Gen Raheel Sharif’s challenges in 2014

raheel shrifBy Asif Haroon Raja

Learning from his folly of sidelining most deserving and senior most Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan and appointing Gen Pervez Musharraf as COAS in October 1998, PM Nawaz Sharif this time acted sensibly. Hullabaloo made by the media over delay in announcing the names of new CJCSC and COAS and then the supersession of Lt Gen Haroon Aslam was soon drowned after he appointed second and third senior most officers Gen Rashad Mahmood and Gen Raheel Sharif as CJCSC and COAS respectively strictly on merit. Both are professionally sound with sterling qualities of head and heart and enjoy clean reputation. Gen Rashad is a go-getter and is likely to infuse more life in his huge organization. Belonging to a martial family and brother of Maj Shabbir Sharif Shaheed Nishan-e-Haider, Gen Raheel is fully qualified to take forward the good work done by his predecessor Gen Kayani. He has taken no time to settle down and make his presence felt. He knows that 2014 will be a highly challenging year.

The agenda before him for this year is the ongoing war on terror which has taken its toll on the Army. Proposed peace talks which have so far have made no headway and about which the nation stands divided is another weighty problem. Possibility of launching a major military operation in North Waziristan (NW) cannot be ruled out in case the talks fail. Missing persons issue in Balochistan which has been hyped by vested groups to malign Frontier Corps, MI and ISI is another matter of unease. Restive Karachi which is not getting stabilized despite Rangers-Police targeted operation is a cause of worry for all. Another irksome problem is inability of the law courts to convict terrorists nabbed with great difficulty because of faulty investigative and judicial systems and most getting released. Terrorism cannot be defeated by the Army unless these flaws are remedied.

Trial of former Army Chief Gen Musharraf is another matter which the media and vested groups are trying to exploit and to spoil civil-military relations. It is good that ISPR has refrained from expressing Army’s stance on his trial. Secretary Defence has to a large extent put to rest the circulating rumors about the ‘Army being upset and standing behind Musharraf’ by stating that the Army has nothing to do with the trial. The ball is in the court of the judiciary and not in Army or government’s courts. The law should take its own course.

On the external front, Afghanistan’s abrasive attitude despite government’s policy of appeasement is upsetting. It has so far not closed down TTP’s bases in Kunar and Nuristan nor handed over Fazlullah and other runaway TTP militants. Neither RAW and NDS have been restrained from meddling in internal affairs of Pakistan. It is to be seen whether elections would take place in Afghanistan in next April and whether the change in government would be for the good or bad for Pakistan.

Although recent meeting between India-Pakistan DGMOs has for the time being defused the tension along the LoC, however, unresolved Kashmir, Siachin, Sir Creek and water issues will keep the two neighbors on a warpath. Besides a very heavy financial drain to maintain troops on the highest battlefield of the world, most casualties suffered by troops in Siachin Glacier are from inclement weather and treacherous terrain. Yet India stubbornly refuses to withdraw from its illegal occupation since April 1984.

The US overbearing attitude together with presence of CIA network in Pakistan, its refusal to stop drone attacks, its disinclination to release close support fund to the Army for the services it had availed and its continued proclivity towards India would not help in improving Pak-US military ties. It is yet not known whether the US would leave behind residual force in Afghanistan or exercise ‘zero option’. It is difficult to predict whether Afghanistan would become peaceful or more violent once the ISAF departs. In case the US and Taliban fail to arrive at a political settlement with the help of guarantors, possibility of civil war in Afghanistan seems imminent, thereby making the western border more turbulent.

Cognizant of the challenges ahead, at the outset, Gen Raheel promoted and appointed right officers for the important posts of CGS, Strategic Force Command, SPD, IGT&E, DGMO and some Corps Commanders. Besides chairing two Corps Commanders conferences to take stock of the current internal and external security situation, he has undertaken several visits to FATA, Azad Kashmir and military cantonments to interact with the troops and to view Army’s operational preparedness and ongoing reconstruction works in FATA. He also spent considerable time in Fauji Foundation, which unlike all the State corporations, is magically in profit and has now embarked upon windmill projects in Karachi and Muzaffarabad to produce energy. It was thoughtful of him to pay a visit to armed forces institute of rehabilitation where he paid rich tributes to the sacrifices and valor of soldiers fighting the war on terror with determination. He described the injured soldiers as national heroes. They were assured that the Army would do everything to make their lives comfortable. During his visit to Peshawar, he offered Fateha at the graves of Army Shuhada to remind those who had passed unethical judgment over their Shahadat, how dearly the Army holds the Shaheeds who had sacrificed their lives to preserve the integrity of Pakistan.

Having recaptured 17 out of 18 administrative units from the militants’ possession in 2009, the Army is in holding role since then. The sole stronghold of the TTP is in NW where owing to multiple constraining factors no major operation has been launched. The militants rather than reciprocating have arrogantly rejected government’s unconditional offer of peace talks and are continuing with their militant activities. The TTP along with its over 50 affiliated terrorist groups including foreign groups have taken advantage of government’s softness and Army’s inaction in NW and since 2013 stepped up terrorist attacks so as to put added pressure on the government and to hold talks from a position of strength.

In deference to government’s policy of holding peace talks with militants at all costs, the deployed troops in FATA and in restive parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are operating with one hand tied and at best are reacting to direct assault on their positions. In other words, Army has been put in a reactive mode which has allowed the initiative to slip into the hands of the militants. They are free to plan, organize and launch attacks at selected targets at will. The TTP under absconder Fazlullah heated up NW by attacking Khajuri military check post near Mir Ali on December 19, 2013, killing five soldiers and injuring some. Counter action by security forces which resulted in some civilian casualties was resented by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and segment of media. Rather than criticizing the counter action and terming it as gruesome, the critics should divert their energies towards peace process. The ones sheltering anti-Pakistan militants, both locals and foreigners, who are using civilians as human shields, need to be told to stop protecting them for their own good. The sympathizers should inform the security forces of their whereabouts rather than getting aligned with them.

While reiterating full support to government-led ongoing peace process, Gen Raheel emphasized that terrorist attacks will not be tolerated and there will be an effective response by the armed forces. PM Nawaz Sharif corroborated Gen Raheel’s stance by saying that attacks of terrorists were intolerable and the government and the military were on same page about tackling the menace of terrorism. It is hoped that government and Maulana Samiul Haq’s efforts succeed in achieving a breakthrough in peace talks with TTP. Unless internal peace is restored, the fragile economy cannot be revived.

The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst.

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