In Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif is hard to miss. From huge posters in major cities and thousands of social media pages to the tens of thousands of trucks and rickshaws on the country’s roads, the moustachioed army chief’s portraits are omnipresent. Imran Khan, former cricketer and opposition leader, has no doubt that Raheel is the most popular person in Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems nowhere close to his namesake on popularity charts.
Nawaz Sharif has historically been unlucky with his army chiefs. In 1998, during his second stint as prime minister, he chose Pervez Musharraf to head the army, hoping him to be a safe bet. A year later, Musharraf unseated him in a coup. Raheel was chosen by Sharif after he returned to power in a landslide victory in 2013. The New York Times reported that Sharif thought Raheel was “more pliable” than two other contenders, who were senior to him and were close to the outgoing army chief Ashfaq Kayani.
When Raheel took charge, the army was facing a credibility crisis, as terrorists had been striking at will. In many dangerous areas, soldiers were cautioned against wearing their uniforms in public. Two years later, Raheel has turned things around, eclipsing the authority of the prime minister in the process.
After the Taliban killed nearly 150 children at a school in Peshawar in December 2014, Raheel launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the terrorists. The counterinsurgency ops have been largely successful, with the army retaking several key towns. Under Raheel, the army has restored capital punishment for terrorists and has set up exclusive anti-terrorism courts to ensure speedy trials. The army has also been given the responsibility to restore order in Karachi, after the city was targeted repeatedly by terrorists and criminal gangs. Under a paramilitary group called the Sindh Rangers, Karachi now seems to be returning to normalcy.
Raheel used the nationwide protests led by Imran Khan and religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri to assert the army’s supremacy over the civilian government. While the army backed Sharif, it extracted its pound of flesh by reasserting control over Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies. Under Raheel, the post of the army chief has gradually turned into a de facto executive presidency like in Russia and France, confining the prime minister to portfolios left alone by him. Raheel, for instance, routinely travels abroad and his diplomatic efforts are covered more prominently by the Pakistani media than Sharif’s foreign trips. The general is also the final word on issues related to internal security. He got one of his trusted aides, lieutenant general (retd) Naseer Khan Janjua, appointed as the PM’s national security adviser in place of Sartaj Aziz, a Sharif loyalist. While Raheel’s manoeuvres have further undermined the already fragile democratic system in Pakistan, his successful anti-terrorist measures have won him public support.
Raheel, who is due to step down in November, may have given the go ahead to Sharif to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence. Yet, the Pathankot attacks have shown that the civilian government has little control over the army, says Uma Purushothaman, who teaches international relations at the Central University of Kerala. “Peace with India will significantly damage the raison d’etre for the kind of finances and clout the Pakistan army enjoys. It needs India as an enemy.”