The general who empowered Pakistan's military

Public appearances by Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff, General Raheel Sharif, have been less ostentatious than those of some of his predecessors but his face has become ubiquitous on social media.
Public appearances by Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff, General Raheel Sharif, have been less ostentatious than those of some of his predecessors but his face has become ubiquitous on social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

Raheel Sharif's busting of terror and criminal groups one reason for armed forces' popularity

ISLAMABAD • The most popular man in public office in Pakistan does not give speeches on television, rarely appears in public and rejects news interviews.

He is General Raheel Sharif, in charge of the country's armed forces at a time when they are riding high after curbing domestic terrorism and rampant political crime.

Aided by a social media campaign, the military command's popularity has helped it quietly but firmly grasp control of the governmental functions it cares about most: security and foreign affairs and de facto regulatory power over the news media, Pakistani officials and analysts say.

In a country with a long history of coups, the current command has got what it wants, edging aside the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, without the messiness or the global criticism a complete takeover would bring. And it is being thanked for doing it.

"I wouldn't describe it as a soft coup, but I would definitely say the civilian leadership has yielded space to the military - for their own survival and because there were major failures on their part," said military analyst Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant-general.

Gen Raheel took over the military command late in 2013, a few months after the new civilian government was inaugurated, and the country was in trouble. There were suicide bombings, political party killings, rampant crime and violence in its big cities, and assassinations of political leaders. Some politicians were calling for negotiations with the Pakistani Taleban as military efforts to set the militants back appeared to have stalled.

Then the Pakistani Taleban carried out a cruel attack on a school for army families in Peshawar last December, killing 145 people - including 132 children methodically gunned down in their classrooms. Supported by a huge public backlash against terrorism, the army ramped up its crackdown on some of the militant groups sheltering in the north-western tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan.

Capital punishment was restored and the military given new power, starting its own counterterrorism court system alongside the badly backlogged and compromised civilian justice system.

This year, the Pakistani Taleban have managed to carry out only a single major suicide bombing. The army's success against the militants emboldened it to take on violent political parties and criminal gangs in the country's biggest city, Karachi, through a paramilitary group known as the Sindh Rangers. Despite complaints of human rights abuses in Karachi, and millions of internally displaced people from the tribal areas, most Pakistanis were simply relieved to see the violence hugely reduced.

Through it all, Gen Raheel's public appearances have been less ostentatious than those of some of his predecessors. But at the same time, his face has become ubiquitous on social media, after giving a free hand to the officer commanding the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) office, the military's media arm, to modernise that service.

The ISPR had long been headed by lower-ranking officers. But by this year, its leader Asim Saleem Bajwa was promoted to lieutenant- general - a three-star rank normally reserved for corps commanders - and his agency is now an impressively slick machine.

Lt-Gen Bajwa's Twitter account has more than 1.5 million followers, and the agency's Facebook account has more than 2.8 million likes. A film unit is pumping out offerings for television, as it had long done, but it has added short videos tailored to YouTube-style platforms.

The social media accounts show in daily detail the commander's movements. Video links show army units in combat and troops helping earthquake victims. Martyr-style videos show, for instance, a mother mourning a son killed in the field, who returns from the dead to present her with his beret.

Pakistan's news media is clearly reflecting the shift in influence. Prime Minister Sharif's visit to Washington on Oct 22, for instance, did not get nearly the attention of Gen Raheel's current five-day trip to the American capital.

Mr Masood worries the military may go too far, preventing the country's still-immature democratic institutions from developing.

"Success speaks for itself. They did clear Waziristan, and Gen Raheel does get credit for that," he said. "But success can change. If they overplay the military card and continue to build an inflated image, it could boomerang. They need to allow civilians their space. But I'm afraid the lust for power is such that they don't always understand that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'The general who empowered Pakistan's military'. Print Edition | Subscribe