The ‘Chief’ Among Our Worries

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Nov 23, 2016 01:55 PM +05:30 IST
The ‘Chief’ Among Our
Worries Credit-YouTube
  • Pakistan appears to be moving quietly towards changing its Army Chief, and the D-Day for change is likely to be 29 November.

    If the incumbent Gen Raheel Sharif is sacrificing an extension for the sake of political advancement he would definitely need the support of a friendly Army Chief.

While India remains obsessed with counting or changing its notes and coins, Pakistan appears to be moving quietly towards changing its Army Chief. That is a big event in that country, considering the kind of power the Chief wields. Yet, the announcement seems to be withheld for the moment. The incumbent, Gen Raheel Sharif, is reportedly on rounds of important headquarters to address officers and troops as part of his farewell. The D-Day for change is likely to be 29 November 2016.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif does have the authority to extend the tenure of the Army Chief. Almost all previous chiefs have had extended tenures except the straightforward and unambitious General Jehangir Karamat who resigned prematurely or as some believe was asked to go by Sharif which led to the appointment of General Pervez Musharraf as the Army Chief. Musharraf executed the Kargil intrusion in 1999, which set the chain of events leading to the overthrow of Sharif. As an ex-President and Army Chief, Musharraf still exercised sufficient influence to ensure that his protege Gen Raheel Sharif was appointed the Army Chief in 2013, even while Nawaz Sharif was yet again the Prime Minister, and Musharraf's power had considerably eroded.

Gen Raheel Sharif today exercises the authority and has the power of persona to push for his own extension, especially in light of the situation with relation to India, on the Line of Control (LoC), in the J&K hinterland and in the politico-diplomatic realm. Yet, this does not appear to be happening. Earlier assessments did speak of General Sharif's possible effort to trigger worsening of relations with India to enable his case for extension. The trigger has happened, the relations have worsened, but Gen Sharif is still apparently interested in laying down office. Why all this magnanimity? The Indian media is focused on the identity of the next incumbent, forgetting that General Raheel Sharif cannot yet be written off as a has been Pakistan Army Chief like General Kayani. General Sharif without being the Chief could yet be an important player in Pakistan's future hierarchy.

Loyalties in the Pakistan Army can sometimes be short-lived. There can be no guarantee that the Musharraf-Raheel Sharif club can ensure placement of its candidate as the replacement, but if we know the Pakistan Army and the power of the current Chief, the next incumbent should again be a Musharraf man. In fact, it is well known that Musharraf does not favour a change of Army Chief at this juncture. For him, having a favourable Chief would be a distinct advantage as the legal cases pending against him have all not been yet disposed of. His seniority difference with the next incumbent would be an uncomfortable 15 to 16 years. With General Sharif it is also 12 years, but he is special. He is the younger brother of Musharraf's mentor who died in the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, and whose memory is that of a celebrated warrior in Pakistan.

General Sharif is also a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) that is another power centre within the Pakistan Army; just like Musharraf himself. Musharraf is known to have had much to do with the appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif who was then third in the seniority in the pecking order of the top Generals. However, there are reasons more than one for Musharaf to be actually favouring a change. He can then run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. These reasons are not far to seek.

The fact that the Pakistan Army is having a timely turnover of an Army Chief (provided it does finally happen) is reason enough to analyse and even speculate. The first of the reasons which come to mind is that Gen Sharif is being correct in protocol and ethics by not robbing one of his immediate juniors and subordinates the opportunity of heading the Pakistan Army. He has built a fairly iconic image of himself as a macho leader having reduced the quantum of internal violence by targeting specific radical Islamic terror groups. His popularity in the street and equally within the uniformed community of Pakistan is definitely high. He has raised the pitch against India and exploited the situation when opportunities presented themselves in Kashmir. Perhaps, Gen Sharif seeks to pursue a political ambition outside the uniform. He could find many political parties willing to host him and carry him on their shoulders, thus achieving greater international acceptance for him, should he be ultimately elevated to political control of Pakistan. Extension as Army Chief was well within his hands as already brought out, especially after India's surgical strikes but that would bring another two or three years in the appointment.

When Generals are ambitious they like to go the whole hog. With the prevailing perception of his achievements that he has been able to project in civil society and the public at large, his image remains extremely clean and likeable. In a country where likeable leaders are rare to find, Gen Raheel Sharif has definitely shown himself as someone a bit different. He can play to the galleries and the street, charm foreign leaders, carry his military persona in the army, exploit his brother's martyrdom and national warrior status and throw in anti-India sentiments to good measure. You can't find that type of leader in Pakistan today, even if you search with a fine tooth comb.

If General Sharif's powers of analysis and appreciation give him the same answers as above, he should be confirming these from his mentor, General Musharraf. A long term view reveals him to be just about the only candidate who as a military-civilian leader can rock the boat of all political parties. He can be the reviver of fortunes of his mentor Musharraf's own political party. Musharraf could then be the patron and the even the iota of doubt, which exists about the future of the legal cases against him, could be laid to rest.

Having effectively denied the surgical strikes by India there is virtually no loss of face for General Sharif. When uncomfortable questions regarding the presence of terror groups were being raised by Pakistan's powerful media, he muzzled that too with the steps against Cyrus Almeida. That communicated the need for discretion among those who think that the Pakistan Army has lost some of its steel in dealing with civil dissent.

From among the candidates being spoken of as possible replacements, it may be prudent to stop imagining that the choice would lie in the hands of the Prime Minister. If General Sharif is sacrificing an extension for the sake of political advancement he would definitely need the support of a friendly Chief. That should mean anyone close to Nawaz Sharif would be dangerous. Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday falls in that category. Being a wounded soldier also puts him in the category of a potentially popular Chief, not something General Sharif would be looking for. That would put Lt Gen Qamar Ahmad Bajwa and Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad as the two direct contenders. Both would have an equally good chance although the former's 10 Corps (Kashmir) experience may place him at some advantage.

A change of Army Chief carries much importance for Pakistan whose destiny is decided by him, but for India it would be business as usual. A display of a degree of machismo at the LoC or Jammu International Border can be expected. With the Chief turning over and the DG ISI also under transfer to Karachi as Corps Commander, we will have a new incumbent in that appointment too. These are times which could be unpredictable as the Punjab-based jihadi anti-India groups may just wish to further their agenda when all eyes are elsewhere. A strike inside India could be a tempting proposition for India's enemies when it is under a different kind of instability, public attention is elsewhere and passions can be lit up to unpredictable proportions. Putting all this in the melting pot, I as an Indian, should be careful and prepared.

Stop Press... the killing and mutilation of the body of another Indian soldier at the LoC is General Sharif's swan song and way of admission that the surgical strikes did take place. It's his way of leaving with honour but the Indian Army should give him a signature salute with a deniable strike across the LoC and let him live to regret his last days in uniform.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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