ONE would think that Army Chief General Raheel Sharif’s unequivocal statement, saying he is not interested in an extension, would have calmed frayed nerves in the PML-N camp, but not so.
In background discussions with Dawn, several ruling party insiders have expressed shock over what they see as the government allowing the military to tip the already-delicate balance of power in their favour, without putting up much of a fight.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s term in office has been punctuated with tensions between the civilian and military leadership over issues such as membership of the military coalition against Yemen and implementation of the much-touted National Action Plan.
Commenting on the status of civil-military relations, Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told Dawn, “I don’t buy the argument that the civilian and military leadership are on one page.”
Senior PML-N leaders told Dawn that the chief’s statement was a reaction to media reports attributed to federal ministers, claiming that the government wanted to offer Gen Sharif more time in office. The justification presented for these claims was that the government wanted the general to see the NAP through to its conclusion, since the two institutions had gelled well in the ongoing fight against terrorism.
A news story, attributed to close aides of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had claimed that three senior members of the ruling party were in contact with GHQ in a bid to persuade the COAS to accept the extension in his term because the government wanted to ensure continuity of the anti-terrorism policy spearheaded by Gen Sharif.
Meanwhile, the capital was abuzz with rumours that these overtures were part of a well thought-out scheme to undermine the role of the army chief well before his retirement.
For defence analyst and seasoned journalist Zahid Hussain, the army chief’s apparent attempt to put speculations surrounding his extension to rest “will only create more speculation over what the military establishment would look like under new leadership”.
“Personally, I think Gen Sharif should have conveyed his decision not to seek an extension silently, instead of making a public statement.”
A PML-N office-bearer, however, was less forgiving. When asked what would have been the right course of action for the government after these media reports came to light, the office-bearer said the federal government should have immediately issued a clarification that it had nothing to do with such information.
“Instead, for reasons unexplained, a discussion over whether Gen Sharif will be awarded an extension — like his predecessor — continued unabated until the ISPR stepped in,” he said.
When asked if he believed that speculation about a possible extension for the army chief was initiated deliberately in an attempt to marginalise his role, the office-bearer said, “Whosever ignited this controversy, the responsibility lies with the federal government, which didn’t act to stop it.”
What is worrying, a PML-N MNA told Dawn, is that the ball is back in the government’s court, which will be under pressure to perform instead of sidelining important issues.
“In countries such as Pakistan, where extensions or appointments of army chiefs generate a great deal of interest among the general public, such a statement coming directly from the sitting army chief has put all controversies surrounding his extension to rest,” said the MNA.
As a result, the focus is back on the civilian government, notwithstanding the impression that the government is wary of the army chief’s increasing presence in the public sphere.
“I have personally heard senior ministers complaining about how the media has been unfair in only providing coverage to the army chief, when they are putting in equally good efforts in bringing peace to Karachi and improving the overall law and order situation in the country,” the lawmaker said.
Analyst Imtiaz Gul, however, summed up the debate quite well. “The current army chief clearly wants to go down in history as a purely professional soldier, who refused to be tempted by the prospect of an extension and has reposed trust in his parent institution.”
By doing so, Mr Gul emphasised, the army chief has “put the onus of his future entirely on the political government”.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2016