Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen Raheel Sharif, publicly announced this week that he will not seek an extension and will retire when his current term expires in November. Already wildly popular in Pakistan, Gen. Raheel’s (as he’s known) announcement is certain to cement his place in Pakistani history. Some, though, worry what the impact will be on Pakistan’s ongoing fight against terrorists. The truth is, the length of Gen. Raheel’s tenure is not a decisive factor in Pakistan’s trajectory.
With the announcement of his decision to retire on time, Gen. Raheel defies the trend established by his immediate predecessors. Gen. Kayani took not one, but two three-year extensions, eventually resulting in editorials lamenting that “the extension does not reflect well on the army as an institution” and that “a strong institution should be able to withstand the retirement of one man, however experienced.” The damage to the Pakistan Army's reputation as a result of Gen Musharraf's own extended career is even more pronounced (he currently faces charges of high treason for subverting the Constitution), and has outlasted his actual time in office by nearly a decade. By retiring in November, Gen. Raheel returns to the practice of Army chiefs prior to Gen. Musharraf, restoring some faith that Pakistan’s top military officers are public servants and not ambitious dictators-in-waiting.
There is little question Gen. Raheel has achieved historic status. Whether this is due to his own genius or the excellent media management by his PR man, Gen. Asim Bajwa, is beside the point. The fact is that he has done and said all the right things since day one, saving Pakistan from the depths of despair, if not from the continued threat of jihadi terror. The problem is...what comes next? Tera kya hoga, Pakistan?
There are reasons to worry about what happens after Gen Raheel retires; not because Pakistan lacks capable officers, but because it will be near to impossible for anyone to live up to Gen. Raheel’s mythical standard. When he was promoted to Chief of Army Staff in late 2013, Pakistan was losing over 3,000 civilians a year to terrorist attacks. Those numbers declined significantly under his leadership. Gen. Raheel also oversaw the decline of violent crime in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, as Pakistan Rangers were mobilized to enforce law and order. For many Pakistanis, Gen. Raheel is more than a military leader. He is a saviour. He embodies the hope that things not only can, but are improving, and that Pakistan is on its way out of a very dark period.
Gen. Raheel did not achieve messianic status purely organically, though. In addition to overseeing a decline in overall violence, his stature has also greatly benefitted from the sophisticated public relations operation managed by the head of the Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) division, three-star General Asim Bajwa. From producing slick online videos to a dominating social media campaign, to billboards and truck art, Gen. Raheel’s towering image is ubiquitous in Pakistan. And while the Army is busily churning out positive media, it is also suppressing criticism by threatening journalists and media companies, ensuring that the official narrative is the only narrative.
This heavy handed media management was largely accepted as an unfortunate necessity, even by traditionally liberal Pakistani columnists, who believed extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. The Army needed to lift the public spirit from dangerous depths and rally the country behind its leaders so that they could deal a final death blow to the Pakistani Taliban. After three years, though, hope has begun to wear thin again.
Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have declined, but continue to occur with a disturbing frequency. killing almost 1,000 civilians last year. Violent crime in Karachi is down, but killings by law enforcement have quadrupled. The Army also spent a lot of political capital pushing for widely criticized military courts, which the Army claimed were necessary to successfully prosecute terror suspects, only to see outlawed extremist groups continue to expand their operations with near impunity. In fact, while Pakistan has surpassed This month’s deadly attack at Bacha Khan University and the mixed response to a jihadi attack on Pathankot air base in India claimed by Pakistan-based militants have many questioning whether enough has actually changed.
Additionally, Pakistan’s next Chief of Army Staff will face serious challenges in living up to the myth the Army created around Gen. Raheel. If terrorist attacks do not continue to decline at the pace they did between 2013 and 2016 – and there’s little reason to believe they will – the next Army chief could face a crisis of confidence. This could be offset with a public relations campaign designed to rally the support of the nation and buy time, but that’s already been done. Trying to reprise the massive public relations campaign carried out for the benefit of Gen. Raheel would be a glaringly obvious attempt to manage public perception, undermining, rather than bolstering, confidence in the country’s military leadership.
This doesn’t mean that Gen. Raheel should stay on. Far from it. In fact, there is little reason to believe that even Gen. Raheel could live up to his Olympian reputation for much longer. His decision to retire on time is the right choice, though, because it’s right for Pakistan. Pakistan doesn’t need a larger-than-life saviour, it needs to retire the policies that cultivate extremism and militancy. It needs to reorient from a narrative of victimhood to one that empowers its own people to take back their culture and religion from those who hijacked them. And it needs to reimagine itself, not as a nuclear armed fortress of Islam, but as the tolerant, pluralistic democracy envisioned by its founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Seth Oldmixon is president of Oldmixon Group, a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm and the founder of Liberty South Asia, a privately funded campaign dedicated to religious freedom and political pluralism in South Asia. You can follow him on Twitter @setholdmixon.