The gen­eral's re­tire­ment

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

IT has al­most be­come ac­cept­able in Pak­istan that the army chief him­self de­cides his term in of­fice. In many cases, the army chief has him­self been in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity to be able to ex­tend his ten­ure, while in other in­stances he 'ob­tains' it. And it cer­tainly is rare for a chief to say: 'I am not in­ter­ested.'

For sure, the un­equiv­o­cal state­ment by Gen Ra­heel Sharif that he would step down at the end of his three-year term sets a new prece­dent. But was this an­nounce­ment, made some 10 months be­fore the re­tire­ment date, nec­es­sary at all? Some would ar­gue that it was meant to end the de­bate over ex­ten­sion in his ser­vice. How­ever, it does not sound very con­vinc­ing. It is surely the right de­ci­sion not to seek ex­ten­sion. But a pub­lic an­nounce- ment and that too at this early stage does not seem ra­tio­nal. In fact, the Twit­ter mes­sage of an over-ef­fu­sive ISPR chief has inevitably trig­gered a new and un­nec­es­sary dis­cus­sion on the is­sue and may fuel pre­ma­ture spec­u­la­tion on the suc­ces­sion. It is ex­pected from a pro­fes­sional sol­dier to bow out gracefully rather than to seek to pro­long his ten­ure. And there is lit­tle doubt over Gen Sharif's pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

There is at least one prece­dent when a Pak­istani army chief re­fused an ex­ten­sion. It was Gen Wa­heed Kakar who de­clined the of­fer made by the then prime min­is­ter Be­nazir Bhutto. What is most re­mark­able is that there was no pub­lic state­ment on the mat­ter. He never ap­peared in pub­lic af­ter re­tire­ment. But it was a dif­fer­ent story when Gen Ash­faq Kayani was given a three-year ex­ten­sion by the civil­ian govern­ment of the PPP. The ra­tio­nale pre­sented by the then prime min­is­ter Yousuf Raza Gi­lani was that it was not pru­dent to change the com­mand at a time when the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in the tribal ar­eas was in a crit­i­cal stage. This ar­gu­ment car­ries lit­tle weight. It was cer­tainly a political de­ci­sion by the PPP govern­ment that felt more com­fort­able with a known gen­eral with whom it had worked for three years at the helm. Of course, Gen Kayani's own de­sire to stay on also mat­tered. The de­ci­sion surely did not go down well in the ranks par­tic­u­larly among the gen­eral of­fi­cers. It is a dif­fer­ent thing when the mil­i­tary rulers give them­selves an ex­ten­sion com­pared to an army chief get­ting it as a favour.

Many agree that the ex­ten­sion tar­nished the rep­u­ta­tion of Gen Kayani as a pro­fes­sional sol­dier and weak­ened his au­thor­ity. Un­sur­pris­ingly, his se­cond term is re­mem­bered more for in­ac­tion and dither­ing on crit­i­cal is­sues par­tic­u­larly on ex­tend­ing the counter-mil­i­tancy op­er­a­tion to North Waziris­tan and other parts of the coun­try. Gen Kayani was also drawn into an in­tense con­tro­versy over the US Spe­cial Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a com­pound in Ab­bot­tabad. The very fact that the world's most wanted ter­ror­ist had lived for years in a high-se­cu­rity zone close to the coun­try's premier mil­i­tary academy caused the na­tion huge in­ter­na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion. His fail­ure to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for the in­tel­li­gence lapse fur­ther weak­ened Gen Kayani's moral au­thor­ity as army chief. That must have weighed heav­ily on Gen Sharif's de­ci­sion, though there is a huge dif­fer­ence in the per­sona of the two.

Un­doubt­edly, his bold lead­er­ship in the war against ter­ror­ism has earned Gen Sharif the mass pop­u­lar­ity that no other Pak­istani army chief has en­joyed. He set a new stan­dard of lead­ing from the front. Whether it was spend­ing Eid with the troops in North Waziris­tan, vis­it­ing the flood-hit ar­eas or at­tend­ing the fu­ner­als of fallen sol­diers and civil­ian vic­tims of ter- ror­ism, the ubiq­ui­tous gen­eral al­ways showed up. Sym­bol­ism does mat­ter, par­tic­u­larly, at a time when a na­tional tragedy oc­curs. Not sur­pris­ingly, the hy­per­ac­tive gen­eral has dom­i­nated the front pages of news­pa­pers, much of the time, steal­ing the lime­light from the civil­ian lead­er­ship. His stock rose es­pe­cially af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tack on the Army Pub­lic School, Pe­shawar when he pushed a na­tional coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­icy. The mil­i­tary has be­come much more ac­tive in in­ter­nal se­cu­rity mat­ters. That has cat­a­pulted the in­sti­tu­tion's rat­ing in pop­u­lar opin­ion to a new high. This un­prece­dented high pub­lic pro­file of the army chief as saviour has also been metic­u­lously pro­jected by the mil­i­tary's pub­lic re­la­tions depart­ment that wields far more in­flu­ence on the Pak­istani me­dia now than be­fore. The posters and ban­ners car­ry­ing his larger-than-life pic­tures that have sprung up across the coun­try may not just be at­trib­uted to a show of love for the gen­eral. It is some­what or­ches­trated as well.

There has been a con­certed pub­lic cam­paign for the ex­ten­sion of Gen Sharif's term, with some political lead­ers join­ing the cho­rus. For­mer pres­i­dent Gen Pervez Mushar­raf pub­licly en­dorsed the de­mand say­ing that con­ti­nu­ity in com­mand was nec­es­sary for the suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of the army's counter-in­sur­gency cam­paign.

For sure, Gen Sharif has not shown any political am­bi­tion, yet civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions have not been free of fric­tion. The mil­i­tary has been more as­sertive dur­ing his ten­ure. He has be­come in­creas­ingly ac­tive on the ex­ter­nal pol­icy front re­in­forc­ing the wide­spread per­cep­tion that the mil­i­tary has been more ac­tively di­rect­ing for­eign pol­icy. It is not in­ci­den­tal that the prime min­is­ter has been tak­ing him along on some crit­i­cal for­eign vis­its, mainly to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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