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Chiefs of Nawaz Sharif
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Meenakshi Sood | Date:25 Dec , 2016 0 Comments
Meenakshi Sood
is a Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be reached at:

In his autobiography Gen Pervez Musharraf comments on the civil-military (dis)balance in Pakistan thus, “I know that in western democracies, military personnel on active duty, especially the chiefs, are not supposed to make political statements. But then, in western democracies neither do the heads of government and state perennially drag army chiefs into politics. In a country where such a practice is rampant, an army chief cannot be blamed for getting involved, if he acts sensibly”[i].

While his comments have to be taken with a pinch of salt, they also highlight the peculiar circumstances in Pakistan that necessitate judging civil-military relations in the country on its own merits. It would be absurd to expect the armed forces to assume a secondary role on the lines of democracies that have civilian control. Prime Minister Sharif seems to have learned that lesson the hard way. A product of the army’s dominant role in politics, he was introduced into politics by Zia ul-Haq in 1982 when he became the Finance Minister of Punjab province, Sharif has been at logger-heads with his army chiefs one too many times. He has the dubious distinction of appointing four army chiefs in his three tenures as Prime Minister. With each he shared a different set of dynamics. Over time, he has tempered and learned to walk the tight-rope of Pakistani politics that requires the civilian leadership to assert itself and retrieve as the circumstances permit.

The ‘Outsider’ Army Chief

Gen Pervez Musharraf was appointed Army Chief in October 1998. Much like Zia, his elevation was facilitated by his apolitical credentials and lack of a power base in the army. After all, he was a mohajir in a Punjabi-dominated country. He was considered a ‘safe’ choice to replace Jehangir Karamat, the then army chief, whose intentions had become suspect. On 5th October 1998, in his address at the Naval War College in Lahore, Karamat had proposed the setting up of a national security council in order to give the army a say in the day-to-day running of the country, as well as matters of ‘high politics’. Concerned about civilian supremacy, Nawaz Sharif asked him to step down. He believed that his handpicked army chief would be his yes-man.

With a huge majority- around 50 percent of votes cast and 66 percent of the seats in the lower house- Sharif had set about to implement his agenda of consolidating his party’s hold on Pakistani politics. He purged his opponents both within and without PML, stifled dissent by punishing the press and changed the constitution to weaken the post of the president. He came into direct confrontation with other organs of the state, like the judiciary, and more importantly, the army. His plan was “to induct 50,000 soldiers into the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and the Railways each, and the following year to bring them into other areas, and at the same time make peace with India, thus reducing the effective size of the army and its main mission”[ii].

Fundamental differences on national security and foreign policy crept up between Sharif and Musharraf since the beginning. In contrast to army’s hawkish approach to relations with India, Nawaz Sharif wanted more cordial relations between the two neighbors. He invited Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore, who obliged in February 1999. Gen Musharraf was so upset with the decision to invite the enemy within the household that he failed to turn up at the border to greet the visiting primary. That spring, Pakistan army crossed the Line of Control to initiate its misadventure in Kargil region of Kashmir. The infiltration was met with a determined response from India, forcing the Prime Minister to seek Chinese and American intervention to contain the situation. On the advice of President Clinton he asked his troops to retreat, adding insult to injury in the eyes of the Pakistani army.

In a dramatic turn of events Gen Pervez Musharraf assumed power on 13 October 1999. A day earlier, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had announced his removal in a televised broadcast, while the general was on his way from Colombo to Karachi. It is unclear why Sharif acted recklessly as there seemed to be no imminent threat of a take-over. In fact, only two weeks before dismissing him, Nawaz Sharif had appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, in addition to his current post of Army Chief. According to Cloughley, Sharif felt it necessary to have the same individual in both the seats for his own security. As he points out, “he (Sharif) considered himself more threatened by the existence of two senior figures than by one who held two appointments”[iii].

While the timing is curious, it is undeniable that the distrust between the two men was intense. The bloodless coup was a culmination of a brewing hostility between the Prime Minister and his Chief of Army Staff (COAS) since the Kargil war, of which the General was the prime architect. On the fateful day, General Musharraf had gone to Sri Lanka to attend that country’s army ceremonies marking its fifth year. On his way back his plane PK 805 was not allowed to land in Karachi and advised to divert. On being appraised of the situation the General sprang into action and got in touch with Corps Commander V Corps (Karachi), Lt-Gen Usmani. He sent troops to the airport which took control and safely landed the chief’s plane. Gen Musharraf, Lt-Gen Usmani and officers at Malir barracks planned future action and decided that the country could not be left in the hands of an erratic, insecure and irresponsible prime minister. Television and radio stations were ‘secured’ and political figures, including the prime minister, put under house arrest. The coup was welcomed by the citizenry as the government was seen to be corrupt, economically inefficient and politically reckless, so much so that there was already talk of the need for a caretaker government. With the help of Saudi intervention, Sharif was allowed to escape to Jeddah and was exiled from politics for 21 years, later reduced to 10 years.

