Understanding Pakistan’s New Top Soldier

Posted on 12/5/13
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek


New chief of Pakistan's army General Raheel Sharif.
New chief of Pakistan’s army General Raheel Sharif.

As his closest professional confidante, the choice of Chief of the General Staff (CGS) is usually a strong indicator of the Army Chief’s preference for a successor.  Passing him over for CGS for (than) Lt General Rashad Mahmood. Kayani appointed Lt General Haroon Aslam as Chief of Logistics Services (CLS). Junior to Rashad, (than) Lt Gen Raheel Sharif was rumored to be slotted by Kayani for the more senior (than COAS) post of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC).   Not comfortable with Kayani’s recommendations and/or for reasons only in the realm of speculation, it suited the Sharifs to go with seniority instead. The PM appointed Rashad Mahmood the Chairman JCSC and Raheel Sharif of the COAS.


An introvert who doesn’t mix easily, the new Chairman JCSC is known to be Intelligent and meticulous, his career path clearly demonstrates he knows how to work the system.  However General Rashad Mahmood doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind.  Opinionated to the extent of rigidity and a hard task master, that this professional soldier tends to stay aloof doesn’t endear him to most.  Having strong likes and dislikes, he is known to look after those he cares for.


Being a younger brother of Pakistan’s war hero Major Shabbir Sharif Shaheed, Nishan-i-Haider (and a nephew of Major Aziz Bhatti Shaheed (recipient of Pakistan’s highest gallantry award Nishan-i-Haider), does not hurt General Raheel Sharif’s profile as the new COAS.   Brave and flamboyant, Shabbir Sharif was an extrovert (his Harley Davidson was symbolic) to the point of being rash, he was born for “Shahadat” (martyrdom) in the service of his country. A laid back and measured professional in contrast, Raheel is not given to wearing his courage or his feelings on his sleeve.  Having held the prestigious appointment of Commandant Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), as Corps Commander Gujranwala he was very popular among the rank and file. Because of his last appointment as IGT & E, the media went to town waxing eloquently about General Raheel Sharif being the “brains” behind the Army’s new doctrine.  This was patently wrong!  Our tendency to fervently worship the rising sun can unnecessarily create a negative backlash.


The fresh doctrine to counter India’s “Cold Start” which seeks to change the norm of “mobilizing and going to war” to “going to war/attacking and then mobilizing” is because of a complete series of initiatives taken by Kayani soon after he became COAS.  Those included analysis, discussions, debate, tactical exercises without troops, war games, field exercises, etc over a four year period starting 2009. The “Azm-e-Nau” series of exercises culminated in 2013. The sea-change in our military thinking and execution thereof was quite apparent in the recent Army live firing exercise at Tameywali. In simple terms, instead of covering open spaces by crossfire, we were “firing for effect,” i.e. shooting to kill.  A small well-trained dedicated force can counter and contain far larger forces effectively. With Kayani the driving force, a broad cross-section of various ranks, including Raheel Sharif, participated in the evolution of the new doctrine.


Barring the fact that my first term roommate in PMA, Raheel Sharif’s elder brother Mumtaz who retired as a Captain and does business in Germany, is rumored to be close to Shahbaz Sharif (younger brother of  Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and chief minister of Punjab), there is no evidence of Raheel Sharif benefitting from this relationship and vice versa.   Don’t hold your breath, this country has suffered at the hands of “talented” cousins and brothers, etc.


In contrast to the media gushing over the new COAS, the Chairman JCSC was given almost reluctant coverage.  This adequately highlights one of the great hypocrisies and anomalies of our command structure.  Once when I asked the rhetorical question, what does the Chairman JCSC do for a living, the than incumbent Tariq Majeed took it to his arrogant heart and flew off the handle, spoiling my relationship with a military intellectual one had a lot of time for, than ISPR Chief Maj Gen Zafar Abbas.  In modern warfare it is vital to have an “integrated higher command” structure, in Pakistan this great anomaly continues to survive in a very professional Armed Forces.   Can those with conscience accept this lack of cohesive coordination at the higher command level that (has previously) will spell disaster on future war performance?  Is the individual’s hankering for the COAS power appointment more important than the existence of the country?   Kayani was too intelligent not to recognize this, that he failed to do anything about it is a paradox one could never understand.


The conventional wisdom behind Raheel Sharif’s choice as COAS is that the government wanted to play safe by having a decidedly low-key professional with a good military pedigree.  Superseding a deserving combat soldier like Haroon Aslam and moving the Kayani favorite Rashad Mahmood upstairs into the ineffectual Chairman JCSC slot according to seniority did not invite criticism a la Oct 1998 when two outstanding soldiers, Lt Gens Ali Kuli Khan and Khalid Nawaz, were superseded.   Both Haroon Aslam and Tariq Khan (No 1 and 4 in seniority respectively before the new appointments) have meritorious combat service leading their troops from the front.  Both being blunt and outspoken was a safe bet that these two were most likely not to be promoted.  Merit is usually a disqualifier in Pakistan, but not promoting deserving combat soldiers will act as a disincentive for those who have heard shots fired in anger.


While recognizing what Kayani has done to uplit the Army’s morale, image and professionalism, the rank and file did not care much for his turning the other cheek while Zardari and his lot reveled in corruption during his regime.  A “coup de etat” is not needed to make the Army’s annoyance felt, quiet counsel can have effect, alternatively a strong statement does the trick.  Did Kayani keep quiet out of sheer habit and/or, enduring love for democracy and/or was he compromised to some extent?   It is a fair bet that the glow of the honeymoon period of this stoic soldier’s retirement will soon fade away. The Sharifs waited close to Kayani’s retirement before proceeding against Gens Aslam Beg and Pervez Musharraf.  If anyone has violated the Constitution while in service he must be tried within the service.  Putting senior uniformed personnel into civilian courts is asking for trouble, not opposing this creation of a precedent will come to haunt Gen Kayani.  The present prosecutions may be meant as a caution against adventurism, whether it will deter those who decide the existence of the country is more important than democracy is another matter.  Those violating the Constitution have always known they can be held accountable, that has never deterred them.


Murmurs abound whether Raheel Sharif is “decisive” or “assertive”.   His personality is maybe laid back as compared to the others, the COAS chair has a way of making you decisive and assertive.  Kayani used to be both but only when he knew his rank and file had reached their limits of frustration. Raheel’s first decision, the appointment of a professional like Lt Gen Ashfaq Nadeem as CGS, was excellent.  Don’t underestimate the new COAS, he may well surprise everyone, both in private and public his comments may be far more forceful than what the govt bargained for.

The writer is a Pakistan-based defense analyst.

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