General Raheel Sharif retired as Pakistan’s chief of the army staff on November 29. He was a popular army chief because he didn’t overthrow the elected government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) despite a lot of suggestive agitation by opposition politicians. People wanted him to stay on through a three-year extension of his tenure because he had made their lives easy by bringing down the incidence of terrorism in Pakistan by 70 per cent through his Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban and by going after the target-killers of Karachi.
If you want to know Pakistan you have to know who the army chief there is. So paramount is the power of the army because of Pakistan’s India-centric nationalism. Pakistan’s most popular elected leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was killed by his army chief, General Zia ul Haq, who strengthened the other aspect of Pakistani nationalism, Islamic ideology, by bringing in new constitutional amendments. (Bangladesh generals did that too.) As president he ran the country successfully by helping America bring down the Soviet Union, leaning on money from Saudi Arabia to run an economy, which would otherwise have collapsed.
In 1988, after General Zia’s death in a dubious air-crash, Pakistan returned to democracy but only to have army chief, General Aslam Beg, tell the elected prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to keep her hands off foreign and security policies. Thus started the military’s post-martial law monopoly on who will be the friends of Pakistan and who will be its enemies. The next decade was extremely unstable as elected governments kept falling on two scores: Getting too soft on India or too neglectful of ideology. Bi-partisan Pakistan woke up to what was happening in 2005. The two dominant parties, led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, agreed, through a Charter of Democracy, that they would not help the army topple each other and that they will cultivate normalisation with India to ward off external threat.
After the end of the Afghan war in 1990, Pakistan was not able to switch off the covert war in Kashmir. The army was not able to roll back the jihad it had unfurled. When General Musharraf got too cozy with India and tried switching it off, there were defections from the army that gravitated to al Qaeda under the new leader Ilyas Kashmiri in the Waziristan agency. Today, even if the army wants to put an end to the terror of the covert warriors it can’t because of ideological resistance from the rank and file.
General Musharraf’s ideological and strategic “softness” was offset by incidents that became Pakistan’s watershed events: The 2008 Mumbai attack by Pakistani terrorists and the 2009 outbreak of sharia enforcement by the al Qaeda-controlled Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad, which led to the establishment of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as a force opposed to Pakistan. Pakistan has not been able to live down the 26/11 Mumbai attack because its perpetrators are flourishing in Pakistan. Its inability to punish its cross-border terrorists has set the world against it.
General Raheel Sharif, son of an army officer and brother of an army officer who won the highest medal of bravery posthumously, broke from the by-now routinised denial and took on the Taliban. His action against it through Operation Zarb-e-Azb was welcomed by the besieged new prime minister and the people at large not getting used to the de facto governance-by-terrorism. He tried to disarm Afghanistan by visiting its new leadership and reached out to the US and China, who had wanted Pakistan to take on the Taliban and clean up the grand jihadi underground of Pakistan.
However, there is a limit to what even the army leader who wants to break the mould and open up to India can do. If the Indian media is to be believed, General Sharif informed India in March 2016 of “a possible (Pakistan-based) 26/11-style fidayeen assault on religious sites and processions in Gujarat during Maha Shivratri celebrations”. He had earlier taken Jaish leader Masood Azhar into custody after a terrorist attack on India’s airbase in Pathankot. Clearly, there is a limit to how flexible an army chief in Pakistan can be when it comes to India. Despite his stern avoidance of public pronouncements, he was worried by the American insistence that Pakistan punish its covert warriors.
In October 2016, a secret meeting held by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif discussed how terrorism in Pakistan had curtailed its advocacy of the Kashmiri Muslims at the international level, was leaked to the press in Pakistan. What was most damaging was the revelation that army officers stopped action when it had to be taken against the non-state actors guilty of 26/11 and other cross-border atrocities. General Sharif couldn’t set things right within without upsetting the army rank-and-file and the middle-ranking officers. He just had three years in which to set right what Pakistan had put into practice over decades. And he didn’t want to stay on to see the atrophy of yet another military leader’s rule.
Pakistan needs to change its frozen strategic culture, and army is the go-to institution for it. Shuja Nawaz must have the last word from his classic study, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and Wars Within (2008): “The Pakistan army, a well-organised entity, has tried to fit into an underdeveloped political system. While responding to the unequal challenge of next-door India, it has ended up cannibalising the state it is supposed to defend. Its acts of trespass and usurpation have sapped its professional function and habituated it to reinterpreting its defeats as victories. At birth, the ideology framed for the state by politicians facilitated its mutation into an Islamic army that sat back and let jihad undermine the state itself in the 1980s.”