GEN Raheel Sharif will retire next week, the first army chief to do so on time and after a single, three-year term since Gen Waheed Kakar in 1996. Moreover, in the last 18 years, the Pakistan Army has been commanded by only three men — a dismal rate of turnover that had harmed the reputation of the institution and undermined much else. Now, a fourth general will assume command next week and hopefully he will build on the commendable example set by Gen Sharif and will abide by the institutional norm of a single three-year term for an army chief. Certainly, Gen Sharif will be a hard act to follow.
After the stasis of Gen Ashfaq Kayani’s second term, the army needed a jolt in the right direction on the anti-terror front. Gen Sharif was that jolt — an indefatigable traveller to the front lines and redirecting his institution for a relentless fight against the banned TTP and sundry anti-Pakistan and sectarian militant groups. Zarb-i-Azb and the Karachi operation are the two counter-insurgency and counterterrorism legacies respectively that Gen Sharif will be remembered for. While the PML-N belatedly embraced Operation Zarb-i-Azb, it remains the case that the North Waziristan action was originally the plan and vision of Gen Sharif. Once Prime Minister Sharif authorised the operation, it was Gen Sharif who worked tirelessly to sustain the morale of the troops on the front lines and, later, to try and accelerate the return of IDPs to various parts of Fata. The Karachi operation has been an altogether more controversial affair, especially since its scope widened beyond narrow counterterrorism goals. But the role played by Gen Sharif in stabilising the country’s largest city and pulling it back from the edge of the precipice is undeniable.
While some policy aspects and parts of the strategy and tactics used can be debated, it remains the case that the current army chief has played an important part in returning the country to a significantly more stable and secure place. In time, the full legacy and impact of Gen Sharif will be evaluated in the proper context. For now, however, it is necessary to acknowledge the precedent-setting decision to retire after three years in an era where old institutional norms appeared to have been abandoned. In January, Gen Sharif had announced he would retire at the end of his term this month. The subsequent 10 months have been some of the longest in recent memory. Urged by friends, allies, politicians and activists to reconsider his decision, the army chief did appear to waver. The Panama Papers, the PTI’s abortive Islamabad lockdown, plummeting ties with India — opportunity after opportunity came for public pressure to be put on the government to consider requesting Gen Sharif to continue his command. But good sense has prevailed in the end and a good officer can be given a fond and formal farewell this week.
Published in Dawn November 22nd, 2016