Pakistan’s army chief makes his point .... quietly

Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif . (Karim Ullah / AFP)
Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif . (Karim Ullah / AFP)

Gen Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan army’s chief of staff, is a no-nonsense soldier who speaks his mind. He is also not fond of being in the limelight. And yes, I have to admit, I am fond of him.

His maiden visit to the US has been very successful. But it is being rather underplayed domestically, for obvious reasons: while his popularity and the army’s are on the rise, that of the political leadership is waning.

Gen Sharif stayed low-key in the US but was afforded the opportunity to meet a lot of the civilian and military leaders. During his discussions, he highlighted all that Pakistan’s security forces were doing, their recent successes and future course of action.

Unlike his predecessor, Gen Sharif has no intention of selecting his targets. His battles will be fought against all terror groups in Pakistan and those who pose a threat to Pakistan from outside its borders.

And that includes the Haqqani insurgent group. I have explained on these pages before why it would have been unwise to take on the Haqqanis earlier and why it had now become a compulsion for Pakistan. However, I find the US obsession with demonising the Haqqanis inexplicable.

More than anything else, his visit went down well with his American audience.

In an interview, Dan Feldman, the US special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, commented: “Gen Sharif is an extremely articulate spokesperson for Pakistan’s interests ... in Washington he received very broad support for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign ... Yes, we all recognise that significant progress has been made in the fight against terrorism since the North Waziristan operation [commenced] ... This was one of the very significant visits.”

While Gen Sharif emphasised the requirement of a coordinated strategy to deal with the threat of terrorism his message had many an interesting nuance. He explained that while the army could win all the battles against terrorism, the war had to be won by politicians.

But the fact that this statement was made at the end of his visit to the US implies that the message was not merely for the political leaders of Pakistan, it was also for the US, and for the Pakistani politicians to be aware that it had been brought to the attention of the Obama administration.

Gen Sharif might have had his dig at Pakistan’s politicians, but they initiated the digs. Back home two statements were issued. The first by Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the government on defence and foreign affairs.

Even as Gen Sharif began his tour of the US, Mr Aziz suggested that Pakistan should not target those militants who do not threaten Pakistan. He added: “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become ours?”

Subsequent clarifications followed for our Afghan and American friends. At this stage, such a statement was quite uncalled for. Perhaps, if it was just he, one might have thought it was a coincidence, even though I have considerable respect for his intellect.

But this was followed by a statement by Khwaja Asif, Pakistan’s defence minister. While addressing a packed house at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Mr Asif stated: “The Americans have been our friends for a long time … but their reliability is relative.” He added: “American foreign policy has been disastrous for this region [since] before my birth.”

Theoretically, I agree with Mr Aziz’s statement and with Mr Asif’s too. However, the timing of the two, in quick succession during the army chief’s highly successful visit, does give cause to wonder if there is more to it than meets the eye. What is more, both statements were not even relevant to where we are standing now.

Could these have been timed to sabotage Gen Sharif’s success?

If so, they didn’t succeed. In an article titled A toast to India and three cheers for Pakistan, the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar notes that, even as “BJP ministers sat smugly in Lutyens’s Delhi marvelling over another diplomatic coup by their government ... those who were celebrating the prime minister’s second ‘conquest’ of America in as many months did not know that the US president had telephoned Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif before the White House announced Obama’s decision to accept Modi’s invitation to be chief guest at next year’s Republic Day celebrations”.

In my view, the call by the US president to our prime minister is also a feather in Gen Sharif’s cap. I doubt if he would have received this call if Gen Sharif’s visit was not such a resounding success.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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