The Pakistani military has never been the most loved or respected organization. Internationally, many view it with suspicion in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s discovery in a fortified compound in close proximity to the Pakistan Military Academy. Pakistan’s neighbours accuse the military of funding extremist groups, in order to destabilize the region. Domestically, the military is accused of having hindered Pakistan’s transition into a perfectly democratic nation through a constant interference in political and economic matters as well as undermining Pakistan’s political institutions, such as the National Assembly. The military has staged three coup d’états, with each coup followed by a period of restricted freedom of speech and political views, as well as heightened corruption and a lack of justice. While some associate martial law with periods of relative security and stability, the majority of Pakistanis look negatively at the role the Pakistani military has played in the political destabilization of Pakistan.
Has General Raheel Sharif changed all that?
During his tenure, posters pledging support for the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) were plastered in every street and district in Pakistan. Portraits of Raheel Sharif adorned rickshaws and trucks. He also received unprecedented support on social media, with many highlighting him as a savior of Pakistan.
Never before has a COAS in Pakistan ended his tenure with such widespread approval. General Pervez Musharraf, who assumed control of Pakistan from 2001-2008, assumed office with widespread support and approval but lost the approval of the public at the end of his term and was forced to resign. General Ayub Khan (1958-69) also gradually lost support throughout his tenure as military dictator, resulting in forced resignation as well. Only these two generals garnered the levels of support Raheel Sharif had throughout his tenure, and they were unable to end their terms with the same approval Sharif did.
However, it is not difficult to see why Sharif gathered such support.
The facts are there for all to see. Since Raheel Sharif launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 to exterminate extremist groups operating in the mountainous North-West of Pakistan, major terrorist attacks declined by 70% in 2015 (Source: Washington Post). For many Pakistanis, the inability of the military and other related establishments to correct the unstable security situation that has plagued Pakistan for the last fifteen years has been a source of great frustration. The fact that Raheel Sharif tackled this problem head on enforced his reputation as a man of action, rather than empty words. In accordance with national security measures, Sharif also focused on the ever-increasing violence in the port city of Karachi, home to a population of approximately 16 million (Source: The Express Tribune), by developing and increasing the role of paramilitaries in Karachi, in particular, the Pakistan Rangers. This development brought relative peace and security to Pakistan’s commercial capital, which boosted the regional and national economy.
In addition to this, Sharif took a leading role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor negotiations and development, a project worth approximately $46 billion (Source: Dawn News) which is expected to create around 2 million jobs (Source: Geo News). As a country which has been desperate for foreign investment, Pakistan has been offered a valuable economic boost by the CPEC and it is widespread knowledge that the project only came into development once Raheel Sharif assured China that he would take the security arrangements into his own hands through the development of a brigade level military unit.
Raheel Sharif coupled his groundbreaking domestic achievements with an astute foreign policy. He achieved the significant feat of having a sound political relationship with both the United States (through military operations against extremist groups near the Durand Line) and Russia (carried out the first joint military exercises between the two nations). His influence also strengthened economic ties between China and Pakistan, establishing Pakistan as a valuable strategic partner for China.
However, despite all his support, there were many who remained discontent with his tenure. The aggressive policies towards India and Afghanistan that he implemented have left many concerned over the stability of the region and Pakistan’s ties with its neighbors. Others believe that he has indirectly compromised the political institutions of Pakistan by acting out of accordance with the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and using the media to create a positive image of himself.
However, his legacy will still go down as a politically neutral man who worked for the well-being of the nation, while respecting and not publicly working against the democratic institutions in the country. He is the first Pakistani general to retire after his term without seeking an extension for twenty years and his development of the Pakistani military will surely serve the nation well in the coming years.
To echo the popular twitter hashtag: Thank You, Raheel Sharif.