The most popular man by far in Pakistan today is the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif. Many Pakistanis see Gen. Sharif as a messiah who is saving the country from terrorism, corruption and all manner of social ills. Since his appointment as Pakistan’s 15th Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Sharif’s image has been popping up across the country. He appears in banners thanking him for restoring law and order in the chaotic city of Karachi and on the backs of rickshaws. Even politicians running for local elections have used his image. His image appears in campaign literature produced by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf and also on the package of “Captain Men” brand of men’s underwear.
The general has even gone viral with the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif appearing on Twitter and Facebook. The hashtag first appeared after the attack on an Army-run school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. The Army Chief seemed to lead the effort to catch and punish the militants responsible for killing 150 people, mostly schoolchildren. On November 30, 2015, he signed the death warrants of four militants convicted by a special military court established after the massacre.
Pakistan also lifted the moratorium on death penalties after the attack. Since then over 300 convicts have been hanged across Pakistan. He also signed off on the decision to punish several officers who were found to have failed to protect the children massacred in the Army-run public school. The military holding its own to account is rare and welcome — and Gen. Sharif gets much credit for doing so.
Gen. Sharif hails from a well-known Rajput Mussalman military family with roots in Punjab. His father, Rana Muhammad Sharif, was a Major in the Pakistan Army. His eldest brother, Major Rana Shabbir Sharif, was killed in the 1971 war and was awarded Pakistan’s highest military award, Nishan-e-Haider, posthumously. Another brother, Captain Mumtaz Sharif, was recognised for his bravery and was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat. Gen. Raheel Sharif is also a nephew of Major Raja Aziz Bhatti, another Nishan-e-Haider recipient for his gallantry in 1965.
Gen. Sharif’s personality and policies have endeared him to many — both in Pakistan and abroad. His gregarious demeanour with his can-do attitude and stirring promises to combat militancy of all stripes has played well in Washington DC, London, Rome, Moscow, Kabul and Beijing — all key capitals he visited in recent months. More importantly, this Sharif is getting things done, while the other is doing what politicians seem to do best — little. The word that Pakistanis tend to invoke the most in describing Gen. Sharif is “doer”. He spends time with troops in the field, condoles with victims of terror and meets visiting dignitaries. He shows he cares for his men and they reciprocate with near adulation that spills over into Pakistani society as a whole, making him the Sharif to contend with in Pakistan.
Gen. Sharif also launched Zarb-e-Azb; the much-needed offensive in North Waziristan and the military has scored some major victories. Today, terror attacks in Pakistan are down dramatically from previous years. The millions of Pakistanis who are sick of terrorist violence and simply want to live in peace are well aware of this.
While Gen. Sharif is hard on terrorists who attack Pakistan, he has his uses for India-centric terrorists in continuation of the old Pakistan military policy of “death by a thousand cuts”. Indian intelligence agencies seem agreed that the Pakistani Army is not on the same page as the civilian leadership that favours talks with India. Echoing the Saudi policy of diverting its internal jihadi terrorist proclivities overseas, the Pakistan Army has adopted a similar stance. It is harsh on domestic terrorism while it nurtures terrorist armies for its India policy by other means. Indian intelligence agencies say that since December 2014, the Inter-Services Intelligence has been working on reviving the fortunes of the Jaish-e-Mohammad by merging it with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which had been staging attacks inside Pakistan. By merging the two, the Pakistan military establishment is ensuring that the energies of the Jaish is committed to fighting against India and not in Pakistan.
The Jaish-e-Mohammad has Indian antecedents. Maulana Masood Azhar set it up in March 2000 after his release from Jammu prison in exchange for passengers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, which was hijacked and was taken to Kandahar. The sorry handling of that crisis by the previous BJP-led government is well known. Masood Azhar was escorted out by no less a person than India’s then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh.
The present national security adviser Ajit Doval too was aboard that flight as a part of the “negotiating” team with the Taliban. The hugely empowered Jaish-e-Mohammad launched the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. Seemingly bowing down to India’s pressure in January 2002, the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf “banned” the group. The Jaish responded by changing its name to Khuddam ul-Islam. The Jaish-e-Mohammad has assumed its original name now. A giant mural over the entrance of its headquarters at Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland loudly proclaims, “To Delhi, O’ Hindus, the army of the Prophet will soon return.”
The Jaish-e-Mohammad is no Kashmiri group seeking just Jammu & Kashmir’s annexation by Pakistan, but a group with the larger objective of establishing a Nizam-e-Shariat over India. The Pakistan Army may not be too keen on a Nizam-e-Shariat in Pakistan, but it will not pass up any opportunity to wreak vengeance over India for its string of defeats in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999.
(The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.)