The Binding Force
When the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invited Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif over to the State Department on Thanksgiving Sunday (Nov. 30), it surely was not to chat about the hospitality he had received on the trip as there were other matters of greater import at hand. The meeting was not scheduled in advance and is said to have been hastily arranged. It took place in a very cordial and friendly atmosphere and served to again support the view that the United States gives greater importance to the Pakistani military than the civilians in matters of running the country.
This is also borne by the fact that Pakistan has only made real progress during the periods when it was ruled by the military. Ayub Khan may have had many faults but everyone agrees that Pakistan took some important key initiatives on the development front during his rule. Gen. Yahya may not have been interested in running the country after Ayub’s exit and certain politicians took advantage of this, thinking nothing of breaking up the country to serve their own narrow interests. But Yahya can at least be credited with giving Pakistan its first and only fair elections. He was followed by Gen. Ziaul Haq, a military man with his own axe to grind and a style of governance that did not have many takers. But Pakistan’s economy in Zia’s days was stable and there were no alarm bells on the governance front. He set the country on the road to recovery after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto before him had reversed Pakistan’s forward momentum with his so-called ‘socialist’ agenda.
A game of musical chairs followed after the death of Gen. Ziaul Haq and again set the country back. In fact the period when both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif ruled turn by turn was described as a ‘lost decade.’ Then came Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and he again set about putting the country back on rails. By this time, the regional and international environment had become intensely volatile but he managed things judiciously. His good work was again undone by the ‘democratic’ government of the PPP after the 2008 elections. When Nawaz Sharif won the elections in 2013 and took over the prime ministership for the third time, the nation rejoiced on his arrival. Sadly, more than a year and a half later, Pakistan is still in the woods.
Having spent some 13 years in Afghanistan and concluding that there was not much for the U.S. and NATO forces to do in the region anymore, they decided to call it a day. A reduced ISAF force will now stay in the country for another year to enable the new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, to gain control. The U.S. will not repeat the mistake it committed back in the 80s after the Soviets quit the region and the Afghans were left to fend for themselves. This time, however, the Americans are also depending a great deal on Pakistan to maintain peace on its western and northern borders. For its part, Pakistan has again started saying that its foreign policy would revert to seeking ‘strategic depth’ in the region by ensuring that no further military adventures are undertaken and that other regional nations, particularly India, do not take undue advantage of the vacuum caused by the NATO exit.
Here Pakistan would be called upon to play a key role and this would all depend on how the army handles affairs under Gen. Raheel Sharif. The U.S. knows that he is just the right man for the job. He has grown up in a family with a proud military tradition - two Nishan-e-Haider medals (elder brother Maj. Shabbir Sharif and maternal uncle Maj. Aziz Bhatti). He knows the capabilities of the army as well as its limits in terms of military and civilian governance matters. He and his commanders have successfully led the Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan but it is good they have stayed out of political matters. The army also closely monitors the ‘tyre and tube’ relationship between the incumbent Nawaz Sharif government and the so-called PPP opposition but leaves them to their own machinations as one is dependent on the other. If the ‘tyre’ of the Sharif government bursts, the ‘tube’ of the PPP opposition would be bound to follow so they both protect each other. Where this is bound to lead the country is a question that continues to beg for answers. Meanwhile, the army has its external and internal role cut out and continues to function as a binding force of national unity that commands equal respect both inside and outside the country.