Come Nov. 30, General Raheel Sharif will be a private citizen. That’s how it should be. Once tenure is up, the incumbent must leave. The institution stays.
The day Gen. Sharif hangs up his boots will also be the first day in office for Army chief-designate General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He has his work cut out for him.
Much is being, and will be, written about Sharif’s legacy as Army chief. He was and is generally perceived to be a doer, a go-getter, operationally, though not much of a thinker. Most observers felt that that wasn’t too bad, come as he did after the two tenures of General Ashfaq Kayani, a commander who was known more for doing less in his second tenure to quell terrorism. Staying shy of North Waziristan had almost become a metaphor for Kayani’s lack of action, a charge only partially correct.
In rode Gen. Sharif on Nov. 29, 2013. By June 15, 2014, the Army had launched Operation Zarb-e Azb to clear North Waziristan. The operation, to wit, is not entirely complete if seen from the perspective of the clear, hold, build and transfer phases. The first two phases are almost complete, the third partially done while the fourth hangs in the balance.
The kinetic operation in North Waziristan was complemented with intelligence operations across Pakistan, which netted thousands of suspects. The overall impact is a mixed bag of successes and failures. The enemy, comprising multiple terror groups, has managed to mount several deadly attacks, mostly on soft targets, the massacre of children at the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014 becoming the worst atrocity on Sharif’s watch.
Corollary: we face the typical balloon effect. Put them down here and they will pop up there.
Counterterrorism is essentially the problem of choosing between action and non-action and also about knowing when to act and how to prepare for the reprisals. From that perspective, Kayani and Sharif were two ends of the pendulum swing. Kayani was Hamlet-like; Sharif was Laertes. One thought too much, the other would much rather bull in and let the chips fall where they might.
This is not to say that Kayani didn’t do anything. In fact, the heaviest kinetic operations were conducted on his first watch: Malakand, Buner, Bajaur, Khyber, Mohmand, South Waziristan. Additionally, when he took over from general Musharraf, he had to extricate the Army from a lot of mess in which Musharraf had landed it. Kayani restored the Army’s professionalism, did immense work toward training and morale by creating the Army’s counterterrorism centers, improving conditions for the troops, giving them a sense of pride et cetera. He also took personal interest in e-arms development and validation and improved tremendously the operational coordination between the Army and the air force. If he had left after his first tenure, he would have decidedly gone down in Pakistan Army history as one of its best commanders.
But he stayed on and that was a mistake. His second tenure was an exercise in much thinking but little action. Thinking is crucial and Kayani does think deep. But when one is a commander, one can’t afford not to act, especially against odds. Kayani personified Nietzsche’s saying that knowledge kills action.
But Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy quote has a second part too: “… for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion.”
The describes Sharif, not so much because he was wrong about going into North Waziristan or cracking down on terror cells. That was required; that had long being delayed. But his illusion was about what he could achieve and to employ very smart public relations to signal far and wide that he was the man not just of a moment but of an episode, a legacy.
This is where the ISPR came in. Back in Sept. 2015, I wrote about the Army and Sharif’s new playbook under the caption, A Strategy for a Legacy: “…the man behind this [strategy] 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.” Bajwa since then has become a lieutenant general, the first time that ISPR has been headed by a 3-star officer, catapulting PR to a higher slot than even the military operations directorate which (unlike India) is headed by a major general.
It’s an old story about the umpire’s finger going up, posters on the wall, social media abuzz with Sharif’s hagiographies and #ThankYouRaheelSharif trending on Twitter. It was all ‘mysterious.’ There was nary a word from the ISPR. If anything, as I wrote in that article, the ISPR loved it. Sharif had grown bigger than the institution itself. Even the mainstream media, especially TV channels, lapped up everything the ISPR dished them. Sharif’s every move was breaking news. Perish the thought that what he did was part of his professional remit. I noticed with a mix of bemusement and consternation that every time I pointed this out on Twitter or TV, I’d be trolled by mysterious bot accounts.
This legacy the new chief will have to undo. As he prepares to grapple with internal and external challenges, and there are many, he will have to temper the expectations with realism. The Army can only do this much and no more. It operates in a context and while it tries to change the context for the better, the context puts its own constraints on even the best and the most well-intentioned.
Firefighting is essentially tactical. The new chief has to go beyond that to the strategic-political level to appreciate the threats and the responses required to tackle them. At that higher level, the military is always just one aspect of a national strategy and that strategy is determined by the governments, not the military and certainly not by the intelligence agencies.
It will not be easy because it will not be sexy. There will not be much swagger in it. The new chief might be tempted to use the now-formidable ISPR machine. A people fed on illusions rarely sit back to reassess that they were running after an apparition. They want to turn the illusion into reality. No one wants to know that terrorism is not about to go away and that it will be a long time, if at all, to go back to the pre-IEDs days. But that’s exactly what the new chief will have to do. He will come across as non-Messianic; some might even call him weak and lacking panache. But by appreciating the situation instead of situating the appreciation, he will serve his office well.
He will also have to extricate the Army from a plethora of jobs it has undertaken. It’s not much fun to lead a fatigued organization. The CT operations in urban centers will have to involve police and other civil law enforcement bodies. The burden must be shared. And contrary to what people think about the police, it has some excellent officers with brilliant experience in planning and executing CT operations.
Finally, while his troops will have to respond to tactical provocations on the borders, it will serve him well to allow the government the space to change the context in which instability breeds. That is the government’s job and the prime minister will have to rise to that challenge.
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