Home >Opinion >Nawaz Sharif’s learning curve

It is said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Pakistan, this is true, literally.

Last week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif superseded the senior-most army commander, Haroon Aslam and appointed his junior, Rashad Mahmood, to the top military position in the country—Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). Significantly, he appointed the third person in the hierarchy, Raheel Sharif, to the most important job in the country, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS).

These appointments reflect the changing dynamics of democracy in Pakistan. On paper, Sharif has asserted his democratic right. The truth is mixed: by appointing supposedly weak generals, he has tried to ensure his survival. All this matters to India. The debate on Pakistan very often turns into different hopes for peace from elected leaders as against the alleged war-like proclivities of generals. So will a civilian government be friendly to India and a general in command of his country hostile? Top military appointments often hold clues, even if elusive, to these possibilities.

Till 27 November, when the announcement was made, speculation was rife about who Sharif would pick. Uncertainty prevailed even after Sharif made public announcements that he would go by seniority and not repeat “past mistakes". An allusion to his choice of Pervez Musharraf in 1998 (ironically, third in seniority at the time of his elevation) as the army chief and CJCSC, after dismissing the then COAS General Jehangir Karamat and superseding the highest ranking commander, Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan. Raheel Sharif’s appointment is the fourth time Sharif has picked his army chief. In 1993, following the death of General Asif Nawaz Janjua, General Abdul Waheed Kakar was given the job, superseding at least four generals. Ultimately under pressure from Kakar and the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Sharif resigned.

The Kargil War in mid-1999 did much to damage Sharif’s standing. Thus, in October that year, he made his third appointment of army chief, General Ziauddin Khwaja to replace Musharraf. He was checkmated.

It needs no amplification that self-preservation has been Sharif’s only guide. Seniority has never been a consideration but worryingly, from Pakistan’s perspective, merit has been ignored.

In the present case, of the four contenders, Aslam, Mahmood, Raheel Sharif and Lt Gen Tariq Khan, only Mahmood and Khan have commanded crucial army formations against India. Mahmood commanded the IV Corps (Lahore) and Khan is the current commander of the I Corps (Mangla).

Mahmood has played a crucial role in formulating counter-terrorism operations. He was outgoing army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s favourite to become the army chief. Sharif made him CJCSC, the highest-ranking military position but one that has no authority over combatant forces. Tariq Khan is a war veteran who fought in the 1991 Gulf War. But more importantly, he has commanded formations meant to counter both India and the vicious insurgency on the border with Afghanistan.

As compared to that, Raheel Sharif is an administrative general; his last appointment was as inspector general training and evaluation. Much of what has been written and said about him focuses on his family of war heroes, his lack of interest in politics and his connections with the political and military elite. Sharif has largely made this appointment with the intention of preempting an army chief from pulling “a Musharraf".

These events exhibit an alleged security vs competence trade-off on part of Sharif, if not, Pakistani politicians in general. The trade-off has more often than not, backfired. Any prime minister wants a “non-ambitious" or a “weak" general to lead his army. This translates into picking junior generals for the top positions. This is the mistake that elected leaders never realized. If anything, Pakistan needs competent generals who understand their country’s complex security challenges. Such generals will be interested in securing Pakistan and meddle less in politics. Kayani was one such army chief; Tariq Khan could have been another.

The way events have unfolded in Pakistan, it is hard to predict when a coup will happen or who will plan it. Aqil Shah, an analyst of Pakistan’s civil-military relations, says “the military usually waits at least a decade or so for the next full-blown intervention, when the memory of its previous intervention has all but faded…" (See his essay, Security, Soldiers, and the State, in the book, The Future of Pakistan, edited by Stephen Cohen).

More than a decade has passed since Pakistan’s last coup. This may have been purely for practical reasons but it gave an opening for democracy to consolidate. The term of the last president Asif Ali Zardari was squandered away. Legitimacy for democracy by better governing Pakistan did not materialize. If civilian governments do not perform, the generals can stage a return. Respect for democracy is more likely to be fostered in competent generals and not “weak" ones. This is why Raheel Sharif’s appointment is significant and is worth watching.

The tragedy of Pakistan has been a civilian leadership which has focused so much on ensuring its longevity that it has paid no heed to multiple economic and social problems. Religious fundamentalism and troubled borders with Afghanistan and, allegedly India, have only added to this mix of instability.

Can Pakistani generals ever respect democracy? Tell us at

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperMint is now on Telegram. Join Mint channel in your Telegram and stay updated with the latest business news.

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout