Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—On December 9, 2013, the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began his visit to Pakistan by calling on the country’s newly appointed Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, in his office at the Army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The message he was carrying was plain and simple: reopen NATO’s supply route passing through Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhawa, which borders Afghanistan and which had been blocked for a week due to political protests, or risk losing billions of dollars in military and economic aid.
It was General Sharif’s first encounter with an official from Washington since taking office as the head of Pakistan’s army, and perhaps also one of his first encounters with such a senior foreign official in his entire career. Despite a long and illustrious career as a military officer, he has never before occupied a position in Pakistan’s military hierarchy providing him with the opportunity to meet diplomats, cabinet ministers and top-ranking military officers of foreign countries.
Over the past ten years, the profile of the Pakistani Army has risen to unprecedented heights on the international scene, primarily due to its lead role in the war against terrorism. This has taken its leaders around the world to discuss strategy and the regional security situation with officials in world capitals.
But, equally, during this time many professional soldiers—such as General Sharif—have remained immersed in leading and managing Pakistan’s military campaigns, rather than interacting with foreign policy establishments in world capitals, says a senior military official.
Not surprisingly, when General Sharif’s first meeting with Hagel, which lasted for more than an hour, was concluded, the public relations directorate of the Pakistani Army had nothing to report to the media and, in a break with usual procedure, no press release was issued on the meeting.
The next day, the Pakistani media’s reporting of Hagel’s visit focused largely on his meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but, to the utter surprise of political analysts, seemed to place no importance on it.
This was in complete contrast with the days when General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani served as Chief of Army Staff. Before becoming Army Chief, General Kayani served as head of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-service Intelligence (ISI), for three years, which brought him into contact with security and foreign policy establishments around the world.
Meanwhile, Gen. Sharif’s assignments in the Army hierarchy were restricted to dealing with purely military affairs. As a brigadier, he commanded two infantry brigades before moving up to command an infantry division and serve as the Commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy. Following his promotion to lieutenant-general, Sharif served for two years as a Corps Commander until taking over as an Inspector General for Training and Evaluation, a post in which he was involved in overseeing training across the Pakistani Army.
Aside from his command of various units, military insiders describe General Sharif’s most important recent role in Pakistan’s officer corps was as a key strategist. In that capacity he helped prepare Pakistan’s response to India’s “Cold Start” strategy, which the Indian military reportedly developed in 2004 as a contingency plan to punish Pakistan militarily in the event of new terrorist attacks in India.
At the same time, Gen. Sharif is being described in military circles as belonging to a school of thought within the Pakistani military that sees the primary threat to Pakistan’s survival emanating from internal, rather than external, sources.
Retired Brigadier General Shaukat Qadir, a military analyst who has known General Sharif from a young age, says: “The military spokesman informs us that as the Inspector General of Evaluation and training, Raheel designed the response to India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine as well as identifying the fact that the domestic threat was the most pressing one.”
Military insiders say that General Sharif played a key role in shaping the training of units for counterterrorism operations. Ten years ago, the Pakistani Army was a conventional force trained to fight a conventional war with its much larger adversary, India. Military officials say that during the past ten years, Pakistan’s army has undergone a transformation of sorts, with many of its units and formations undergoing retraining in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations.
Military experts say that it is this new focus on counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism operations that allowed the Pakistani Army to achieve some successes against the militants in Swat valley and South Waziristan Tribal Agency in 2009—both of these areas have since been declared clear of militants.
“General Raheel Sharif played no small role in transforming the training programs of Pakistan’s army from a simple conventional force into a multi-role force that can handle counter-insurgency and fight a conventional war at the same time,” said one senior military official.
General Sharif belongs to a well-known military family. His father, Muhammad Sharif, was a major in the Pakistani Army, and all three of his sons followed in his footsteps. The eldest, Major Shabbir Sharif Shaheed, is held up as a hero of the 1971 war with India, so much so that there is a special chapter on him in Pakistan’s primary school textbooks.
“All three of Major Sharif’s male children joined the army,” writes Qadir. “Shabbir and Raheel joined 6 Frontier Force Regiment, the unit that I was also commissioned in and commanded. Mumtaz was the only one who left early. Shabbir won the coveted Sword of Honor, having [graduated from military academy at the] top of his class, and as a young subaltern was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat [medal] for his courage on the battlefield during the 1965 war. Later, in 1971, he was posthumously awarded the highest gallantry award, the Nishan-e-Haider, thus becoming the most decorated soldier of Pakistan.”
In the Pakistani Army, only those officers who have an illustrious career are chosen for training courses in foreign military institutions. Qadir says: “General Sharif was selected for a Company Commander’s Course in Germany, a Staff Course in Canada, the War Course at Pakistan’s National Defense College (now a university), and the prestigious Imperial Defense Services Course in the UK. Quite obviously, the army put in some effort to groom this officer for higher ranks.”
General Sharif attained his formal education at the Government College University, Lahore, and later went on to attend the Pakistan Military Academy. After graduation, he was commissioned as a junior officer in 1976 in the renowned 6th Battalion The Frontier Force Regiment, his famous older brother’s unit.
As a young officer, he performed his duties in Gilgit in an infantry brigade and also served as adjutant of the Pakistan Military Academy. As a Lieutenant-General, General Sharif served as Corps Commander for two years before taking over as Inspector-General (Training and Evaluation), in which capacity he oversaw the training of the Pakistani Army. He was also awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, the second-highest civilian award, which is given to both civilians and military officers of the Pakistan Armed Forces.
His personal life, like most senior professional military men in Pakistan and elsewhere, is reported to be low-key, and his hobbies are said to be reading and swimming. He is married and has two sons and a daughter.
After assuming the office of Chief of the Army Staff, General Sharif began the day-to-day commitments of the office, presiding over the meeting of top military commanders of Pakistan’s army, meeting with the prime minister and president, and visiting corps headquarters in different parts of the country.
However, military and political analysts agree that soon he will be presented with tough choices in the weeks to come, such as the one given him by the visiting US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel: restore NATO supply routes, which has been blocked by political protests against US drone attacks in tribal areas, or risk losing billions of dollars.
An even more important choice that General Sharif will face is related to the issue of whether or not to facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and if so how much backing to give the pull-out. “[The] Americans need the Pakistani Army on two counts: [first] they want Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table and, second, American troops will be using Pakistani territory for withdrawing from Afghanistan,” said a military analyst.
Several political and military analysts interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat are of the opinion that despite tremendous political opposition to any move to support the US while it pulls out of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government cannot afford to antagonize Washington on this issue.
This raises the possibility that, given the treacherous political scene, Pakistan’s new army chief and his colleagues will attempt to avoid openly taking a position on whether to support the Americans in Afghanistan or not. That may be why it was Prime Minister Sharif who assured the visiting US Defense Secretary that NATO supply routes would be restored in a couple of days, while General Sharif decided to remain tight-lipped on the subject.
Others speculate that General Sharif does not feel qualified to speak out on the issue. Some Islamabad insiders believe his inexperience on foreign policy issues will keep him from taking a position on key foreign policy issues such as relations with India and to some extent on Afghanistan as well. “Unlike his predecessor, General Kayani, the new Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, is too inexperienced to take a position on foreign policy issues,” says one political analyst. Ultimately, it seems only time will tell which side he comes down on.