x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

As a friend, I know that Gen Sharif will serve Pakistan well

The new leader of Pakistan's military has fine credentials for the job.

The year was 1961. I was a member of the hockey team of St Mary’s Public School; Shabbir Sharif, in his final year, three years my senior, was captaining the team in a match against our arch-rivals, St Denny’s Public School. We beat St Denny’s by three goals to two but, as always, the match ended acrimoniously and violence ensued.

Major Muhammed Sharif, our team captain’s father, had witnessed the match and invited the victorious team home for a cup of tea. Major Sharif and his wife were an extremely friendly, affectionate and hospitable couple. I was to remain a favoured “adopted nephew” of this wonderful couple for as long as the old man lived.

During that visit, I was introduced to the youngest of our team captain’s siblings: a little tyke, less than six years old, Raheel Sharif.

On Friday, Gen Raheel Sharif became Pakistan’s 15th army chief.

Shabbir, Gen Raheel’s elder brother, was commissioned in the 6th Battalion, the Frontier Force Regiment, 6FF unit, in 1964. He was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat (Star of Courage), Pakistan’s third highest gallantry award for his courage in action, during the 1965 war. In 1971, Shabbir was posthumously awarded the highest gallantry award in Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Haider and thus became the most decorated soldier in the Pakistan army.

I was to join Shabbir’s unit some years after Shabbir did and Raheel also joined the same unit more than half a dozen years later.

By 1976, 6FF had completed its three year stint fighting insurgents in the badlands of Baluchistan and was due to move to Peshawar, in November that year, for a breather. As the senior-most captain, due to be promoted to major before the year ended, I was dispatched to take over the Advance Party of the unit in September. Raheel was instructed to report to me when he completed his leave after having been commissioned, in October 1976. Soon thereafter, he was posted to my company.

Thus began a long relationship of mutual affection of our families. I was to play a small but continuous role in Gen Raheel’s life as long as I was in uniform. Gen Raheel is laid-back, soft-spoken, polite, naturally humble and deferential to his seniors. His polite deference is misinterpreted for weakness. From the very outset of his long and distinguished career, he made a mark for himself.

For the practised eye, a cursory glance at his career is sufficient to establish that the army left no stone unturned in grooming him for elevation to the highest ranks.

Through the 37 years of his uniformed service so far, he has held all the choicest instructional, command and staff assignments in each rank. He has done all the courses that equip officers for elevation to senior ranks. And has done very well in all of them.

As a three-star officer, Gen Raheel commanded a corps and was later appointed Inspector General Training and Evaluation, the assignment he was holding when he was given his fourth star. The official spokesperson for the army in the Inter-Services Public Relations department, ISPR, reports that, as the IGT&E, Gen Raheel was responsible for designing and evaluating the response to India’s Cold Start doctrine – a defence strategy that aims at destroying Pakistan’s armed forces if a war erupts.

The same report credits Gen Raheel with recognising that the domestic existential threat posed by terrorists to Pakistan was by far the more threatening one than that posed by India and, subsequently, for designing, honing and fine-tuning the response to this threat. These are no mean achievements by any stretch of the imagination.

Compared to other contenders, Gen Raheel might have lesser experience in combat-command assignments, but if he has successfully theorised the response to both threats, he should be able to implement them as well. Needless to say, this will be his greatest challenge and I, like the entire nation, wish him every conceivable success.

Predicting the actions of any individual holding so challenging an assignment is fraught with danger. But I am fairly certain that, like his predecessor, Gen Raheel will continue to help nurture the democratic process. In fact, I will be surprised if relations between the elected representatives and the military hierarchy do not improve within a few months.

I also have little doubt that he will continue to pursue the policy of winning the hearts and minds of the disenchanted peoples of the tribal areas and Baluchistan. Welfare projects to improve the economic conditions, education, health, water and political-social environments will be pursued with even greater vigour than before.

For Pakistan, India remains a concern and the US is preparing to pull out of Afghanistan. The possibility of a US-Iran rapprochement is encouraging, but will it happen and how far will it go? How will Pakistan balance its dependence on the US and the need for an independent foreign policy? These all are challenges to Pakistan’s foreign policy, but diplomacy is tied by an umbilical cord to defence, and so Gen Raheel’s advice and input will be critically important. This will be his second big challenge.

By the time Gen Kiyani left, he was a tired wraith compared to when he took over. Gen Raheel appears fresh and “on-the-go”. Like the rest of the nation, I look at him in hope, and I wait.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer