In a country like Pakistan, it is not every day that a Chief of Army Staff bids farewell, in a humble and dignified manner, upon the expiry of his term of office. Perhaps more importantly, hardly ever has there been a time when an outgoing Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan has walked into the sunset with unanimous adulation and respect of the people and institutions of the country. General Raheel Sharif has been able to achieve both of these unprecedented landmarks.
Since 14th August, 1947, Pakistan has had a total of fifteen army chiefs, including General Raheel Sharif. The first two, General Messervy and General Gracey, were inherited from our former colonial masters. On 16th January, 1951, the Government of Pakistan promoted General Ayub Khan as the first ‘indigenous’ army chief of the country. General Ayub Khan, subsequently, abrogated the then constitution, installed himself as the president as well as Field Marshal, and remained in power till the public upheaval in East and West Pakistan forced him out of power. During this time, General Musa Khan was given a ceremonious post of Army Chief, and later, General Yahya Khan took command of the armed forces. General Yahya also left office amidst tremendous controversy (regarding the separation of East Pakistan) and is remembered as an overtly controversial figure in our history.
During the Bhutto years, Lt. General Gul Hassan Khan remained Army Chief for a few months, followed by notorious General Tikka Khan, and eventually General Zia ul Haq, who is perhaps the most infamous individuals in Pakistan’s checkered history (about whom, less said the better). Importantly, none of them are remembered with much admiration by Pakistan and her people. After General Zia ul Haq’s fateful plane crash in August of 1988, a decade of imperfect democracy, marred with partisan bickering was ushered in. During this time, General Aslam Beg, General Asif Nawaz, General Waheed Kakkar, and General Jehangir Karamat, respectively served as Army Chief, and each had controversial brushes with the polity as well as the judiciary. Eventually, in October of 1998, General Pervez Musharraf was appointed Chief of Army Staff, and subsequently, abrogated the constitution (twice), before being ousted from power at the helm of a major public outpouring led by the lawyer’s movement. And this brought the army under the command of General Ashfaq Kiyani, whose tenure was plagued with controversies concerning land scams, dubious policies regarding ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, and unceremonious extension of tenure.
Finally, in November of 2013, General Raheel Sharif was promoted as the Chief of Army Staff and has since been revered as a professional soldier, a man of principle, whose respect for the institutions has always trumped any desire (if at all) for personal ambition.
And he leaves office as the most admired and celebrated Chief of Army Staff in all of Pakistan’s history.
Away from an impeccable service record and two Nishan-e-Haider in the family, what is it that makes General Raheel Sharif so special as to be hailed with an unparalleled legacy?
The answer, while multifaceted, can perhaps be boiled down to three important dimensions of his tenure and persona.
First, unlike his predecessors General Raheel Sharif, from the very first day in office has seemed convinced that there is no such distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. His rhetoric as well as his actions have demonstrated that all militancy, in whatever form, and under whatever banner, is a threat to the State and people of Pakistan. Perhaps, surprisingly, over the past three years, General Raheel Sharif has been the only individual in our entire governance structure who has had a consistent and deliberate narrative concerning militancy. And the narrative is simple: if you hold a gun and have an agenda, be it religious, sectarian, regional or political, you are an enemy of the State of Pakistan. And that all enemies of the State of Pakistan – whether they call themselves TTP, Jundullah, LeJ, or even militant wings of political organizations – fall within the ambit of Zarb-e-Azab as well as the National Action Plan.
Second, General Raheel Sharif despite circumstantial opportunities and overt invitations has resisted the lure of usurping political power. In this context, it is important to recall that the previous military rulers of Pakistan were not invited or urged, by segments of the polity and the people at large, to assume political power. Still, personal ambition (and ego) motivated them to abrogate the constitution and proclaim themselves generalissimo. In contrast, at numerous occasions over the past three years, and particularly, on an August night in 2014, several opposition parties and a significant fraction of their followers, bated General Raheel Sharif to interfere in the democratic polity, in order to bring about regime change in the country. During those critical hours, while backdoor negotiations continued, General Raheel Sharif took a principled stand not to interfere with the political process, compelling opposition forces to find political solutions to our governance problems. And even while this resisting of the forbidden fruit prompted some criticism at the time, General Raheel Sharif stuck to his principled stand of serving out his stipulated tenure as Chief of Army Staff, without dislodging our imperfect democratic process.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, General Raheel Sharif demonstrated, time and again, that he is a compassionate individual with a very human soul that aches when confronted with the pain of fellow citizens. And this, for all intents and purposes, is perhaps the most gallant part of his persona. Each time Pakistan lost a soldier on the frontlines, General Raheel Sharif took personal interest to honor his memory and console his loved ones. Each time a barbaric act of terror bled our nation’s soul, General Raheel Sharif took the pain to tend to the wounds. And on that heart-wrenching day, in December of 2014, when there seemed little reason to live on, General Raheel Sharif was amidst the first to go to Army Public School, Peshawar. Even more importantly, when the battered children of a lacerated nation returned to school, General Raheel Sharif personally received them at the gate, as a symbol that the Pakistan Army had itself come to defend and protect the teetering promise of our future generations.
As we bid General Raheel Shairf farewell, we must thank him for his professionalism, certitude, and compassion.
His successor will have enormous shoes to fill. Despite the successes of Zarb-e-Azab, Pakistan still faces grave challenges in terms of militancy and the recent uptick of aggression on our eastern border. Furthermore, for the first time, in a long time, the threat of infiltration and aggression on the western border requires the full attention and might of our army. And the political pressures, concerning issues such as Panama Leaks, will continue to nag the army leadership going into the next electoral cycle. And the next Chief of Army Staff will not only have to quietly battle each of these concerns, but will have to do so with one eye on the polarised world that has Trump in the White House and Modi in India.
It is time to wish the next Chief of Army Staff well, and pray that he emulates and builds upon the legacy of General Raheel Sharif in the years to come.