GEN. RAHEEL SHARIF IS CHANGING PAKISTAN FOREVER.
BY KHALED AHMED
From under-trial Pervez Musharraf’s hospitalization at the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology on Jan. 2 to the attempt on news anchor Hamid Mir’s life on April 19 to the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in mid-June to the attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on Dec. 16, the year past has been a period of extraordinary adjustments within Pakistan’s much disturbed civil-military equation.
The year began badly enough with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif putting off his handpicked new Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, by pursuing the high-treason trial against former Army chief and president Musharraf. The prime minister also showed “excessive enthusiasm” for closer relations with India, attending the investiture of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister even as the Indian Army was killing civilians with mortar fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
In June, barely a week after the Karachi Airport attack, General Sharif did something no one could expect: he changed the security paradigm under which the Army had so far compelled Pakistan to live. Instead of supporting the government’s “peace” talks with the Pakistani Taliban, he decided to attack the safe havens of the Pakistani Taliban and their local and foreign affiliates. Operation Zarb-e-Azb took the war to North Waziristan, where elements “friendly” to Pakistan trained with those not so friendly to it.
Since the country’s foreign and domestic security policies are run by the Army, the Foreign Office, firmly tethered to GHQ, had a hard time detaching its thinking from General Sharif’s predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. North Waziristan marked a clear departure: it deviated from the received wisdom that any assault on the Taliban in the north would trigger a backlash in the south, where cities were already vulnerable to suicide-bombings and targeted assassinations. It also shook the kaleidoscope of regional and global politics out of pattern: the operation pleased Afghanistan and India, who feared cross-border proxy attacks, and the Western alliance led by the United States, always asking Pakistan to “do more,” in other words, eliminate the Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan counterparts attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Ad Hoc Adjustments
There is little doubt that the June change was not properly digested by the Pakistani insiders set in their thinking that the Army was soft on the Taliban, and tough on the U.S. for “encouraging India to do mischief inside Pakistan.” General Kayani had been hounding American diplomats on roads and hunting Blackwater and CIA agents snooping on organizations the world had declared terrorists. One big miscalculation based on this belated grasp of paradigm shift was the “regime change through agitation” activated by two parties counting on the Army chief to be the arbiter who would ask Prime Minister Sharif to pack up. The antigovernment protests by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek kicked off in August and besieged Islamabad, but failed to get General Sharif to bite.
Can one say that the civil-military equation saved Nawaz Sharif from being toppled? Given that the Khan-Qadri duo and their campaign planners failed to incline General Sharif to act against a prime minister he didn’t quite get along with, one has to assume that the defense paradigm shift was too radical and too restricted to a group of officers close to the new Army chief to be properly understood. In hindsight, one can understand why General Sharif plumped for Prime Minister Sharif staying in power and avoided supporting Khan, whose stance was “blamelessly” pro-Taliban and anti-America as it was absorbed from the Army in the first place. General Sharif wanted to reverse the policy and, for once, “do more.”
Prime Minister Sharif wholeheartedly backed the policy reset on the western border. But a part of the Foreign Office led by Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s advisor, had to do a double take in November to overcome their laggard grasp of what was happening. Even after the resumption of U.S. drone strikes on Haqqani network targets in mid-October, most commentators in Washington simply refused to believe Zarb-e-Azb would get anywhere while the displacement of nearly 2 million civilians from North Waziristan made it too brittle to last.
By November, the world had woken up to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, conducted by nearly 30,000 troops who had killed almost 1,200 terrorists. U.S. drones struck in lockstep, even as Islamabad condemned them as a violation of its “sovereignty.” Other factors also came into the reckoning, such as “The Xinjiangistan Connection,” noted in July by Foreign Policy, which said “the security needs of China probably proved more important than the U.S. Congress in Islamabad’s calculations.” This being a reference to the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) terrorists from China’s western province training in North Waziristan.
There was a quick revision of stance in Washington. General Sharif’s tough statements about how he would spare no one doing terrorism inside Pakistan—whether “friendly” or “unfriendly”—were allowed to sink in despite resistance developed to Pakistan’s “doublespeak” under General Kayani. The change in Washington was probably just as sudden as in the Foreign Office in Islamabad.
In October, the Pentagon’s report to the U.S. Congress, “Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” had indicted Pakistan as an agent of proxy wars: “Afghan- and Indian-focused militants continue to operate from Pakistani territory to the detriment of Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan uses these proxy forces to hedge against the loss of influence in Afghanistan and to counter India’s superior military. These relationships run counter to Pakistan’s public commitment to support Afghan-led reconciliation. Such groups continue to act as the primary irritant in Afghan-Pakistan bilateral relations.”
Before General Sharif took off for Washington in November on an unexpectedly successful and long visit, he received the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, at GHQ on Nov. 14. Ghani, who in 1986 had done fieldwork on Pakistani madrassahs on a Fulbright grant, was unusually effusive after his interactions in Rawalpindi and Islamabad: “We will not permit the past to destroy the future,” he said. “We have overcome obstacles of 13 years in three days … The relationship between the two countries will be a replication of the equation between France and Germany.”
Around the same time, surprising everyone, prime ministerial advisor Aziz told the BBC on Nov. 17 that Pakistan would not act against terrorists not targeting Pakistan. “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become our enemies,” he said. “When the United States attacked Afghanistan, all those who were trained and armed were pushed toward us. Some of them were dangerous for us and some are not. Why must we make enemies out of them all?” This contradicted the earlier, repeatedly asserted pledge that Pakistan would not allow its soil to be used for cross-border terrorism. The Foreign Office scurried to clarify that Aziz was talking of the past and had been taken out of context, a rescue effort that made even less sense. Was this some kind of response to the Pentagon report on Pakistan’s use of proxies?
Defogging the Myths
Prime Minister Sharif cooperated with another challenging foreign-policy initiative that Washington would take notice of. On Nov. 20, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, signed a defense cooperation agreement in Islamabad aimed at “promoting international security; intensification of counterterrorism and arms control activities; strengthening collaboration in various military fields, including education, medicine, history, topography, hydrography and culture; and sharing experiences in peacekeeping operations.”
General Sharif landed in Washington amid reports that Robin Raphel, a presumably friendly-to-Pakistan U.S. diplomat, was under FBI investigation for suspected espionage—for Pakistan. What followed must have surprised many who had said their last goodbye to U.S.-Pakistan ties during the long tenure of General Kayani when relations nosedived, dragging the luckless Pakistan Peoples Party-led government of Asif Ali Zardari down to near collapse in 2011 after the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden, Memogate, and Salala.
In the U.S., much enthusiasm was shown for General Sharif, the first Army chief of Pakistan to visit since 2010. He had become important after his visit to Kabul, where he had given his gruff word that he would stop cross-border incursions of the Taliban “no matter who did it.” He was followed by the new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, whose fresh approach to terrorism in Pakistan must have reassured both the much-harassed Kabul government and a Pentagon worried about post-drawdown Afghanistan. To cap the week of reconciliation, President Barack Obama rang Prime Minister Sharif to take the latter into confidence about his visit to New Delhi to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations in January as chief guest.
The Americans gave General Sharif red carpet treatment. The military’s Inter-Services Public Relations wing announced that “the U.S. Legion of Merit Medal was conferred on the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, currently on an official visit to the U.S., for his brave leadership, sagacity, vision, efforts for peace and stability in the region.” He and his delegation were also “given a full guard of honor at the U.S. Defense headquarters. He met Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, and Commander of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford.” He also met officials of the CIA, Secretary of State John Kerry, and was received at a number of forums where he clearly reiterated his position on the extirpation of all categories of terrorists in Pakistan to audiences formerly convinced that Pakistan was using terrorists as proxies and allowing safe havens to terrorist outfits doing cross-border mischief.