This month is a painful reminder of the most horrific and bloodiest episode in Pakistan’s history. December marks the third anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, when six armed members of the Pakistani Taliban ran rampage through classrooms and left 144 dead, including 132 children. Pakistan was left reeling in the wake of the incident and forced to contemplate once again the threat on its doorstep, despite ongoing operations to counteract terrorists.
Within weeks, however, the school was open again. Before lessons formally started, teachers and pupils returned to the building with great apprehension, still traumatised.
In their midst was one figure in his trademark camouflages and army-issue beret – General Raheel Sharif, the respected chief of Pakistan’s army. He stood with pupils as they sang the national anthem in the assembly hall and went round talking to children and their parents.
Three years on, Sharif is back in the frontline, only this time as the military commander of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), an alliance of 41 countries launched in Riyadh last month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Sharif might have swapped his army fatigues for a smart suit and made a seemingly extraordinary leap from trying to curb the efforts of homegrown militants to helming a powerhouse international coalition but those who know his reputation say he was a natural contender for the job because of his successes on the home front.
He is credited with stemming the tide of growing violence in Pakistan, which has been plagued by sectarian conflict and militancy for decades. The attack on the Peshawar school in December 2014 by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was thought to be revenge for Sharif’s comprehensive military Operation Zarb-e-Azb, aimed to weed out terrorists. Up to 30,000 troops had been deployed in a campaign to obliterate militant safe havens, particularly in the tribal hinterland between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The operation had been launched six months earlier in response to an attack on Karachi’s Jinnah international airport, which killed 36 people. Over the ensuing months, it was said to have flushed out hideouts belonging to the TTP, among other militants, who had operated for a long time in North Waziristan, Pakistan’s largest and most lawless tribal area along the Afghan border.
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Sharif is regarded by many as tough, no-nonsense and principled, going where his predecessor Ashfaq Kayani feared to tread (Kayani had baulked at launching a military operation in North Waziristan in 2010, fearing a backlash from the religious right). He is considered a soldier through and through, having graduated from Pakistan’s Military Academy in 1976. As a general, he mingled easily with lower-ranking soldiers on the field and was often seen on the frontlines in combat zones, even spending one Eid with soldiers deployed in Waziristan. In a country where memories were still fresh of the Taliban reaching Buner valley, just 100 kilometres from Islamabad, five years earlier, his fearlessness marked him out. According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, Operation Zarb-e-Azb had resulted in a 66 per cent reduction in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan. That prompted a spate of posters and memes of him appearing across Pakistan and even the BBC asked: “Why is the army general more popular than the prime minister in Pakistan?”
Sharif retired from the army in November 2016 and by April this year, he was heading to Riyadh to take up his new post. In March 2016, he had attended the Thunder of the North, a military training exercise in Saudi Arabia involving the participation of 20 Arab and Islamic countries, where he was said to have impressed organisers and come within their sights.
Pakistan, however, treads a tightrope in its geopolitical relationships and its homegrown battles with militancy and terrorism are far from over. It has been accused of failing to prevent militants from crossing its border with Afghanistan.
Washington blames Pakistan for not doing more about the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban-affiliated outfit, and says both have safe havens in Pakistan, from where they target Afghan and US forces in Afghanistan, charges that Pakistan rejects.
The Pentagon in a recent report to Congress stated that the US would take “unilateral steps in areas of divergence” with Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. The biannual report, called Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, said there must be “fundamental change” in the way Islamabad dealt with terrorist safe havens. It was followed by a visit to Pakistan this month by US defence secretary Jim Mattis, who stressed the country must “redouble” its efforts to combat militants and terrorists operating within the country. That has led to increasing mistrust marking its relationship with the US. Yet it is still dependent on financial aid from the US. Earlier this month, US president Donald Trump signed a defence bill releasing US$700 million to Pakistan for supporting US military operations in Afghanistan, although half that amount has been withheld until Pakistan can prove it has contained the Haqqani network.
There are fears, too, that joining the coalition might upset the delicate balance it strikes with the neighbour on its southwest border, Iran. Pakistan held back from entering the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in 2015, opting to take a neutral position instead. Sharif joining the IMCTC is the clearest demarcation of where Pakistan’s loyalties ultimately lie, however. Whether he can replicate his past successes remains to be seen but plenty will be waiting and watching his next move.