Skip to main content

OPED: The Impact of Raheel Sharif as Commander NATO-lite


First Published in Global Affairs / May 2017

Former COAS Raheel Sharif (R.S.) is a rare bird. He did not ask for an extension - make a play for the throne, get embroiled in scandals, financial or otherwise, or walk away with the coveted title of a Field Marshal. It was a dignified exit; and a first in Pakistan. As COAS he was the cat’s pajamas. Then he got a job offer. And everything changed.
Since then, laudatory reports regarding his achievements in counter-terrorism had given way to critical debates concerning his forthcoming appointment. One in particular devises a fear-mongering narrative from the General’s future prospects and needs some clarification.

The post entails commanding a NATO styled, Saudi backed coalition of Muslim nations, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terror - IMAFT. And should he don the mantle of commander in chief - NATO - lite, it will be another first.

Is there anything keeping the General from assuming charge of a coalition sponsored by the House of Saud besides the obvious?

IMAFT is unchartered territory and the military commander’s foray into the unknown is fraught with risks – it also threatens to tilt the balance of power in the Kingdom’s favor. Pakistan resisted Saudi Arabia’s calls to join the fight in Yemen a few years ago and that decision was hailed given the sectarian colors of the banner under which it would be waged. Now that a Pakistani General (R) may end up as the face of the resistance – so to speak, those concerns have made their way back to the forefront. And some new ones have been added from across the border adding a sinister tone to the takeover.

A former Army Chief / President expressed his reservations over this deal because of the aforementioned sectarian elements in play. Politicians worry it impinges upon national security. Neighbors fret about losing their place in the changing world order.
In many ways R.S. is a logical choice for the task. The freshly retired General is battle hardened – as is his army he had commanded. He remains a prominent figure and is more than qualified to lead a coalition of 40 something nations in the good fight.

But there’s a catch. Because they are predominately Sunni, such an alliance has been viewed with suspicion. Because he is a Pakistani, the pact has spooked the neighbor. And since he is a private citizen – these objections could become secondary.

Indian based media sources speak of the “most warmongering General to lead a global anti terror force.” Speculations are rife about the political fallout of this relationship on the Eastern front. They allege that this promotion somehow threatens the integrity of India. That access to terror syndicates can be harnessed and weaponised and deployed against its arch nemesis. Sharif could influence member nations to work against an outflanked Delhi in some future war between nuclear armed nations. And they suggest bolstering ties with Israel to balance out the scales.

It is understandable why being outflanked could give them sleepless nights. NATO – the original one is meant to promote democratic values, engage on trust building, foster security cooperation, encourage conflict resolution. NATO – the Middle Eastern Chapter for now adds an unofficial layer of support to the Saudi-Pak partnership as it determines Raheel Sharif’s place in the big leagues. Reports had already been circulating of increased defense and security cooperation offered by Pakistan that included training, intelligence sharing, narrative building etc to the Saudi’s. Recently rumor mill had been rife with stories about the deployment of a brigade within Saudi borders. And a contingent of Special Services Group of Saudi Royal Forces took part in Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March 2017.

A Pakistani will headline an Arab coalition. It could be a game changer. Granted, such partnerships are bound to have implications for the region. But as Pakistan sets out to raise its profile and confront its demons, its decision making process regarding its Gulf brethren would ideally be motivated by its core strategic interests and not familial ties. Also, Raheel’s allegiance is unlikely to suddenly shift towards a petro-dollar vending machine and make him lose his neutrality. And his designation should not influence Pakistan’s position on matters of statecraft adversely. Getting embroiled in conflicts while its own house is burning would be a mistake.

The rest of the tirade however is absurd and farfetched; and a tad insulting to a General who has spent the better part of his tenure eradicating terror and stabilizing the region; who kept the army in the barracks, threw terrorists to the justice mill albeit via controversial military courts and cleaned up Karachi.

Little is known about this coalition except that Iran isn’t part of it, yet. Sharif’s immediate challenge as the architect on call will be navigating a terrain scarred by ancient rivalries, escalating threats and hostile agendas. Taking the poor man’s NATO from concept to a reality will be a test of his skills as a soldier and statesman and may demand the patience of a saint.

Does a Pakistani General’s stint as a strategic consultant create a conflict of interest with the Indian agenda?

It is unprecedented. True. It does not fit in with the stereotypical vision of retired Generals with their days filled with golfing, gardening, playing analyst on TV, cutting deals, in exile or hitting the international lecture circuit.

Some might say his day job is merely an extension of what the General was doing before. And with the experience accumulated over the years it gives him an edge. Sharif brings an objective viewpoint and a professional edge to the table. And since he is respected across the board, being an emissary brings prestige to the brand he represents – namely Pakistan. His star is rising. This is his moment.

Raheel Sharif was reportedly the belle of the DAVOS ball earlier this year where the Pakistani PM - Nawaz Sharif (no relation), who also happens to be R.S.’s last namesake was barred from addressing any forum on account of the corruption investigation underway. Headlines stating that he brought swagger back to the army demonstrate the level of esteem for R.S. in the Gulf region. That perception helps elevate Pakistan on the global stage and debunks the narrative of isolationism propagated by her Eastern rivals.

India, on the other hand, given their taste in elected officials chosen to safeguard their shining status need to take some time off from their (smear) campaign trail and observe the post election landscape. They should question how a bigoted priest turned politician facing criminal charges can ever be representative of their sacred tenants or be compatible with their progressive ideals. And they must divert their outrage at the waves of fanaticism sweeping through their territory and focus on containing the threat of extremism now knocking at their doorstep.

Will the sight of a Pakistani General alienate Iran remains a nagging concern. Though Sharif reportedly demanded Iran’s inclusion, the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran makes a truce unlikely. Relations between Pakistan and Iran, however, seem to be on the mend at the moment given the commencement of joint naval drills in Iranian waters alongside Pak - Iran trade deals in the backdrop. They showcase the security and economic cooperation underway regardless of Iran’s exclusion from the club.

Pakistan appears to have only two places reserved for their heroes – the pedestal or the dock. There is no middle ground. Raheel Sharif becomes a ‘man of the year’ by their standards one day – and a sell out the next. While the jury sits debating about the wisdom of his life choices, he is busy carving out a place for himself in history. Time will tell whether this gamble pays off or backfires on a spectacular scale.

Image link: 1

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

VIEW: Of Clarion Calls and Golden Statuettes / By Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times /Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elegiac laments for a fading film industry are interrupted midway with news that could give the documentary film medium at least a new lease of life. It owes its resurrection to a young filmmaker, who mined troubling sound-bytes overheard in theatres where war, injustice or social disparity reigns supreme. Clips aired at the third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) held earlier this year provided glimpses of her work, including the internationally acclaimed ‘Saving Face’. At the time, she had an Emmy stacked away for one documentary and was just weeks away from winning an Academy Award for another. At the time, she had been relentlessly crusading to rid societies of those anachronistic practices (among other ills) that weigh them down in the modern world. And — despite these glittering credentials — her work was largely unknown amongst Pakistanis.

The young Oscar nominee who took the stage that day would soon be the face of a bur…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless…

SERIES REVIEW: THE HEROES OF OLYMPUS / Rick Riordan (2013)

First Published inDaily Times / 5 Jan 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Demigod fans who bade farewell to Percy – (son of Poseidon) & the Olympian franchise a few years ago must have wondered what the writer was up to as they came across a ‘final’ Prophesy conveniently left unresolved at the end of the saga.

The Last Olympian’ concluded the five part series wrapping up Percy Jackson & his merry band of demi-gods' extended arc with a high-octane finale and an emotional send-off. Though Rick Riordan had moved on to explore Egypt in ‘The Kane Chronicles’, he wasn’t done with Olympus, its ever shifting centre of power or its hoity-toity god population for that matter.

The cryptic warning heard in the final pages is used to establish the credentials of this spin-off. The gods return in the ‘Heroes of Olympus’ series - distant as ever and in Roman form heralding a brand new dawn with the promise of new crusades, a shiny new quest, fresh faces and an ancient threat. And Percy is b…

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Day : The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

First Published by Daily Times / Oct 06, 2012

Authors: Mark Owen & Kevin Maurer
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title:Signed, SEAL(ed) and Delivered



The men who paid Pakistan a hurried visit in the dead of the night typically do not leave calling cards. Or talk shop with strangers. And they are expected to shun the limelight. One broke the commandment recently. As a member of the SEAL Team 6 — Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, Mark Owen (not his real name) had been in the downed ‘helo’ (helicopter) — the one Pakistanis discovered lying in their backyard.

His book provides a valuable timeline of events leading up to ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ in Abbottabad (or ‘Abababa’ as they insist on calling it), cutting through the official haze. With 13 consecutive combat deployments to his credit, the author paints a group portrait of America’s finest that had been handpicked for the job in an attempt to overturn the media-created hype. He calmly reasons, “If my com…

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…