A rough ride awaits the new army chief
Why did the prime minister wait till the last minute to appoint the new army chief and create such uncertainty in the army and the country? There was a method in the seeming madness, which was precisely to create the uncertainty. He waited to announce General Musharraf’s treason trial when the army would be caught between two chiefs but the outgoing chief justice would still have enough time left to get the process going. Good tactics but all the plans of mice and men. His unnecessarily self-created nervousness comes from his not getting over the ghost of October 12, 1999, when a perfectly laid plan came to naught because a storm in Colombo delayed Musharraf’s flight. If he gets over his nervousness born of his own needless uncertainty he will complete his term. If not… Man proposes and God disposes.
This unnecessary nervousness has made him turn his government into a family limited company. When he runs out of family members he turns to clansmen of his own Kashmiri-stock – the new army chief is supposed to be of Kashmiri descent too, not that it matters! Any important portfolios left over he clings to himself, like foreign affairs, defence and law. When the law and defence ministers are required to appear in court he gives additional portfolios to his existing Kashmiri-stock ministers. It presents a pathetically sorry spectacle.
Anyway, we are finally under a new army command and perhaps a new mindset. Huge change is upon us in the face of huge present and future challenges. Six months ago we got an old-new prime minister. Now we finally have a new chairman chiefs of joint staff committee, a new chief of the army staff and a new chief justice in a few days.
The added pressure on General Raheel Shareef as army chief is that he also becomes the new putative heir apparent to Pakistan’s throne and the most powerful force behind it. General Rashad Mehmood’s post as Chairman JCSC is not entirely ceremonial because he has the nuclear programme under him, which is why the job now always goes to the army. But he doesn’t command troops. The army chief does, which makes him the de facto heir apparent in case of political failure.
While the army chief is chosen on the basis of perceived merit, as it should be, the chief justice comes automatically on the basis of seniority, as it shouldn’t be. The outgoing chief justice has proved how important merit is. Hopefully, the new chief justice will be able to end judicial hyper activism and bring equilibrium back to the Supreme Court, doing away with the misuse of suo motu and contempt laws and improve the functioning of the lower judiciary where the most injustice takes place.
Whoever gets to three-star level is deemed to be good. Whether Raheel Shareef grows into his four-star job remains to be seen. Chances are high that he will, coming from good army stock with two Nishan-e-Haiders, our highest awards for gallantry, in his family, his martyred brother and maternal uncle. However, there’s a vast gulf between three- and four-star, between commanding a corps and the entire army. The top job is something else and requires a very good knowledge not only of military strategy but also an understanding of domestic politics, geo-strategy, international affairs, the economy and virtually everything that affects the country. Raheel Shareef is entering a bed of thorns: rampant terrorism, drone strikes, relations with America and Afghanistan during and post-2014, perennial Indian shenanigans, the thaw in US-Iran relations, the mood in the army given the deteriorating economy, General Musharraf’s trial and so much more. Not exactly a bed of roses. America gave the new chief a reality check with a drone strike the day he took over. Welcome to hell, general; may God go with you!
A seat of power – and the army chief’s is the most powerful in reality even if it is not in law – brings changes in a man. Before becoming chief a general is under the command of at least one. Now he is solely in command, still technically under the prime minister and ceremonially under the president, but that has never mattered when things go too far. A new person emerges the day after taking office, just as a different person emerges the day after marriage.
The changes General Raheel makes in the army high command will be one indicator of the man’s mind. Another will be his attitude towards launching the inevitable military operation against terrorists of all kinds all over the country. It is incumbent upon him to provide stability and security for an orderly withdrawal of NATO troops involving over 75,000 vehicles carrying over $65 billion worth of arms and equipment that cannot fall into any hands because of their sophistication.
How well will he be able to get on with the government to reduce historic civil-military tensions? The onus for this will lie entirely on the civilian government and depends on how well it does. If it delivers to the people and prevents further economic deterioration and political degradation, if people don’t become even more desperate, tensions should reduce. If they fail a stage could come when the army has no option but to play its role. Remember, soldiers are under oath to save the country above anything else: loyalty to the constitution comes later. Some say they are already feeling the winds of change, that Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan will launch another long march in a couple of months, perhaps the MQM with them. No point unless it is change for the better.
Will the terrorists take terrorism to the Punjab again, as promised, where it hurts our rulers most, or will they give the general some breathing space? Stupid question, for they certainly will not. Are not private armies “forbidden” and “illegal” under Article 256 of the constitution? Is not calling members of private armies who use terrorism as a tool and kill scores of innocent people “stakeholders” and wishing to negotiate with them a violation and subversion of the constitution that should attract Article 6 regarding high treason? These questions will arise during the new army chief’s tenure.
Winds of change are blowing in our region as well where alignments are changing with the beginnings of a thaw in US-Iran relations and NATO’s drawdown next year. If US-Iran relations improve further NATO could have an alternate exit route through Iran, reducing the pressure on Pakistan but leaving the terrorists to concentrate on taking it over, carving it up into religious fiefdoms and imposing their own versions of Islam on them. Methinks America would look at both options. In the unlikely event that Afghanistan doesn’t allow US military bases and personnel on its soil post 2014, America could wish to shift those bases to Pakistan. That will be a new issue. Will America and Iran strengthen the Northern Alliance to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan again? What will Pakistan’s attitude be then?
The prevention of US missile strikes on Syria was not only a huge victory for Putin, Iran, Assad and Hezbollah but also for Obama for getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile without firing a shot. Fast on its heels comes the thaw in US-Iran relations, another major victory for Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia. Both events are huge setbacks for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Will Israel now try a desperate military adventure against Iran to force America’s hand? Will the Middle East unrest reach Saudi Arabia? What positions will China and Russia take in all this? How will India try and manoeuvre? Next year and the following promise to be turmoil-laden preceding the feared global financial meltdown. These are things our new army chief will have to develop multiple contingency plans for.
The coming months will be very interesting, not least because they will be fraught with tension. Hopefully, the applecart of the beneficiaries of our iniquitous status will not be upset before the people of Pakistan of all classes have learned lessons, the most important of which is that the horrible condition they are in today has been brought upon their heads by their own hands. Only when that realisation dawns on them will the country start improving. If their lesson gets aborted, we will be back to square one after which there may be no coming back.
Humayun Gauhar is a political analyst. He can be reached at: [email protected]m.