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The new Raheel Sharif

The soldier’s soldier does not deserve it. The news that General (r) Raheel Sharif has accepted (later modified as: he may accept) the command of the 34-member Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Finding him vulnerable, even his former poet laureates are wielding daggers — the most vicious critics attributing financial motives to his prospective ‘Saudi employment’.

Hate him or like him, Raheel is no mercenary. The defining sentiment of his personality is not greed but glory. Raheel Sharif’s strengths and weaknesses are rooted in his unquenchable thirst for glory – as is the case with all true warriors. Being a younger brother is difficult; living under the shadow of an elder brother who belongs to the pantheon of national martyrs must be a backbreaking burden. Unfortunately, no living warrior can ever equal a          martyred hero and that makes the quest almost impossible. On the darker side, his search for glory has resulted in his penchant for publicity that unnecessarily overshadowed political leaders during his tenure and kept people guessing about his intentions.

If there is a personal motive, and there is always one in all human affairs, it must be to assume a larger role to match his larger-than-life self-image — like the role played by the generals who led the world wars and whose biographies every soldier reads during his training days. However, his ambition does not mean anything unless it is in sync with the national policy. He is not a free agent but someone who carries the weight of the secrets of a nuclear power and three decades of the institutional memory of world’s fifth largest army. Even after retirement, he remains tied to the institution he served for much of his life, and to the security of his nation.

It will be ingrate of us to forget so easily what he achieved for this nation. The Taliban state — from where terrorists used to descend upon us like mosquitoes — has been annihilated. Their cheerleaders, both bearded and clean-shaven, have been muted. No one justifies the terrorists’ bestiality as a reaction to one thing or the other. No one offers them offices in exchange for the soul of the nation. Gen (r) Raheel may not have been able to clean the Augean stables completely, but much of the work has been done.

As a staunch believer in the civilian supremacy, I disagreed with many of his actions and policy choices. The democratic transition hit serious roadblocks during his tenure and his attitude towards the elected government appeared quite overbearing on many occasions. In my opinion, we would be better off had the civilian government enjoyed more authority within the domain of foreign policy during his tenure. But at the end of the day, he was the umpire who refused to lift his finger and he was probably the first army chief who completed his full tenure without sending a prime minister home.

General Raheel can take this job only if the military and, to some extent, the civilian government feels that such an association will be in the national interest. If someone thought that such a step could be portrayed as the decision of a private individual, they must have realised their mistake by now. We must discuss the decision to extend the services of one of the finest soldiers of our history to one of our closest allies in terms of our national interest and the national policy.

Pakistan forged a close alliance with the Arab world soon after Independence and military ties have been an integral part of this cooperation. It is a known fact that Pakistan Air Force pilots flew on the side of the Arabs in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Pakistan Army units were stationed in Saudi Arabia for many years and when an Independent Armoured Brigade Group was established, General Jahangir Karamat — who later became Pakistan’s army chief — served as the first commander of this unit from 1985 to 1988.

This close relationship also had its less glorious phases. In 1970, Brigadier Ziaul Haq led the Jordanian troops to crush the Palestinian uprising when Jordanian state faced the threat of internal explosion in the wake of the defeat in Arab-Israel war. General Moshe Dayan of Israel noted that “King Hussein killed more Palestinians  in seven days    than Israel could kill in twenty years”.

Pakistan helped the Arabs build civilian institutions, strengthen their military and protect themselves from internal and external threats. By doing so, Pakistan contributed to the stability of a region that was important to its national interests.

In return, Pakistan reaped enormous economic and diplomatic dividends, particularly after the oil boom that started in the 1970s. Luckily, the oil bonanza coincided with a new impetus in close relations during the Z A  Bhutto’s government (1971-1977).

Apart from offering economic support to the government, the Arab countries have provided job opportunities to millions of Pakistani workers, creating an unprecedented opportunity for upward mobility to the working class.          Remittances from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries constitute 65 percent of the total remittances and provide a crucial support to Pakistan’s economy.

It is not Pakistan going to the Middle East that has given us problems, it is the Middle East arriving in Pakistan that has proved to be our undoing.  It was Zia who brought the Middle East to Pakistan and we can pin it down exactly to the year 1979. Both Pakistan and Arab countries had close relations with Iran until the 1979 revolution that turned the country into a Shia theocracy and pitted it against the Arab countries in a renewed regional sectarian conflict that had been absent from the Middle East’s politics for some time.

Two other things also happened in that fateful year that changed the nature of politics in the Middle East and the Muslim world. In November and December that year, insurgents took over Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Many of the militants belonged to Saudi tribal families that had helped the Saudi royal family establish the kingdom.

The event created a crisis of legitimacy for the Saudi monarchy and its leadership of the Muslim world. The monarchy responded by granting enormous powers to the religious establishment of Wahabi scholars. These powers included control over the education department.

If this was not enough, in December 1979, Soviet tanks rolled through the Salang tunnel and the communist superpower assumed complete control of Afghanistan.    For Ziaul Haq, it provided an opportunity to deal with his crisis of legitimacy and ensure Western support. For Saudi Arabia, it was    an opportunity to respond to both the internal and external challenges.

At a time when we needed to insulate ourselves from the poisonous winds blowing in the Middle East, Ziaul Haq opened the floodgates to Middle Eastern ideological and political influence in Pakistan. Zia’s regime adopted a laissez faire attitude towards the Arab and Iranian sectarian public diplomacy in Pakistan and allowed both sides to cultivate influence among political parties and sectarian groups. It did not take long for the laboratory of Islam to turn into an assembly line of Frankenstein’s monsters.

It has taken our ruling elite 30 years to realise what went wrong with Pakistan. No one symbolises a contrast to Ziaul Haq and his legacy better than General Raheel. Will his leadership of the Saudi alliance, if accepted, open the floodgates to new storms that are brewing on the Middle Eastern horizon? I intend to continue with this theme in my next column.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "The new Raheel Sharif," The News. 2017-01-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political system , Political stability , Military alliance , Government-Pakistan , Political leaders , Nuclear power , Democracy , Supremacy , Leadership , Terrorism , Gen Raheel , Gen Jahangir Karamat , Palestine , Pakistan , GCC