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Asia

Is Pakistan's outgoing army chief Raheel Sharif worthy of praise?

Pakistan's army chief Raheel Sharif used the terrorism pretext to consolidate the military's supremacy in his country. Experts say his successor will continue the same policy of undermining the civilian rule.

Rumors were rife in Pakistan that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would extend the term of the outgoing army chief General Raheel Sharif before the end of his tenure on November 28. A military operation in the country's northwestern areas and an increasing tension with arch-rival India over Kashmir do not allow a change in the military command, the army chief's supporters argued.

For many in Pakistan, General Sharif has proven himself to be a competent commander, who not only acted against the Islamist terrorists but was also resolute against the prevalent corruption in the country. So as he is about to stand down, the mainstream and social media have been inundated by "Thank you, Raheel Sharif" messages. But is the general really worthy of such praise?

In any other country, including Pakistan's neighbors India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the role of the army head hardly matters. But in Pakistan, the military's chief calls the shots and is viewed as the de facto leader. Constitutionally, PM Sharif is head of the country's executive, but his civilian government has almost no say in defense and foreign policy matters. Even the domestic security affairs are controlled by the army and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Under General Sharif, the power of the army has increased manifold.

Pakistan | China und Pakistan starten ihre Handelsroute (picture-alliance/AA)

There is tension between Pakistan's civilian and military leadership about how to deal with Islamist terrorists

The general took over the reins from General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani three years ago. Kayani was not as popular as General Sharif, and the morale of the Pakistani army was pretty low under his command. After the killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad, the army came under fire domestically and internationally.

The fact that the US Special Forces could raid inside Pakistan exposed the invincibility aura of the Pakistani army. For most Pakistanis, the death of bin Laden was not as important as the violation of their country's sovereignty by the Americans. Kayani, as head of the military at that time, had to face the brunt. But his successor Raheel Sharif has kind of restored the image by means of an aggressive media campaign through out his tenure.

But the restoration of the military's image came with a price for Pakistan. The army has always been the most powerful institution in the country, but under General Sharif it became omnipresent and omnipotent.

"General Sharif will be remembered for positing the military as a state within a state more than many of the guys before him," analyst Ayesha Siddiqa told the AFP news agency. "The manner in which he pushed the envelope was unbelievable."

Terrorism pretext

Rights activists accuse the military of consolidating its power by using the pretext of fighting Islamists. The army says it has killed 3,500 terrorists since the launch of the Zarb-e-Azb military campaign in June 2014. The military has also set up its own courts that now run parallel to the South Asian country's civilian judicial system. The military courts have hanged many terrorists over the past year and a half, claiming that as a "huge blow" to the militant outfits.

Pakistan Angriff auf eine Polizei-Schule (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/A. Butt)

Pakistan has seen a number of terror attacks on its soil in recent years

General Sharif also made sure that Zarb-e-Azb received massive media promotion. Consequently, from the tweets published by the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to the army-funded patriotic songs and heaps of praise for the operation from many security analysts, the Pakistani people have been told that peace has been restored all across the country.

However, analysts say the militants are still powerful enough to attack civilian and military facilities, thus exposing major flaws in the army's anti-terror strategy.

"The attacks show that the military's much-touted Zarb-e Azb operation and the National Action Plan to eradicate terrorism from Pakistani soil have been failures despite Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif's claims of victory," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on security and Islamism, told DW. "The terror infrastructure is intact in the country and the militants intensify their attacks on the Pakistani state whenever they want to," he added.

A document released last year by the International Crisis Group (ICG) raised serious questions about Raheel Sharif's counterterrorism policies, which the organization said were used to undermine the civilian administration.

"The militarization of counterterrorism policy puts at risk Pakistan's evolution toward greater civilian rule, which is itself a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilize the democratic transition," the ICG said.

The ICG paper also advised PM Sharif to take matters into his own hands and democratize the anti-terrorism strategy "in order to replace an overly militarized response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counterterrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police."

Prominent Pakistani rights activist Asma Jahangir has also accused the army of running a smear campaign against politicians and PM Sharif in an attempt to weaken his government so that the military keeps an upper hand over the civilian administration.

Pakistan Angriff auf eine Polizei-Schule (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/A. Butt)

Pakistan has seen a number of terror attacks on its soil in recent years

Tug-of-war with civilian leadership

On Thursday, November 24, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hosted a farewell ceremony in the honor of the outgoing army chief. While acknowledging his services, the premier said he would continue to consult General Sharif in the future.

The diplomatic words, however, cannot mask the serious rifts between the civilian government and the army. Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif have not been on the same page over the role of homegrown Islamist militants and ties with India.

A report published by Dawn newspaper on October 7 shed light on the tension between the civilian and military leadership about how to deal with Islamist terrorists.

"In a blunt, orchestrated and unprecedented warning, the civilian government has informed the military leadership of a growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought consensus on several key actions by the state," said Cyril Almeida, author of the report, citing different sources.

"The message: military-led intelligence agencies are not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action," the journalist added.

The international community, particularly the United States, has repeatedly accused the Pakistani army of backing Islamic militants in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.

Brussels-based Pakistani journalist Khalid Hameed Farooqi told DW that the army under General Raheel Sharif was also very skeptical of the premier due to his repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed rivals.

"Sharif has understood that liberal economic policies and good relations with neighboring countries are the only way forward for Pakistan. But there are institutions and groups in the country which do not agree with this approach," Farooqi said.

Consolidation of democracy

Now PM Sharif has to appoint the new military chief. The highest-ranking contender is the army's Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Zubair Hayat, who was previously responsible for the security of the country's nuclear program. Some analysts consider Lieutenant General Ishfaq Nadeem a favorite to succeed Raheel Sharif. The names of Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal Ramdey are also being discussed.

But analysts say that whoever eventually becomes Pakistan's army chief will continue the same policies as Raheel Sharif. They do not expect a policy change with regard to Afghanistan, India and China.

Regardless, activists say it is a good omen for Pakistan that General Sharif's tenure has not been extended. It is a sign that democracy is flourishing in Pakistan and that civilian leaders are getting more space to take matters in their hands. PM Sharif has played an important role in the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan by not submitting to the military's power.