Pakistan: the change of guard

By K.N. Pandita

After completing six years in service that included three year extension, General Perez Kayani passed on the baton to his successor General Raheel Sharif in an imposing military ceremony in Rawalpindi, Islamabad. Apparently the event does not signify any marked change in the military-civilian relations and fundamentals of these relations may not be affected conspicuously.

Out-going General Kayani will be credited for not attempting to topple the elected civilian government during his tenure. Of course there did arise situations a couple of times when General Kayani had to intervene and show the civilian regime its proper place. However, those instances were of very limited repercussions and the then ruling PPP government did not take hard posture.  

In a sense, General Kayani has left behind the legacy of Pak Army eschewing the option of a coup if need arose. The question much discussed by political observers is whether the new Commander General Raheel Sharif will pursue the same course or go by the diktat of the hawks in the Army and bureaucracy.

Why did General Kayani’s era go coup-less? There were strong reasons. He was faced with unprecedented pressures from the US to contribute to US-led NATO operations in Afghanistan and the turbulent Waziristan. He was running the army at a time when the country was deep in economic crisis, and he was functioning when the entire world suspected Pakistan covertly supporting Taliban and jihadi factions in Afghanistan or in Waziristan. These were too forbidding to venturing a coup, which if happened, would have landed Pakistan in extremely disastrous situation.

The situation is not much different today. US pressure has further increased because the day of draw down in Afghanistan is approaching fast. Washington wants that withdrawal of US presence from Afghanistan should not give the impression of allowing vacuum to prevail in that country. That is why the US is keen to take not only Pakistan but India also on board for a broad peace accord.

Commenting on the change of guard, the New York Times has written that General Sharif is considered a commander of moderate ideas and that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had serious consultations with senior army generals in order to build a consensus on the election of the new Army Commander. He seems to be comfortable with him.

This remark is not devoid of subtle satire. Twice has the Pak Army shown door to Nawaz Sharif when he was in the driver’s seat. In the second instance of removing him from power, the notable point is that the Army Chief who had removed him had been selected by him for elevation to the higher post. Not only that, he was exiled and languished in Saudi Arabia for even long years. Has he taken all his past experience and ground realities of Pak Army into consideration to agree to the selection of General Sharif, who though having same name is not his relative.

But the Wall Street Journal has looked at the change of guard from a different angle. It says that by-passing two senior Generals of Pakistan Army and selecting General Sharif may not go without repercussions. True that Prime Minister gave very serious thought to the selection and even is reported to have taken senior Generals into confidence so as to build consensus of opinion yet considering growing influence of jihadis among the ranks the selection could create backlash.

Sideling two senior Generals is likely to create impression in higher ranks of the army that civilian government led by Nawaz Sharif is trying to trim the wings of the army and deny it the position of power it has been enjoying ever since the creation of Pakistan. There is no dearth of vested interest among the seniors and more especially the ISI has been feeling that the elected government is determined to curb its self-assumed independence. It is apprehensive of the civilian government pulling the reins of the ISI and subjecting it to the authority of civilian agency.

Wall Street Journal described the new army chief as “a moderate who views the internal threats posed by Islamic militants, especially the Pakistani Taliban, as the key challenge facing Pakistan — not the traditional enemy India.”

This could have been the decisive factor that helped General Sharif clinch the senior most position. We know that as Inspector General Training and Evaluation, Gen. Sharif revised the army training manual “to concentrate more on the internal threat and guerrilla warfare”.

Nawaz Sharif must have taken into account the consequences of this approach of General Sharif. It is red rag to the bull. To jihadis, Kashmir is the core issue that galvanizes its cadres into action. Reducing Kashmir to secondary importance will be termed as betrayal by the jihadi outfits. Therefore the challenge to the new Army Chief is obvious. Will he be able to cope with it?

Nevertheless, the loud thinking among political commentators is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in favour of initiating talks with the TTP. In fact the initiative had already been taken and according to informed sources envoys have made a round or two unofficially.  General Sharif would not be averse to the prospect of dialogue unlike his predecessor. In other words Prime Minister has been trying to strengthen his agenda of negotiating peace accord with the Taliban with full backing of the army.

Wall Street Journal reported that as Inspector General Training and Evaluation, Gen. Sharif revised the army training manual “to concentrate more on the internal threat and guerrilla warfare”. This means that he can perceive the serious threat that looks at Pakistan with eyeball to eyeball stance. This is the correct perception and conforms to the assessment of the Prime Minister as well. As such one can hope that the civilian government and the army will be on the same wavelength as regards their dealing with the jihadis is concerned.
But the popular US television channel NBC News remarks that General Sharif has taken over the command at a time when Pakistan and the army are faced with two major challenges. One is that the US is seeking full cooperation from Pakistan in the context of withdrawal of US-led NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and the second is deteriorating condition on the border with India and the increasing tension between the two sides over Kashmir.

The channel believes that General Sharif will accommodate the plea of the US that Pakistan allows safe passage to the withdrawing US-NATO troops along the route of supply to the NATO forces meaning Khyber-Peshawar entry and then exit by the seaport of Karachi. Pentagon knows that the Afghan fighters are unparalleled in attacking, decimating and looting the retreating forces. They are not unaware of the plight of the Soviet troops once they decided to withdraw from Panjsheer valley.

The Washington Post noted that Gen. Sharif could quickly be tested by the complicated domestic politics over how best to address Islamist militants, including the Taliban. For the time being, the change of guard is likely to allow space to Prime Minister to accelerate talks with TTP, which the new Army Chief will watch with extraordinary interest.

American interests also lie in Pakistan focusing on internal disturbances rather than remaining obsessed with India and Kashmir centric issues.

Under the imperative of changed strategy of her foreign policy,  the Nawaz-led Muslim League would like Pakistan Army remain confined to its constitutional limits, and not interfere in the political domain of the country. With that prospect in place, it would like to straighten relations with India, negotiate on Kashmir within reasonable parameters and open trade and commerce relations with India under bilateral agreements.

Washington’s main interest in the region is very obvious. It wants a fairly responsible attitude by Pakistan in ensuring peace and normalcy in post-withdrawal period, safe passage for the US-NATO troops through the supply route of NATO, stabilization of democracy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and normalization of relations between India and Pakistan with Kashmir issue taking the centre stage.

The key to all these possibilities is the behavior of the TTP. As the Wall Street Journal observed the success of Nawaz Sharif will have to be gauged from his ability to contain the TTP and in restoring normalcy in the war torn NWFP.

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