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The new army chief’s challenges


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, December 06, 2013


The new army chief will have to deal with five major problems

The new army chief Gen Raheel Sharif has been called ‘professional’, ‘laid back’, ‘quiet’, ‘politically safe’ and ‘low profile’. Most observers, politicians and ex-servicemen tend to believe, or argue that his professional credentials discount any military adventurism. In the first place, it is a combination of professional and political considerations that elevates a soldier to the three-star status. Secondly, most of generals hardly open their mouth in public – unless their position so demands.

The first challenge staring Gen Sharif in the face is whether and how to divorce the so-called Kayani doctrine.  Former army chief Gen (r) Ashfaq Kayani personified experience in various key capacities, the last three being director general of military operations, director general of ISI, chief of army staff.

Nobody can lecture me on the pitfalls of the army’s involvement in political governance and that is why I had explained to President Asif Ali Zardari and his coalition partners immediately after the February 2008 elections that for any anti-terror war and improvement in the security situation, the civilians will have to take the ownership of the process and the army will follow.

“Let us not involve the army in the political governance again because once it moves in it has its own SOPs (standard operation procedures),” he had said in January 2009.  And he stuck to it until his departure – including the tantrums that Premier Gilani had thrown at him at the height of the infamous Memogate (‘We cannot allow a state within a state,’ Gilani had said). One would hope that Gen Sharif keeps the army as far away from politics as possible.

Kayani also instituted new compensation and incentives schemes for soldiers who died or were hurt in the line of the duty. On several occasions, Kayani defended these measures (including the yearly Martyrs Day at the GHQ) as essential to lift the sagging morale of his troops in the northwestern territories.

On the whole, the new army chief would find it extremely difficult to upstage his predecessor on these issues.

The second challenge for Gen Sharif would be to balance the General Headquarters’ India-centric matrix with Prime Minister Sharif’s desire for improving relations with New Delhi, which he deems unavoidable for regional economic cooperation on which Pakistan’s economic revival hinges. General Kayani had on several occasions expressed his preoccupation with India’s cold start doctrine saying that “while interests remain static, intentions (of India) can change overnight and as army chief I cannot remain oblivious to it.”

This, in fact, is intrinsically linked to the collective view of the security establishment on India – a view shaped largely by the ISI and the MI. That represents the third, and probably the biggest, challenge for the chief of army staff. Will Gen Sharif be able to influence these two institutions in critically reviewing their outlook so as to align it with the civilian government’s craving for better relations not only with India but also with major stakeholders in Afghanistan?

As of now, there are hardly any indications of change. The Jamaatud Dawa rally addressed by Hafiz Saeed in Lahore on November 30 and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council protest gatherings once again whipped up the frenzy that is considered as part of the ISI’s arsenal. Saeed, not surprisingly, blamed Pakistan’s problems on India, US and Israel. His zealots chanted slogans against the US, India and Pakistan’s government, which detractors say resonate with the security establishment too. This hardly augurs well for Premier Sharif’s foreign policy towards the east and the west.

The fourth challenge relates to the army’s mistrust of the United States. Can Gen Sharif turn this around a bit, if not remove it altogether? Both armies remain close tactical allies, yet the trust that such partners need remains elusive under the burden of historical baggage – mutual acrimony and suspicions.

Last but not the least, “the enemy within” probably represents the most formidable challenge to the commander of a military that is viewed as increasingly Islamist, and partially sympathetic and/or empathetic to the jihadist worldview. The creeping influence of Al Qaeda, and of Hizbut Tahrir , and officer-level links with these organizations are a mounting threat to the institution itself. Both the entities consider the armed forces’ present composition as the biggest obstacle to what they call an Islamic caliphate.

The curious case of Brig Ali Khan and several colleagues – all of whom were arrested in May 2011 and later tried for links with HT – stands outs as an alarming reminder of this thinking that seems to reside in cross sections of the armed forces.

Essentially, extricating the key foreign policy issues from the clutches of the security establishment and ceding the military’s predominance in the decision-making thereof, will remain a monumental challenge not only for Gen Sharif but also for the prime minister.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk