S. Akbar Zaidi
Anyone familiar with Pakistan’s history knows that most of the last 70 years since Independence have been dominated by the country’s military. Pakistan’s history and its politics have been more about the military than about its civilians or about society more broadly. Whether the military has governed directly under dictatorial military generals, as it has for 32 years, or whether it has ruled through other indirect, but equally intrusive, means, as it has when not directly running government, much of what Pakistan has become has been moulded by, and on account of, Pakistan’s military and its various interests and institutions. Whether it is Pakistan as a (failed) national security state, or a breeding ground for various forms of Islamic jihad, much credit goes to Pakistan’s military.
Moments of change
This is not to suggest that the civilian and political actors are innocent in any way, beyond agency, accountability or reproach. But having been constrained in numerous ways by the overly-dominant and overly-invasive military, for whether Pakistan has been a failed or failing state, a rogue state involved in nuclear proliferation, or a state which allowed the world’s most wanted man to live well-protected for five years in Pakistan, responsibility on civilians and politicians, in the absence of any real power, must be rather thin. Moreover, it is well recognised that whether it is Pakistan’s nuclear policy, Afghan policy or policy towards India, whether in terms of peace or trade, real power rests not with the civilian elected political body, but with the military, particularly the army.
Yet, there have been moments of change in this dominant narrative as well, such as following the 1971 war when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over a demolished and defeated Pakistan. Or, more recently, when led by a group of civilian and political actors in 2007 and 2008, an arrogant military general dictator was eventually ousted, to the extent that he was put under trial for treason – although he’s now an absconder allowed to live freely (and in great comfort) in exile abroad. It was this opening, in 2007 and 2008, that gave many Pakistanis a fleeting hope of a stronger, and perhaps more permanent, nature and direction of democratisation, than perhaps at any time ever before. While some of those expectations have been postponed, many still remain and, in fact, show signs of maturing.
Since 2013, much of the political discourse in Pakistan has been about the two Sharifs. One, a democratically elected Prime Minister who won an unexpected majority in an election seen as the most free and fair since 1970, which in Pakistan means that it was without military interference or influence; and the other, appointed by the incoming, Prime Minister following the May 2013 elections. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed General Raheel Sharif to what many still consider to be Pakistan’s most important and powerful office, that of the Chief of Army Staff, although the latter is meant to report to the former. However, much public discourse over the last three years has been in assessing and obsessing over which one of the two Sharifs has been the more powerful, which of the two would oust the other, and so on.
A mixed legacy
General Raheel Sharif retires as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) today, with his successor already announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a couple of days ago. In January of this year, General Sharif had announced that he would not seek an extension in his post, making him the first Pakistani Army Chief to leave office on time in two decades. But there had been much speculation and greater insistence by the many who were backing him, and hoping to see the end of the elected Sharif, that General Sharif would be granted an extension and stay in command not just over the military, but over much else in Pakistan.
General Sharif became the most popular and beloved man in Pakistan, also probably the most powerful, such was the hyped message constantly churned out by a Raheel-obsessed media. He was the defender of Pakistan’s international borders and its security, as well as the prominent guarantor of Pakistan’s only economic and investment project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). He led the Pakistan army’s war against jihadists and Islamic militants in North Waziristan, hounding out and eliminating the various morphed factions of “the Taliban”, many created as a consequence of the policies of a former COAS, and of international Islamic groups. He even became the face of peace and prosperity in Karachi, by ensuring that militancy, crime and extortion were eliminated from Pakistan’s economic centre.
In the three years he was COAS, General Sharif was also thanked by many pro-democracy observers for not undertaking a coup against the elected democratic set-up, for which he might have had at least two opportunities: once in 2014 during Imran Khan’s Islamabad dharna, and again in 2016. Banners across many cities in Pakistan urged the Army Chief to take over, or at least to rescind his decision to retire. Such has been the precarious (and reversible) nature of Pakistan’s democratic transition that civilian actors have had to literally thank the army chief for not taking over, as if he was doing us a favour.
General Sharif has been overly praised and celebrated for his three years in power even by liberal commentators who have conveniently ignored or overlooked many shortcomings and failures during his tenure. While the military action against Islamic militants and jihadists in North Waziristan has been much celebrated, what has seldom been stated by the same gushing analysts, columnists and mediapersons is that many banned terrorist groups in Pakistan are still allowed to function with relative ease and impunity, quite publicly. The likes of Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar, and many said to be involved with jihadi groups roam free and often get protection. The Pakistan military’s war against domestic terrorism in Pakistan has been highly selective.
Similarly, not pointed out by the same gushing supporters have been the many security failures, especially in Quetta. If the military has had hegemony over all security issues, especially in Balochistan, the hundreds of deaths in terrorist attacks have been on account of military lapses, not civilian. Importantly, the possibility of building peace between India and Pakistan, something that most civilian groups and political parties have been striving for for many years, has also been indefinitely postponed. The most powerful man in Pakistan over the last three years and the most powerful institution in the country do need to account for such failures.
However, such failures will be quickly forgotten and Raheel Sharif is likely to gain even more prestige for simply deciding to leave office when his time came due. His successor will need considerable time, patience and sagacity to gain respect and similar levels of authority, even given the large social media teams and media interests openly and aggressively supporting Pakistan’s military.
The other Sharif
Now that the military Sharif has retired, perhaps this opens the way for the other, democratically elected Sharif, to consolidate his position and, in the bargain, to strengthen democracy and the slow process of democratisation under way in Pakistan since 2007. Following the 2013 elections with just the second democratically-sanctioned government transition and handover just 17 months away, this is an opportunity too good to be wasted.
S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi
S. Akbar Zaidi