As tensions play out at home, powerful Pakistani general heads to U.S. for talks

Pakistan's newly appointed army chief General Raheel Sharif attends the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi
Pakistan's newly appointed army chief General Raheel Sharif attends the change of command ceremony in with outgoing army chief General Ashfaq Kayani (not in picture) at army headquarters in Rawalpindi November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

November 13, 2015

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Days before Pakistan’s powerful army chief was due to visit Washington for talks on regional stability and fighting militancy, General Raheel Sharif engaged in thinly veiled criticism of the nuclear-armed country’s civilian government.

A terse statement from the army’s PR wing underlined the tension between Pakistan’s military and its civilian government, just as the United States prepares to receive Sharif weeks after the prime minister held talks there.

After top generals met to review a major crackdown on extremists, the Pakistani military said it would be “undermined” if the government did not take “matching governance initiatives”.

That was taken to mean police reform, action on militant financing and better governance of restive tribal areas. 

“He (Sharif) is foreign minister, prime minister, president and army chief all rolled into one,” said a Pakistani newspaper editor, while also questioning the military’s motives.

“His greatest achievement is that he has cemented this idea that the army is no longer interested in politics.”

Sharif’s hold on key policy areas goes beyond the normal remit of a military chief, and helps explain why officers and officials in Washington will be keen to speak to him when he visits from Nov. 15-20.

The general, not related to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has helped recast the image of the military, which has ousted several civilian governments and ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history.

Since taking office two years ago, Sharif has been credited with broadening Pakistan’s strategic policy to focus less narrowly on India and recognize the threat to internal security posed by the Pakistani Taliban and other militants.

SELECTIVE CRACKDOWN?

Raheel Sharif, a chain-smoker happy to pose for selfies with everyone from soldiers to the prime minister’s grandchildren, is dubbed the “Man of Action” of Pakistani politics.

Military campaigns against the Pakistani Taliban, criminal gangs in Karachi and anti-Shiite militants have enhanced his public appeal. #ThankYouRaheelSharif has trended for months on social media websites like Twitter.

The crackdown against militants, leading to a drop in political violence in Pakistan, has been broadly welcomed by the United States, as past military chiefs have been less willing to attack jihadist strongholds along the Afghan border.

Around 10,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Afghanistan.

It was also under the general that the first official peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul government were held at Pakistan’s Murree resort in July, although negotiations have stalled with little hope of resumption any time soon.

    But critics say the 59-year-old is not doing enough to disarm the Pakistani military’s jihadist proxies, namely India-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the Haqqani network which attacks Afghan and Western forces in Kabul.

    “In the beginning he was very promising,” said Moeed Yusuf, director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“Since then, I think there’s been a bit of a question mark all over again … Is he going to go after the Haqqani network? Is he doing enough on the India terrorism base?”

In Washington next week, General Sharif is due to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a senior Pakistani military official.

    “We will talk specifically with him about our counter terrorism cooperation,” said a U.S. State Department official, requesting anonymity.

    “We’ll talk very clearly with him about concerns on the activities of certain militant groups who continue to use Pakistani territory to fund-raise.”

    Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation will also be discussed, as General Sharif seeks to dispel U.S. concerns that “loose nukes” could fall into the hands of militants, a Pakistani military official said.

GROWING DIVIDE

The Pakistani government responded to the army’s recent statement by reminding the military to remain “within the ambit of the constitution.”

But Raheel Sharif’s aides said he supported democracy.

    Last year, after weeks of mounting anti-government protests, the army chief overruled some generals who were convinced it was time for the military to step in and force the embattled prime minister to resign.

    “He will point out problems and gaps; he does not shy from sharing concerns,” General Asim Bajwa, head of the military’s media wing, told Reuters. “But at the end of the day he supports democracy unwaveringly.”

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Kay Johnson and Mike Collett-White)