Kashmir remains the juggler vein of Pakistan. The Army owes its status of "paramountcy" to confrontation with India. Over the years, it developed a vested interest in sustaining the anti-Indian rhetoric, and helped to elevate the discourse to the level of nationalism.

Unlike his predecessors, Raheel has not fought in a war against India. He was commissioned in 1976. As the head of the GHQ in Rawalpindi, however, he acquitted himself well. He maintained good relations with America, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. He kept in check corps commanders itching for a coup as the Prime Minister went ahead with his plans to punish General Musharraf.

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Over the past year, Gen Raheel has managed to 'save' the honour of his mentor. And, according to a Bloomberg report, has kept Prime Minister Sharif "on edge". By end October 2014, the authority of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had diminished and that of the military had risen. According to a survey, Pew Research Center published in August, some 87 percent of respondents said the Army has a good influence, compared with 79 percent in 2013. Nawaz Sharif's rating dropped slightly to 64 percent.

What a turnaround in the Sharifs fortunes! What a bloodless coup! Raheel Sharif is in the driver's seat today calling the shots on internal security issues and foreign policy alike. In short, the Army has become the decision maker. The $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project has given the GHQ a new profile and it is raising a 10,000-strong special force to provide a safety net to the Chinese workers.

In May 2013, on the eve of the general election, Nawaz Sharif was in a combative mood; and declared that he would not play second fiddle to the Army. "I will be Army Chief's boss if voted to power", he declared in an interview.

"All I know is when I was Prime Minister, the policies were being formulated by the federal government, by the civilian head of the state and then, of course, executed by the institutions (a euphemism for Army). I want that to continue and I'm very clear that everybody must remain in their respective domain," he told the interviewer who asked him if under his rule, the Army would continue to control Pakistan's relations with the US and India, besides security policies of the government.

So, why has Nawaz Sharif lost ground to Raheel Sharif? Why has #ThankYouRaheelSharif become a common hashtag in Pakistan. Frankly, there are no short answers.

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An American specialist on the South Asian scene, Michael Kugelman, holds the view that many Pakistanis harbour deep anti-government grievances as they believe (with good reason) that civilian institutions are incapable of solving the nation's myriad challenges. Well, this could be one reason for Raheel to be lionised as the new saviour of Pakistan. This mood has found expression in the chorus for an extension of power, though he has one more year to complete his present innings.

Leading the chorus is none other than Musharraf. The media is not far behind, with both newspapers and the TV channels walking the extra mile to justify the demand. This is rather surprising since the Pakistani military continue to take draconian measures to suppress press freedom. The Guardian reported in a dispatch from Islamabad as recently as this September that "journalists claim they are forced to self-censor criticism of the military after indirect threats from army officials".

"At a time of intense pressure on the media to cooperate with an army public relations campaign that is burnishing the image of General Sharif, channels routinely edit out or drop the sound on the mildest criticism of the military", the dispatch

It went on to add: "Even the country's only Nobel peace prize winner, the schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai, was briefly silenced in early August when she said in an interview with Aaj TV that the Prime Minister had told her he was unable to spend more money on education because of pressure to fund military operations". Some forty eight percent of the federal budget goes to the Armed Forces.

It is difficult to buy the view peddled in Pakistan that the Army needs unbridled media support since soldiers are 'dying in a war against Islamist militants'. Only Geo TV from the Jung stable dared to go to war with the Army and its spy outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2014, but it was a short lived exuberance.

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A blogger since July 2008 James Duglous Crickton is a London based consultant working with a consultancy firm focusing on Asia, particularly South Asia and East Asia. Political Research is his functional focus area. While his interests are (more...)
 

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