As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House today, it can be argued that on the international security stage another Pakistani official commands a higher respect than Sharif. General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army Staff according to many insiders is said to be the one who calls the shots in Islamabad on security issues. In so much, top U.S. officials will be holding talks with General Sharif next month on a wide range of issues. His role in improving the security situation in Pakistan is praised though in a country that is no stranger to military coups, there are those in Pakistan and globally that are justifiably concerned about General Sharif’s rising popularity, and power.
General Raheel Sharif
General Sharif is a four-star general and the 15th Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army. Coming from a military family with extensive distinguished exploits in the Indo-Pakistani Wars of 1965 and 1971, Sharif attended the Pakistan Military Academy and gradually rose through the ranks.
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The greatly improved security situation in Pakistan over the past few years is partly credited to General Sharif’s role as Chief of Army Staff and his prior role as the Inspector General for Training and Evaluation. In that latter position, General Sharif stressed the importance of training and preparing the army for counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism operations. In so much, he oversaw a transition in Pakistani military thought and capabilities to not regard India as the sole threat but to consider militant and terrorist groups as equally dangerous.
In November 2013, General Sharif was promoted to his current position and his influence increased that much more. He is viewed positively for his efforts in cleaning-up Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Once a haven for armed groups and organized crime, General Sharif has overseen a massive campaign to dismantle them and so far has been quite successful. Meanwhile he has led several operations against Islamic militants along the formerly lawless border with Afghanistan including Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. As a result of this, his popularity in Pakistan is high and he is respected by those in foreign policy and security circles. Additionally, General Sharif has managed to improve the view of Pakistan’s Army in the country which has been somewhat negative for more than a decade while increasing its political power.
General Sharif and his Political Role
General Sharif’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Kayani made some important strides in boosting the image of Pakistan’s military in the eyes of the people though worked hard to maintain the heavy role the army had in influencing Islamabad’s national security and foreign policy positions. Many thought General Sharif in assuming the position would wield diminished power in that regard though that has not turned true.
Long it was claimed that General Sharif was a professional soldier and uninterested in politics. Indeed he was elevated to his current position at a time when Prime Minister Sharif was taking steps to improve the civilian control of the government and strengthen its democratic institutions. Furthermore, General Sharif was given the position despite there being two more senior generals that were in line for it, an act against established policy. By 2014, there were indications that General Sharif was enhancing the political power of the military and his position.
Reported by The Wall Street Journal, according to a person who was present at a recent meeting where General Sharif spoke at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, the General claimed that a lack of effective governance in Pakistan had “created a vacuum”. Additionally it was said that General Sharif has been forced to take on the role of “a soldier-statesman” due to the political problems in Islamabad. This changing situation and the role of the general has been noticed in Pakistan and elsewhere.
General Sharif regularly overshadows Prime Minister Sharif in Pakistan’s media. While General Sharif has made enormous strides in improving Pakistan’s security, his popularity has soared and as a result attracts more attention than the Prime Minister. In 2014 the General was Newsweek Pakistan’s Man of the Year. Now, the government in Islamabad appears ineffectual in matters of security and foreign policy when contrasted to General Sharif. In relations with Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, it appears that General Sharif is calling the shots and setting the army up as the go between in their relations.
Former Pakistani President Asif Zardari in June speaking at an oath-taking ceremony of the Pakistan People’s Party cautioned that the military was “stepping out of domain”. He felt that the army should limit its interference in politics and “not try to create hurdles for politicians.” Earlier this week, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn published an editorial on Prime Minister Sharif’s Washington visit. In it they spoke of the increasingly limited role seen of the Prime Minister saying “Worryingly, for the civilian dispensation and the democratic project, Mr. Sharif has appeared an increasingly peripheral figure in shaping key national security and foreign policy issues.”
The power General Sharif has in Islamabad is not lost on Washington. Last year while on an official visit to Washington, General Sharif was conferred with the U.S. Legion of Merit for his leadership and he is if anything, respected. The Wall Street Journal reports that current and former U.S. officials firmly believe that in focusing on economic and other domestic issues, Prime Minister Sharif has delegated certain security matters to General Sharif. In striking an optimistic note, these officials believe that General Sharif is “supportive” of civilian institutions and that Prime Minister Sharif appears comfortable with the current arrangement. On the other hand, the Prime Minister has good reason to not be antagonist of General Sharif as he himself was ousted as Prime Minister in the 1999 coup.
The question many have is what are General Sharif’s ultimate plans? His current position in Pakistan and his actions lead some to believe he might be setting himself up for a future political position, either through the choice of the people or that of his own and the military high command. Such ideas have already been suggested. Earlier this summer, controversial retired General Hamid Gul was reported by the Urdu daily Ausaf to have said “It is important for General Raheel Sharif to come to power for a few days as the politicians are destroying the country.” He also spoke of how if necessary, the Constitution can be suspended easily.
In attempting to restore order to Karachi, General Sharif has used his powers to also go after political opponents. A government official close to General Rizwan Akhtar, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency told Reuters “There is a quiet, creeping takeover of Karachi by the military”. His power in relations with neighboring Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are undeniable. The appointment of retired Lieutenant General Naseer Khan Janjua to National Security Advisor is seen as a move by the military to keep the government in check.
Prime Minister Sharif might be right to having ceded power of security issues to General Sharif. The Prime Minister is focused on economic issues but these can only largely be achieved through improving Pakistan’s security situation. In some ways, it is in the best interests of Islamabad to allow the military to accomplish this without civilian and political meddling. At the same time, such a move weakens Pakistan’s already fragile democracy. Unfortunately, due to the importance of Pakistan to the U.S., Washington is somewhat forced to accept the role of Pakistan’s military in ensuring stability in the country, even if it sets back democratic aims. The visit by Prime Minister Sharif this week is an attempt by Washington though to show that it considers him to be the leader of Pakistan. Regardless, General Sharif will be in Washington next month for high-level meetings and discussions.
Prime Minister Sharif was overthrown in late 1999 in a bloodless coup by General Pervez Musharraf and placed under house arrest and later trial. Prime Minister Sharif knows all too well the power of the army in Islamabad. He also understands that the army under General Sharif has brought enormous security improvements to Pakistan. This puts the Prime Minister in an awkward position. Arguably, General Sharif is far more popular than the Prime Minister and any attempt to limit his power could provoke the military to taking a most undemocratic course of action; a coup. On the other hand, by providing General Sharif with more power runs the risk of creating a fragile situation for Islamabad down the road. While the General might not harbor any intentions of usurping Prime Minister Sharif, his increasing power is a threat regardless that if he retires from his post, his successor will wield the same power and might have other motives.