My father told me this. Two old wisdom-wizened Chinese friends were sitting in silence on a daisy-filled bank contemplating a bubbling brook one sunny summer’s day. They stared quietly at the fish playing, jumping out of the water and back in again. It was a liquid hive of activity. After a long while one of the elderly gentlemen broke the silence and said, “The fish seem happy.” His friend remained silent for a long time and asked finally, “How do you know? You are not a fish.” A long silence fell again. Finally, the first old man asked the second, “How do you know I am not a fish?” Silence overtook them again and they continued watching the jumping fish in the bubbling brook.
See how the national conversation can change in a trice in Pakistan? The army announced that Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif would neither seek nor accept an extension to his three-year tenure ending November and Pakistanis were agog and, I dare say, much of the army too. But I ask myself: what’s going on? How do you know that General Raheel Sharif means what he says? You are neither seer nor fish; some would look on me as neither, some might think that I am a fish. I don’t think I am either, just a fallible man trying to understand. No one can ever know for sure what really is in anyone’s heart? Only God knows. My vocation is to think and analyze and either come to the correct conclusion, more or less, or confuse myself and others. What else can imperfect man do but try to think things through?
Regardless, by so saying General Raheel Sharif has raised his stature higher than it was while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was (and still may be) wasting his time drinking coffee at Selfridges in London while Rome burns. Confused as he is, his mind would be in further confusion, thinking up some bizarre plan that would fell him as it did in October 1999 rather than the man he wishes to fell. In his confusion he said in Davos that “we have broken the back of terrorism” while the bodies of the 122 martyred victims of a terrorist attack in Bachcha Khan University were still warm. Betrays not just crass insensitivity but also that he has become quite irrelevant bar the expensive trappings. Better that he goes on long leave, perks and all. Raheel may have thought that he could put speculation to rest and dampen the cajoling for his position that must have started in the army’s high command, which can be very distracting and damaging. But there has to be more to it than meets the eye, like there’s more to an iceberg under the sea than what one sees on the surface.
Immediately after General Raheel Sharif’s announcement politicians started quarrelling like hags, like the ‘quarrel button’ had been pressed. The Punjabi interior minister from the ruling Nawaz faction of the Muslim League, on one side and two Sindhi’s from the People’s Party on the other, one the information advisor of the Sindh provincial government and the second the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, all threatening parochial brimstone and fire. They proved me right: power-seeking, parochialism-rived greedy politicians are wittingly or unwittingly breaking Pakistan by going for one another’s provincial throats instead of working together with the army to defeat terrorism and corruption. You don’t say: all of them driven by safety and self-interest? Difficult to comprehend such myopia.
Given his pedigree the general might mean what he says because he doesn’t want to tarnish his family’s image. He could have concluded that Pakistan has gone into irreversible decline and doesn’t want to be at the table when the final denouncement comes, if and when it does. Or perhaps given his family history of two martyrs who were both awarded our highest awards for gallantry, he is not the sort of man who would leave his command in the middle of a war, his job unfinished. He would see it through. For this reason it is difficult to believe him at face value especially if the job remains incomplete. He might want to set the precedent of not taking extensions while ensuring that he completes his task of winning the war against terrorism and their corrupt enablers the ‘innocent’ and ‘dirt poor’ politicians and criminals in the ten months that he has left. It can be done, so watch it terrorists, corrupt politicians and Mafiosi alike. Raheel Sharif is in a hurry.
When ten minutes is a long time in Pakistan, 10 months is an eternity. A lot can happen and be done in the time. See how the chattering instantly changed with the announcement. Obviously terrorists and politicians (little difference) are happy for they would love to see the back of the man who is waging an effective war against them. Pseudo democrats are happy too, not realizing that an army intervention is not dependent on the chief alone but more on the institution. Remember 1999? The army overthrew Nawaz Sharif while their chief General Musharraf was not even there, flying incommunicado and unknowing from Colombo to Pakistan. The institution didn’t need its chief to take the decision. Then again, the new chief, if any at the time advertised, may be as effective as Raheel Sharif or more against terrorists and the corrupt. Many smiles would be wiped off very quickly.
“It’s all about institution building,” says the pseudo. Forsooth and double forsooth. When you can allow an alleged criminal with dozens of cases withdrawn against him to become President of Pakistan, when you can permit a pardoned ex-convict to contest elections and become prime minister a third time, when you can allow a self-confessed money launderer to become your finance minister yet again, when you can illegally restore a sacked, corrupt and near-illiterate chief justice of Pakistan instead of placing life bans on them all from ever holding office in future, when you can allow the restoration of the fire-spewing, darkness-spreading mullah of the Red Mosque by the Supreme Court and still don’t arrest him despite orders, what institution building are you talking about, pray? Such hypocrisy is institution destroying, not institution building.
What intrigues is the early timing of the announcement. Was it due to external or internal pressure? Is it that Raheel didn’t get what he wanted from America? I doubt it. In any case, he doesn’t seem to be the type of man who would need America’s nod to do what he thinks is right. In any case, once it happens pragmatic America caught in a twist will stay in line if it wishes to stop the Taliban from occupying Afghanistan again. They accepted General Sisi in Egypt because he got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood and the guy who took over in Thailand too. In any case, it seems that America is done with its ‘democracy in the Third Word’ dirge and is quietly shifting to effective reforms in deed if not in word. Is it because of internal pressure from the army because officers in line for the chief’s position may have been unhappy and even unwilling to see their chances go down the drain if his term is extended? Is General Raheel fed up of non-cooperation from confused and divided political governments and politicians with bad intent, not implementing their part of the National Action Plan to save themselves and terrorists for whom the they have a soft spot and wanting to make failure besmirch the army’s rising image? Or could it be a tactical move for the following purposes, some of which I have already surmised in the foregoing?
- Force the government to extend the term of service chiefs by one year, and increase all military retirement age by as much to placate officers who would lose out.
- Hope that people would come out on the streets and build a huge groundswell of public opinion demanding that General Raheel stays on and sees his job through, especially in Karachi where they have benefitted most from the operation against terrorism, criminality and corruption. This is what Egypt’s President Nasser did when he ‘resigned’ after defeat in the 1967 war against Israel. People came out; he stayed on.
- A citizen’s petition has already been filed in the Supreme Court pleading for another 3-year term for General Raheel Sharif. The army might have played a role here too. This could either be the beginning of a groundswell or a somnambulant people might continue sleeping while the train of life takes them towards national suicide.
- If public opinion extends Raheel Sharif’s term, he will become whiter than white and see it as a mandate to play a more effective role in decision-making or even send the government and system packing.
- Or the general might have made up his mind to finish the job in the 10 months left to him. In that case, expect the army to extend its anti-terrorism, anti-corruption, anti-criminality operation to the Punjab very soon, hitting the House of Sharif too. If it can go for its former chief and his brothers, what price Nawaz Sharif, family and corrupt cronies?
- If all else fails, Raheel could intervene and form a civilian government comprising specialists headed by a political prime minister. He would then take time to amend the constitution, rearrange and reform governance structures, a new and more democratic political system that throws up good governments that deliver to the people, all elections direct with second ballots in two-candidate races in which one-man-one-vote counts. The parliament would be an Advisory Assembly in reality, which is precisely what ‘Majlis-e-Shoora’ means; it should not be a law making body. Parliament should be totally separate and independent from the executive and not its electoral college as well, else check and balance would be compromised. The law-making body or legislature should comprise jurists, legal specialists, historians and leaders from all sections of society as required by Islam to make laws that are debated and advised on by parliament first and amended if it makes sense before they are made law. Semi-educated parliamentarians and mullahs tainted by self-interest are not qualified to make laws. Neither is one man surrounded by a junta.
Thus this premature announcement could be a warning shot, a danger bell starting to toll for all politicians and terrorists. Having said that, I stress that only the foolhardy would bet on any eventuality in Pakistan.
General Raheel Sharif showed his intent when he held a meeting in Karachi with army officers only, not bothering to invite anyone from the Sindh government. He effectively trashed the army-government ‘Apex Committee’ and pushed it off the summit. So much for that lost mummy from Egypt, the chief minister of Sindh ‘heading the Rangers operation’.
All we can do is think, analyze, advise, pray, hope for the best and prepare for the