“A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
— Shannon L. Alder
Weeks after taking over the army command, General Raheel Sharif told a visitor that he would like to leave behind a powerful legacy. He has surely fulfilled his promise. A professional soldier to the core, he is making his institution proud by leaving his post with honour.
It can be argued that no other army chief in our history has earned such respect and popularity. It is indeed rare in this country, where military leaders have often turned usurpers and left in disgrace. Gen Sharif will be remembered for his decisiveness and for leading by example.
But at the same time, the general has disappointed many of his so-called admirers, including some TV talk show hosts and commentators who have persistently been calling for an extension of his tenure; some even want a return to military rule. Then there were also rumours of him being elevated to field marshal or his accepting the offer to take over the command of proposed allied forces of some Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia.
There has not been any controversy surrounding Gen Sharif — rare for an outgoing army chief.
But all the speculation has subsided and wishes of enthusiastic commentators have been left unfulfilled after the latest ISPR announcement of his farewell visits to various garrisons. It was certainly not the legacy of Bonapartism that he wanted to follow. There has not been any controversy surrounding him. This is rare for an outgoing army chief. His stature has been further boosted with his honourable exit.
Gen Sharif may not be a great strategist or thinker, but he took tough decisions that turned the tide against militancy, though there are valid questions against some of his actions. He is leaving behind large boots, difficult for his successor to fill. Irrespective of who is chosen, the challenges for the new chief will be daunting. It is a battle only half won.
For sure, Gen Sharif must be credited for the successful conclusion of the military operation in North Waziristan, often described as the epicentre of international terrorism and a witches’ brew of all kinds of militant groups — from Al Qaeda to the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The operation was long delayed because of the indecision of both the previous military leadership and the civilian administration. The cost of dithering has been huge.
The military went into action soon after Gen Sharif took command. He proved wrong the sceptics who warned against going into the treacherous terrain and advocated for a conciliatory approach towards the insurgents there. Yet it is also a fact that the North Waziristan campaign could not have succeeded unless troops under the previous army leadership had cleared South Waziristan and other tribal agencies of Taliban insurgents.
Gen Ashfaq Kayani may be criticised for his inaction during his second term, but one must acknowledge the fact that it was his counter-insurgency strategy that helped re-establish the writ of the state in most of the tribal areas and the territories in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that were lost to the Taliban.
In fact, Gen Sharif picked up where Gen Kayani left off and carried out the counter-insurgency strategy more effectively. The army that Gen Sharif commanded was much more experienced and battle-hardened. Most of the senior commanders had participated in combat, making his task much easier. Surely, that continuity was critical for the success of Operation Zarb-i-Azb.
Gen Sharif, however, must be given credit for extending counterterrorism operations to the mainland. That has helped greatly in bringing down the level of violence in the country. But there is still the huge problem of lack of a holistic and overarching approach in dealing with the challenge of violent extremism that threatens to reverse the gains achieved in the counter-insurgency campaign.
In particular, Balochistan remains the most serious challenge for the army leadership as the strategically located province faces multiple problems ranging from a low-intensity separatist insurgency to escalating sectarian violence. The flawed policies of the past have come back to haunt the security agencies.
The situation has become much more sensitive because of the growing instability in Afghanistan, with the province reportedly being used as the main base by Afghan insurgents. Then there is also a growing nexus between global jihadi groups and the sectarian militant groups compounding problems faced by the state. This is one area where Gen Sharif has not made much headway.
For sure the civilian authorities too must accept the responsibility of failure. It is mainly the perpetual civil-military conflict that has led to a policy paralysis. Although Gen Sharif did not harbour any political ambitions, the trust deficit between the two could never be bridged.
In fact, the tension has further intensified in the past few months casting a long shadow over Gen Sharif’s final days in office. Some reports have suggested that the military leadership has refused to attend any meeting at the Prime Minister House pending the investigation of the ‘leak’ to the media of the proceedings of top-level parleys on national security. The sources of civil-military tension are not likely to go away with the change of the army guard at the end of the month. It is more about the institution than an individual.
With the retirement of the chief also comes the season of change of the army’s entire top brass. It is surely the prerogative of the prime minister to appoint the new chief. But given their experience and high professionalism, it will not make much of a difference whichever among the four contenders is picked for the coveted position.
The new chief will then have to build his own team with many senior commanders also due to retire soon. The transition in the army leadership comes at a time when the country is facing multiple internal and external challenges. Indeed one expects the new man to follow the legacy of his predecessor, but it is also imperative to draw lessons from some of the failures.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2016