A former Pakistan Air Force officer sent me a message along with the picture of a poster from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s by-election campaign in Lahore’s NA-122 constituency. The poster shows a mugshot of the Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, firmly in the middle, surrounded by smaller mugshots of the Quaid-e-Azam, Allama Iqbal, PTI Chairman Imran Khan, and the party’s candidate Aleem Khan.
The officer’s message read: “Hope ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] sees how inappropriate this is.” The message reflected a soldier’s professional, apolitical approach, and this officer comes from a long and distinguished line of fighter pilots and Army officers. My response to him: “ISPR is loving every moment of it.”
Thereby hangs our latest tale.
A few weeks ago, speaking at the National Management College on civil-military relations, I made two points. One, while analyses require that we posit the two entities as binaries, in reality that is not the case. While the military, given its strict vertical hierarchy and organizational cohesiveness, acts—or should act—as a single entity, the term ‘civilian’ has multiple shades. The umbrella term ‘military’ denotes a tightly coupled system, to use Charles Perrow’s term, while ‘civilian’ denotes different, differing and often bickering entities.
In an unbalanced political system, therefore, in terms of operating, the military will always have an edge over the civilians, an edge that a military, if it’s smart, will deftly leverage.
My second point was that the Pakistani military (read: Army), like any good military, has been adept at adapting. It has realized that being in the driver’s seat doesn’t really work too well. There’s also the realization that, after the initial ‘meray humwatno’, it requires the same old system that it had uprooted for being dysfunctional.
Once in the driver’s seat, it loses the time and gets the clock. The clock begins ticking and people start itching. Since miracles don’t happen—or at least have stopped happening for some reason—restiveness sets in. Murmuring follows, questions are asked, people take to the streets, the sheen comes off and, at some point, the system has to be returned to the same jokers that had been packed off.
The frontal approach has been tried before and has been found wanting. It’s time for the indirect approach.
It has worked and it is working. The best thing about it is that it is not about an individual, the Army chief, overstaying his welcome. It is about the institution and the institution’s place within the power configuration.
There are reasons for this new thinking. The country is troubled at several levels within. It is also troubled without. Without, many think it is more troubling than troubled. That creates an image problem. That also means an international environment that’s not too conducive to direct adventurism. The military, for all these reasons, is stressed and stretched. It cannot bear the heavy cross of direct involvement. But it cannot stand aloof, either.
It has created a new playbook, therefore. And the man behind this is the current No. 1, Raheel Sharif. The strategy is his. The brilliant execution of this strategy is by the operational commander of ISPR, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa.
Incidentally, this strategy is different from that of Gen. Sharif’s predecessor. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani’s second full tenure was about inertia at all levels. The reason? Gen. Kayani quid pro quo-ed with the PPP government: I get three more years to do nothing, you get the rest of your tenure for doing nothing.
This chief is different. I have never met him, but I have met and talked to many who know him in bits and pieces. And I know at least two of his course mates from the Pakistan Military Academy, one of whom was also his platoon mate. And I have observed him.
This is how the thinking goes: he is a doer. He is acutely conscious of his pedigree and his legacy. While his elder brother, Maj. Shabbir Sharif, sacrificed his life fighting a war and got Pakistan’s highest gallantry award, he wants to put his name alongside his brother’s by fighting another kind of war, in some ways more vital for the security and survival of this country than even the one that claimed his brother’s life.
The Army chief also believes, unlike many other officers, senior and mid-ranking, that getting rid of the system and bringing the Army in will not resolve the issues.
If direct intervention is costly and inertia is costlier, how must Raheel Sharif go about creating a niche for himself and also entrenching the military’s institutional place in the configuration?
Use a three-pronged strategy: act where others hadn’t dared go; leverage the politicians’ differences; employ a public relations campaign, to use military terminology, that has width, depth and concentration.
Not surprisingly, the projection of the first two relies heavily on the third. Actions are important but projection of those actions is even more important. The strategy of the indirect approach is grounded in perception management. Managing perceptions is crucial both in terms of making people see the difference between an Army chief constantly on the move and a bunch of politicians perceived to be sitting on their haunches doing nothing—or worse, wasting theirs and this country’s energies in fighting among themselves. This is what helps to leverage political differences.
Where previous Army chiefs, those who became coup-makers, relied on the 111 Brigade as their maneuvering force, this strategy has seen a bunch of highly efficient officers in ISPR, led by Maj. Gen. Bajwa, providing both the maneuvering force as well as supporting fire.
They use social media. They monitor and review everything, from newspapers to television programs. They reach out to those who want access and will play ball, and cut loose those who wouldn’t buy into the narrative or ask annoying questions—the list of what all they can, or do, is long. They are polite. In fact, very polite. But there’s a Pinteresque menace lurking in the shadows. If 111 Brigade was a hammer, they use the soft approach. It is an amazingly well-coordinated strategy.
But they are helped in this no less by the disarray among the civilians. Let me add that such disarray is not peculiar to Pakistan. But here, in terms of consolidating the transition, it becomes a problem. Compare, for instance, Gen. Sharif with Prime Minister Sharif, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid with Maj. Gen. Bajwa, or the Ministry of Information with ISPR.
Let me reiterate: the strategy is not necessarily about reality. It is about perceptions. And, as studies have shown, perceptions are quick to form but resistant to change.
The narrative is subtly created. It rests on the fact that the majority will not deconstruct it. And that belief is empirically tested and testable. The tragicomedy in this is the sight of the politicians fighting with each other, each saluting the Army in turn and pointing to the other as the one that needs to be purged, even as all know who is calling the shots. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t even begin to describe it. I offer Rs. 100 for whoever can coin the best, indigenous term for this phenomenon!
Coming full circle to where we began: the PTI poster. It is in line with the party’s newfound love for the military. Just pick up Imran Khan and his acolytes’ statements from 2012-14 and juxtapose them with how the party has changed.
Leave the poster aside. Check Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc., and see real and bot accounts thanking Raheel Sharif and urging him to stay on and clean these Augean stables once and for all.
But here’s the thing. If I have understood this strategy right and, more importantly, if I have understood Gen. Sharif and his desire to go down in history right, he is very unlikely to go the Kayani route and seek an extension. The strength of this strategy and this perception management rests on the general’s leaving after scoring a ton. More Jacques Kallis, less Miandad.
Equally, however, this act of departing on a high note will not just be Gen. Sharif’s personal legacy. It will also put the Army, as an institution, atop Olympus. That too will be a feather in the general’s cap. Until then, of course, the poster, far from making ISPR queasy, will make them very happy.
That said, history is more a tale of men making irrational choices than rational ones. The Lord be praised.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider