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Change of army guard

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IT should be a matter of days now when a new army chief is appointed to succeed Gen Raheel Sharif. The appointment is the prerogative of the prime minister who is expected to choose from a list of the four most senior officers. While one of them would get the coveted post of army chief, another would be promoted to chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

It all sounds so simple and would be a routine matter in most countries. Not so in Pakistan, where the army chief is considered more powerful than even the appointing authority. It doesn’t matter who is picked, the primary loyalty of the army chief is to his institution. So why not just go by seniority and not look for a favourite? It may not happen this way given Nawaz Sharif’s past record of picking a dark horse.

Although at that level of seniority, the difference among various contenders is nominal, it is still important to choose someone more capable especially at a time when troops are engaged on the front line and the country faces serious internal security challenges. Any appointment on political or personal considerations could be damaging for the institution; nor would the basis of such a choice by the prime minister make him politically more secure. Past experiences must be taken seriously.

For sure, Gen Raheel Sharif will be leaving behind a powerful legacy of a professional soldier, setting a new example of leading the troops from the front. He will be remembered for taking more decisive action against militancy and violent extremism. However, there is some criticism of an overly personal projection which has been perceived as clouding his professional image.

Gen Raheel Sharif’s retirement is not likely to affect the military’s counterterrorism efforts.

There are also questions surrounding certain actions that have seen the army being overstretched and getting too deeply involved in some internal security matters without taking them to a conclusion. The army under him has continued to dominate certain areas of foreign policy and internal security matters that has often brought it into conflict with the civilian government. It was certainly more about the institution than an individual. And, no one can say the outgoing chief was politically ambitious.

One of Gen Sharif’s major achievements was the successful operation in North Waziristan that had become the hub of militancy. The clearing of the region has brought down the level of militant violence in other parts of the country. But the battle is far from over. Indeed his leadership was critical but credit should not be taken away from his commanders — one of whom is sure to succeed him.

Hence, the retirement of Gen Raheel Sharif is not likely to affect the military’s counter-insurgency and counterterrorism efforts as is being feared by some analysts and commentators. One hopes that there will be continuity and not a reversal of course. The challenges for the new chief will perhaps be more daunting given the seriousness of internal and external threats.

Engaged in fighting insurgency in the tribal areas for the past 10 years has transformed the army into a truly battle-hardened outfit. Most of the soldiers and officers have participated in the military campaigns. That has also changed their outlook on militancy. Initially, the officers found it extremely difficult to motivate the soldiers to fight their own people. In fact, until 2009, officers would not even describe the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as terrorists. The soldiers were often told the insurgents were not Muslims and that they were fighting foreign agents.

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However, things started changing after the soldiers and officers saw their colleagues being killed on the battlefield. The pictures of soldiers being beheaded with the banner of the TTP prominently displayed in the background proved to be a turning point. It was then that the TTP was openly declared a terrorist group in official statements and discourse.

It was also the period when the army, after clearing Swat, launched simultaneous operations in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. That also turned the tide against the Taliban. But whatever the reason may be for not going into North Waziristan then and sparing some of the militant groups, it raised questions about our counter-insurgency and counter-extremism strategy. The distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants remained the most controversial issue.

That perception seemed to have partially changed over the past couple of years following the North Waziristan operation and the crackdown on militant networks operating on the mainland. But the continued activities of some banned militant groups and their alleged involvement in cross-border terrorist attacks raises questions about our resolve to eliminate all kinds of militancy. Surely the army leadership alone cannot be blamed for the lack of an overarching counterterrorism policy, although it must accept some responsibility especially when it has assumed the lead role in internal security matters too.

It will be a major challenge for the new army leadership to complete the policy turnaround by shedding the ambiguity that surrounds militant groups that are still being considered kosher. It requires both the civil and military leadership to be on the same page. Indeed, there has been a seminal shift in the army’s thinking, but clear policy direction is still lacking.

The imbalance in civil-military relations remains the thorniest issue that needs correction in order to allow the democratic system to work. Indeed, the onus is on both sides, more so the military leadership. Any involvement in political manipulation undermining the elected governments affects the professionalism of the military; a lesson one must learn from our past experience with military interventions.

Neither the civilians nor the military can afford a constant state of conflict when the country is confronted with serious internal and external security challenges. Unfortunately, the transition in the army leadership is taking place at a time when the trust deficit between the two pillars of state has further widened. Perhaps, the biggest challenge for the new chief will be how to bridge the gap that could allow him to fully focus on his professional responsibilities.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn November 9th, 2016

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