Pakistan's Most Popular General and His Upcoming Retirement


Raheel Sharif is perhaps Pakistan's most popular person right now. However, whereas normally popular individuals belong to the category of showbiz or politicians, he happens to be the head of Pakistan's armed forces.

But why is an army officer so popular? The reasons are several. First , he is responsible for the military action against the Taliban. This is a huge achievement. Since 2001, almost 50,000 people have died due to terrorism and yet literally all the governments showed complete impotence to do anything.

Unfortunately over the years, Pakistani media instead of condemning terrorists mostly tried to weave conspiracy theories according to which either foreign powers were responsible for terrorism and Taliban militants were actually "innocent". Some elements also presented a narrative that all the terrorism in Pakistan was merely a reaction to drone attacks. This narrative by painting terrorists as "victims" seriously undermined government's political will to tackle with the problem.

Moreover, it should also be remembered that any action against the militants actually required cooperation from the state and its institutions. Civilian governments in Pakistan are not calling the shots and for engaging the coercive apparatus, such as armed forces, they need cooperation rather than obedience, because the latter is simply absent.

Before General Sharif, the army leadership had been reluctant to cooperate with the government. General Sharif's accomplishment is not only that he took military action against the militants but in the process also engineered a massive change in the narrative. The mainstream opinion is no longer construing the Taliban as victims, who had taken up arms just as a 'reaction'.

Second, he also initiated an army action in Karachi ( Pakistan's biggest city). Karachi had literally been held hostage by criminal elements for years. Worse literally all the political parties had developed militant wings as violence became extremely pervasive. Having militant wing became an essential survival strategy. General Raheel decided to finally crackdown on the militant elements and in the process forced the political parties to reorient their basic strategies. Now all the political parties have given up on the militant wings and are trying to play politics in "conventional" and "old fashioned" way. Present army leadership, in other words, has changed the rules of the game.

However, while such things should be appreciated, we are at the same time treading on a potentially dangerous path. As the army's involvement is increasing, the crucial civil-military balance is further getting skewed towards the latter. For those who are celebrating this, let me humbly remind them that the mess in Pakistan - particularly with respect to Islamic militancy - owes a lot to lack of civilian oversight.

In essence, the present military leadership is basically clearing the mess created by a faulty security policy, whose genesis had been due to lack of proper civilian oversight. The problem is that as the civilian side becomes weaker, there will virtually be no check against any future repetitions of the past mistakes. In part, army expansion of role is also being spurred, by the rising national expectations of General Sharif. On media of all forms, a personality cult around him is being manufactured and despite liking General Sharif, I am getting alarmed by it.

His term is ending in November 2016. Despite the fact, that he announced that he would not seek another term in January 2016, right now there is enormous pressure on him to seek another term and on the government to give him that.

Some people are going even beyond that and are begging him to impose Martial Law. In several cities, banners have appeared urging him to reconsider retirement and topple the present government through a coup.

This is a testimony to the Messiah obsessed, benevolent dictator loving and hyperbolic collective psyche of Pakistani nation. It seems nothing much has changed in Pakistan and we have learnt nothing from history. This is exactly how we elevate individuals from ordinary mortals to demi Gods, and in doing so, make them completely unaccountable to anyone. We actually convince them that they need to expand beyond what they are presently doing and transform our society. It is an over-simplistic and rather dangerous way of thinking that a glorified individual, due to his perceived 'sincerity' can transform our 'talented' nation and elevate to its 'rightful' place in the world.

Such adulation has its adverse consequences though right now in the heat of frenzy, we may not be realizing it. When powerful individuals are glorified to these levels, they start picturing themselves as men of destiny who have been chosen by fate to do great things and when this starts happening, dictatorial tendency starts taking place.

Pakistan in the past has suffered a lot due to direct military rule and its present negative reputation in the international arena owes a lot due to its faulty security policy. Yet, we are overlooking our past mistakes and urging that army once again takes over. Some are saying that this is actually orchestrated by army itself to give an impression that this is what public wants. However, there is no doubt that a certain sizable section of Pakistani urban middle class is desirous of the direct military rule.

To his credit, so far General Sharif has coped well, something which is extremely admirable, but for how long? The problems will soon start emerging if public adulation and reckless hero worshiping continues.

If he ventures upon taking those steps, it will not merely make him more powerful, but by extension, also the armed forces. The already lopsided civil-military relationship in Pakistan will worsen further. In the longer run, this will have catastrophic results, as this may lead to complete unaccountability of military, something which we would really regret, when some other chief, unlike General Sharif, is at the helm of the affairs.