Feisal Naqvi

Leave him be

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2016 at 3:15 am

Pakistan’s recent baby steps out of the wilderness of mullah-dominated lunacy have rightly received much acclamation. But one aspect of this development has been the concern of some liberals (and even centrists) that the departure of General Raheel Sharif will result in the loss of the gains so painfully made. Hence the posters in Karachi (and elsewhere) beseeching General Raheel to stay. Or as the posters say, “jaanay ki baatein jaanay do.”

I respect the concern. I do not respect the proposed solution. For the good of the country and for the good of the institution he so clearly loves, General Raheel Sharif should retire gracefully, just like he has already indicated. It will be the best thing he ever does.

The handwringing over General Raheel Sharif’s departure is perplexing given the example of his immediate predecessor. General Kayani spent his first term being hailed as a saviour. Hardly a week went by without an adoring profile of the general and how Pakistan was lucky to have the taciturn chain-smoking strategist as its military leader. Then came the second term. Suddenly the profiles were less adoring and the grumblings louder. Why wasn’t he taking on the Taliban, muttered the liberals. Why wasn’t he reining in Zardari, muttered the others. And behind the questions swirled rumours of corruption.

The unspoken assumption behind the calls for General Sharif to stay is that institutions don’t matter; all that counts is the man on top. In other words, had it not been for Raheel Sharif, Pakistan today would still be playing footsie with the fundos, still turning a blind eye to the terrorists, and still calling for negotiations with our misguided ‘brothers’ in the tribal areas.

With all due respect to General Sharif, that theory is bunk. Yes, he made a huge difference. But behind his decision to reorient the army were some fundamental truths, the most important being the fact that once the army was ordered into the field (first in 2009 in Swat, and then later in various agencies), rank and file soldiers were increasingly unhappy about their comrades being slaughtered by the TTP. At the end of the day, the primary constituency of the COAS is made up of half a million ordinary soldiers. The difference between General Sharif and General Kayani is that General Sharif listened to them.

I understand that one obvious argument as to why General Sharif listened is that he is the kind of sensible person one wants to continue as COAS. But an equally obvious answer is that: (a) General Kayani’s views about the Taliban and the TTP were perhaps guided by his experience as DG ISI, an experience which tends to leave an individual somewhat callously disposed (see eg, General Asad Durrani’s response to Al Jazeera that the 50,000 odd Pakistanis killed by terrorists were “collateral damage”); (b) General Sharif’s viewpoint is perhaps guided more by his experiences in the field and by an empathy with the troops. In other words, General Sharif is not a lone ranger or an outlier in the army: instead, he represents a generation of soldiers who have personally experienced combat against the TTP and its aftermath.

The bigger picture point is that the December 16, 2014 assault on the Army Public School in Peshawar wiped out the remaining pockets of sympathy in the Army towards the TTP just as much as it stymied the political forces asking for negotiations with the TTP. Whether or not the Army was gung ho for a fight with the TTP before APS is a matter of speculation. But after APS, no army chief could have resisted going after the TTP.

The further point is that we need to get over our Zia obsession. General Zia’s decision to overthrow ZAB and his decision to then clothe himself in Islamic garb were unrelated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown because the establishment hated him and because he had destroyed his own electoral legitimacy by behaving like a tinpot dictator. On the other hand, General Zia went full-on fundo because, having decided to mount the tiger, he had no way of dismounting without getting eaten.

In simpler terms, General Zia needed a basis to govern. He could not rely on the judiciary because that had only given him 90 days. He could not rely on popular opposition towards ZAB because: (a) that opposition was interested in coming to power itself; and (b) ZAB was himself still incredibly popular. General Zia’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment, when he declared himself on a divine mission to bring Islam to Pakistan, was thus driven by necessity as much as by conviction.

Today’s army is not General Zia’s army. Today’s era is not General Zia’s era. Four decades have passed since General Zia was appointed as the COAS and three decades have passed since he died. In institutional terms, this is a completely different country. Our judiciary is fiercely independent today in a way that it never was in the 1970s. We have an equally fiercely independent media. The establishment, as it then was, is no more. Yes, the DMG wallahs retain the ability to wreak havoc with a government’s plans. But the days when pipe-smoking babus would plot the dismissal of the prime minister over chota pegs at the club are now long gone. Yes, the army is still the strongest political force in the country. But it is now only first among equals.

But suppose I am wrong. Suppose the army really is completely docile, as unguided as a weathervane. Suppose that the next COAS can make the army do whatever he wants, even to the extent of mounting a coup and governing through an assortment of bearded gentlemen. What then?

My response is that even if the army has not institutionally changed, we have no option but to act as if it has changed. The army is what it is (at least in part) because of the way we, the citizens of Pakistan, respond to it. If we treat the COAS as a minor deity, he will probably respond like one. If we treat the leader of the army as a sensible person who heads the largest political force in Pakistan, he will be more likely to respond sensibly.

My point is simple: today, the story is not Raheel Sharif as much as it is about the jawans fighting at the front and giving up their lives for our sake. If General Sharif decides to change his mind and accept an extension, the narrative will no longer be about the fight against extremism. Instead, the narrative will be about General Sharif himself and how he chose personal power over the institution he heads.

An extension for General Sharif would therefore be the most effective way to sabotage and destroy all that he has achieved since his appointment. This country deserves better. The army deserves better. And General Raheel Sharif himself deserves better. He has made the right decision. Leave him be.

To the extent that the pro-extension brigade needs any further convincing, they need look no further than the ignominious exit by General Musharraf to Dubai on ‘medical grounds’. Like General Sharif, General Musharraf had no shortage of people telling him he was indispensable to Pakistan’s future. The difference is that he listened, first in 2007 when he chose not to walk off into the sunset, and second in 2013, when he chose to fly back to Pakistan.

I bear no malice towards General Musharraf. For what it’s worth, I’m glad that he has left. I’m glad that this daily posturing over how to crucify him has ended. The man’s tenure is ended and he is a spent political force. Gnawing at his withers is not going to save democracy. Only what our democrats do is going to save democracy.

This column was printed in The News on 20 March 2016

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