Pakistan Army Chief Seen Keeping Premier Sharif on Edge

Aboard a private bus heading to the funeral of a Pakistani army instructor, Raheel Sharif fumed as a small television set showed provocative dancers. Finally he took matters into his own hands.

“He stood, smashed the screen with some object and shouted ‘Don’t you guys have any decency? Families are sitting here and you screened such rubbish,’” Simon Sharaf, a former roommate of Sharif who witnessed the exchange back in 1993, said in an interview in Rawalpindi, home to the military’s headquarters. “Nobody dared to move or say anything.”

Two decades later, Raheel Sharif is keeping Pakistan’s civilian leaders on edge as army chief even as he refrains from seizing power in a country with a long history of military rule. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 coup and isn’t related to the army chief, has seen his authority diminish in recent months as the military’s has risen.

The standoff is increasing Raheel Sharif’s influence over government policies, particularly how to handle often terse relations with neighboring countries as the U.S. begins reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan. Nawaz Sharif’s moves to seek peace talks with nuclear-armed India and Taliban militants operating along the Afghan border are indefinitely stalled.

“Eventually there will be a negotiated outcome -- brokered by the military -- that keeps the government in power, offers some concessions to the protesters, and above all makes the military even stronger than it has been,” Michael Kugelman, an Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said by e-mail of the political impasse. “The military will likely take over the India and Afghanistan portfolios, jeopardizing -- unfortunately -- the progress the civilians have made toward rapprochement with both of those countries.”

Power Broker

Nawaz Sharif bypassed two more senior generals last year when he appointed Raheel Sharif, who was seen as an apolitical choice that would enhance civilian control of the armed forces. Tensions slowly rose as the government sought talks with Taliban militants and brought treason charges against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

Now, after six of weeks of protests led by opposition leader Imran Khan, Raheel Sharif has asserted the army’s role as power broker.

In mid-August, Khan and religious cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri moved past police lines into a restricted zone and set up camp in parliament. Nawaz Sharif then held meetings with Raheel Sharif to help resolve the impasse.

‘Building Himself’

Raheel Sharif met separately with Khan, Qadri, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who leads Pakistan’s state of Punjab. Nawaz Sharif later told parliament he never asked Raheel Sharif to mediate a solution, prompting Khan to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court seeking the prime minister’s disqualification for lying.

“Raheel Sharif has shown significant restraint at events that in the past may have provoked a coup,” Oliver Coleman, an analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based global risk forecasting company, said in e-mailed comments. The opposition Pakistan Peoples Party is seeking closed-door talks between political parties and the military, which has ruled the nuclear-armed country for about half its history.

Amid the protests, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration scrapped the first formal talks planned with Pakistan in two years after its envoy sought to meet Kashmiri separatist groups. The army has also continued a fight against Islamic militants on the border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban is seeking to regain power as the U.S. withdraws troops over the next few years.

Fighting Militants

“Sharif is building himself up,” Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc., a book about Pakistan’s armed forces, said by phone from Islamabad, referring to the army chief. “Maximum manipulation ensures civil institutions remain weak and cannot challenge the military.”

Raheel Sharif, 58, was born in Quetta on the Afghan border in a military family. He and his brothers followed in the footsteps of his father, a major. One of his brothers, Mumtaz Sharif, is a captain, while elder brother Major Shabbir Sharif was killed in 1971 while battling Indian soldiers during one of three wars between the neighboring countries.

After earning a degree from the Royal College of Defence Studies in the U.K., Raheel Sharif started as infantry officer and later oversaw the army’s training operations. At one point he was a military instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad, near where Osama bin Laden was hiding before he was killed in 2011.

Warfare Training

Raheel Sharif is Pakistan’s first army chief who hasn’t seen combat with India, and regards home-grown militants as an existential threat on the same level, according to Burzine Waghmar, an academic at the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“He remains committed to rooting, not rehabilitating militants -- unlike dangerously naive Nawaz or Islamist-veering Imran,” Waghmar said in an e-mail. He’s developed counter-insurgency and low-level warfare training for rank-and-file soldiers, something that hadn’t been part of the military’s strategic thinking prior to 2007, he said.

Raheel Sharif rarely speaks in public, with his only comments coming through the army spokesman’s office since the latest political crisis began. Raheel Sharif’s office didn’t respond to an interview request, and Pakistan army spokesman Asim Bajwa didn’t return a message left at his office yesterday.

Not Talkative

Pakistan’s top general is also reserved in private, according to those who’ve worked with him over the years.

“He isn’t talkative,” said retired Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik, the former top bureaucrat in the defense ministry. “But when he speaks, he speaks clearly.”

The army’s popularity has risen in Pakistan, according to a survey published in August by Pew Research Center. Some 87 percent of respondents said it has a good influence, compared with 79 percent in 2013. Nawaz Sharif’s favorable rating dropped slightly to 64 percent, it said.

Abdul Qadir Baloch, a member of Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet who previously served as Raheel Sharif’s commander for three years, said the army chief remains courteous when they meet in private.

“He believes in democracy and constitution, but there is pressure,” Baloch said. “The army has a mindset. It ruled the country for more than half its existence, so there is always pressure.”

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