The unlikely Army Chief

On 12th October 1999 General Ziauddin Khawaja was “appointed” the COAS replacing Pervez Musharraf which set in motion the series of events that led to a bloodless coup and the removal of a democratically elected Prime Minister. At the time he was heading the ISI. A close associate of Sharif’s family, he did not have a good professional reputation. Furthermore, he belonged to the Corps of Engineers in a country where all former chiefs had come from infantry, armour or artillery. This did not go down well with the army. Hence, “he did not enjoy the confidence of his peers or the trust of the army as a whole”[iv].

He was disgracefully stripped of his military rank and thrown into solitary confinement for two years at the headquarters of the notorious 111 Brigade. He was removed under section 16 of the Pakistan Military Law and Manual of Pakistan Military Law, with his property confiscated and retirement benefits denied. He became a pariah within the uniformed community as his former colleagues started avoiding meeting him, lest they anger the ruling dispensation. He was never court marshaled.

The People’s Army Chief

They say the third time’s the charm. That definitely proved true for Nawaz Sharif when he chose Gen Raheel Sharif as his COAS. Though the civil-military pendulum swung back in the favour of the army, Prime Minister Sharif was not unceremoniously deposed even when events permitted. The two Sharifs shared a strained relationship, but one in which both recognized the importance of the other’s post.

The three years that Raheel Sharif was the Army chief the government was kept ‘on its toes’[v]. The activist role he assumed came as a surprise as at the time of appointment he was considered a ‘safe pick’[vi].

He played a decisive role in reshaping Pakistan army’s strategic policy. The three pillars of Sharif doctrine on the home front were- anti-militancy, anti-corruption and anti-crime. Another significant contribution was his take on Pakistan’s relations with its archenemy- India. As Siddiqa reminds us, “Contrary to his two predecessors, General Musharraf and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, both of whom seemed to have shifted away from India during their last years in service, General Sharif put India right back on the military-strategic map as the prime bogey”[vii].

Whether his popularity should be credited to ISPR[viii] (Inter-Services Public Relations)-public relations wing of the army- or his decisive leadership at a time of rampant corruption, terrorism and insecurity is a moot point as he won the approval of the citizenry. From naming mosques after him to hanging his portraits on trucks and auto-rickshaws, people came up with innovative ways to express their love for him. His larger-than-life persona overshadowed the political landscape and eclipsed even the Prime Minister. A string of policies launched under him increased the pre-eminence of the army in national affairs- Zarb-e-Azb in July 2014, Protection of Pakistan Act, National Action Plan in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack and the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in 2015. In fact, when the army took on the Taliban in Waziristan through operation Zarb-e-Azb, the civilian leadership was negotiating peace with militants based in the tribal areas. Civilian consent was obtained post-facto. He shocked many when he decided to “retire on the due date”, becoming the first army chief in two decades to retire on time[ix].

The New Army Chief

With the elevation of Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to the rank of four-star general, Prime Minister Nawaz Shariz appointed him as the 16th Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan. Gen Raheel Sharif is leaving behind the legacy of an activist role on issues pertaining to domestic instability. Gen Bajwa, who was serving as Inspector General of the Training and Evaluation in General Headquarters at Rawalpindi, a position Raheel also held before he became the COAS, is believed to continue his predecessor’s policies. He is considered a Kashmir expert as he has Commanded the famed 10 Corps, the Army`s largest, which oversees the entire Line of Control and led the Force Command Northern Areas which is responsible for northern areas of Kashmir, including the Siachen glacier. For Sharif, his pro-democracy credentials and lower profile leanings tipped the balance in his favour. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would be well advised to continue his cautious approach to civil-military relations, for the future of his government and Pakistan.


[i] Musharraf, Pervez, In The Line Of Fire: A Memoir, Free Press, 2006, Page 85

[ii] Pg 150

[iii] Cloughley, Brian, A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections, Oxford University Press, 1999, Pg 332

[iv] Cloughley, Brian, A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections, Oxford University Press, 1999, Pg 335

[v] ‘Goodbye General!’, The News, 27th November, 2016

[vi] ‘Lt. Gen. Raheel Sharif Appointed New Chief of Pakistan’s Powerful Army’, Foreign Policy, 27th November, 2013

[vii] ‘Goodbye General!’, The News, 27th November, 2016

[viii]‘Raheel Sharif: The chief who could be king’, Herald, 5th December, 2016

[ix] ‘Gen Raheel Sharif puts speculations to rest, says will retire on due date’, DAWN, 26th January, 2016


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