The campaign to seek an extension to the tenure of Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is well under way. Imran Khan’s party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) said that it would support an extension being granted to Raheel Sharif. Influential writers have churned out article after article aggrandizing the army chief in an effort to build public sentiment in favor of an extension. Even Pakistan’s former dictator Pervez Musharraf took to the media and advocated an extension (Gen. Sharif is known to be close to Musharraf and had previously served as Military Secretary to Musharraf).
The position of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is appointed by the President of Pakistan based on the recommendation of the Prime Minister for a period of three years. However, we are hard-pressed to find in recent history a Pakistani COAS who transitioned power to his successor upon the completion of his three-year tenure. Indeed the last Pakistani COAS to retire after the completion of his three years in office was Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar in 1996. Kakar himself was offered a three-year extension by Benazir Bhutto, but declined the offer.
Kakar’s successor, Gen. Jehangir Karamat, was forced to resign by Sharif after differences between the two came to a head over the role of the armed forces in Pakistan. In 1998, Sharif hand-picked Gen. Pervez Musharraf to replace Karamat (and in the process, broke the Pakistan Army’s chain of seniority).
Then Kargil happened and Sharif injudiciously tried to oust Musharraf while the latter was still airborne on his way back from Colombo. A coup d'état ensued and Musharraf appointed himself “Chief Executive” of Pakistan, while Sharif was lucky to escape with a one-way ticket to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
After serving as Pakistan’s COAS for nine years, Musharraf relinquished power to the former Director-General of the ISI, Ashfaq Kayani in 2007. Kayani, whose leadership some saw as pivotal to the “War on Terror” and Pakistan’s offensive against insurgents in the country’s northwest, was granted an extension in 2010 and eventually retired in 2013, making way for the current army chief, Raheel Sharif.
Civil-military relations are precarious even in the best of times in Pakistan. Prime Minister Sharif and General Sharif came to assume their respective positions in 2013 with vastly differing perspectives on key issues. Nawaz Sharif’s electoral promises included peace negotiations with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and better trade relations with India.
But the civilian government’s negotiations with the TTP went nowhere, to the frustration of the army which bore much of the brunt of the TTP’s attacks. Trade negotiations with India without prioritizing Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek were unacceptable. To make matters worse, the Sharif government dragged Musharraf through the courts on charges of treason, which caused great disapprobation in the army.
The rising friction between the Sharif government and the army culminated in the Imran Khan-Tahir ul-Qadri-led dharnas in 2014, which some suggest were orchestrated by then-ISI chief Zaheerul Islam to destabilize the elected government. Though Nawaz Sharif survived the four-month-long assault, he emerged from the crisis a diminished figure, having, in effect, bequeathed key policy decisions on counter-terrorism and India to the army.
The horrific incident at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 galvanized public opinion on the need for military action against terrorist groups (though, as is often pointed out, not all terrorist groups). A National Action Plan, drafted in the aftermath of the Peshawar incident, authorized, inter alia, military courts to prosecute and deliver sentences to individuals suspected of engaging in terrorism. The writ of the elected government and independence of the judiciary were effectively eroded.
Since May 2015, Pakistan’s paramilitary force, the Rangers (which reports to the Ministry of the Interior, but which is placed under the operational control of the army under certain circumstances) targeted the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in Karachi, accusing its officers of terrorism and of acting under India’s influence. What began as an operation to restore law and order in Karachi has morphed into an army-driven “anti-corruption” drive, which in the context of Pakistan, has to be quite an undertaking indeed!
The anti-corruption drive has targeted the MQM in Karachi and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in rural Sindh. In one instance, a confidant of former President and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari was arrested and presented before the military court on charges of corruption, leading to Zardari’s outburst against the army. The operation against terrorism is gradually being transformed into an operation against Pakistan’s political parties. Zardari and his key party workers have already hied themselves to the safe environs of Dubai. With Imran Khan demanding an expansion of the anti-terrorism drive to Nawaz Sharif’s stronghold of Punjab, how safe can Sharif’s party really be?
Whether Raheel Sharif seeks to stay on as army chief is perhaps contingent on whether and to what extent public mood favors an extension of his tenure and on how successful the anti-terror operation spearheaded by him is deemed. The glitzy media campaign lionizing Raheel Sharif seeks to accomplish the former. A measure of the latter will be whether there is a significant decrease in the number and scale of terrorist incidents in Pakistan. A continuing spate of terrorist attacks -- such as the recent attack on a Pakistan Air Force base outside Peshawar -- may keep him from relinquishing his position.
The impetus being given to the anti-corruption drive however seems to suggest that the Pakistan Army’s senior leaders (one of whom will likely be the next COAS) are intent on circumscribing the political space of elected representatives, maximizing their own relative power and interests and throttling whatever is left of Pakistan’s democratic institutions. This spells bad news for Nawaz Sharif (and indeed, for his political adversaries), whether or not Raheel Sharif stays on after November 2016.
Rohan Joshi is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, focusing on Indian foreign policy and strategic affairs. He is a regular contributor to Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review and The Diplomat.
He tweets as @filter_c