21 December 2014

Can Pak army chief win battle against terror?

Dec 21, 2014

Despite billions of dollars in aid by US, Pak unable to fight terrorism

General Raheel Sharif has dealt well with military and political tensions so far. But the Pak army chief's real test will be how he deals with terror groups dotting the frontier regions.

In Friday, when General Raheel Sharif signed the execution warrant for Dr Usman (aka Mohammed Aqeel), he crossed an invisible line. Usman, who had led a 10man assault team which attacked the Pakistan army headquarters in 2009, taking 42 hostages and killing 14 troops, should have been executed a long time ago. He was spared because the Punjab Taliban led by Usman threatened dire revenge if he was executed. This time, the general had his way.

When Raheel Sharif ran the army training command - his last posting before he became army chief - he recast the key training course to focus on fighting internal terrorism. He is also believed to have developed training manuals for counterinsurgency operations and for building a new generation of Pakistan army to fight its greatest threat - Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, not India.

On November 27, 2013, after a delay that signaled a tussle in the decisionmaking process, Raheel Sharif was chosen army chief by Nawaz Sharif (no relation to each other) over two others.

There were questions. Until then, Raheel Sharif wasn't considered a spectacular professional. But, as Rana Banerji, one of the foremost Pakistan analysts in India says, "he has grown into his new role. He is generally considered a more straightforward soldier than his predecessor, Kayani." In November, Raheel Sharif made his first two-week sojourn in the US, an extraordinary event when the army chief was openly yielded foreign and strategic policy space. The US has always preferred to deal with the Pakistan army and this time, John Kerry, secretary of state described the army as a "unifying force".

But in the first year of his tenure, General Sharif has faced tense situations and according to observers, has acquitted himself competently. In the summer, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri were facing down the Nawaz Sharif government in the heart of Islamabad. Former DG-ISI Zaheer-ul-Islam led the voices that demanded an end to the Sharif government and an army takeover. "There is one - and only - reason we still have an elect ed government and parliament: Raheel Sharif didn't want to take over," Cyril Almeida of Dawn had written.

On his military campaign, Zarb-eAzb, the jury is still out. It had little or no political approval. Laying waste to North Waziristan with air strikes and helicopter gunships, the Pakistan army still managed to "lose" the top terrorists holed up there, while displacing more than a million Pakistanis and killing many. The Peshawar army school attack, the Taliban said, was provoked by these killings.

In September, after the summer protests, Raheel Sharif moved to establish his own stamp over the army with a reshuffle of corps commanders. He picked the next DG ISI, Rizwan Akhtar, from his own regiment. That sealed his leadership.

Addressing a defence expo in Karachi in early December, the general said terrorism was his prime target. What does that mean for India? The Pakistan army is built on the premise of India as Enemy No 1 and that is not going to change for a very long time. If the army chief can sort out the terror mess created by his predecessors, India could rise in the list of top foes. So nobody should expect any great change here.

But on Afghanistan, the general appears to comprehend the dangers ahead.

The Pakistan army has managed to get the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar and his cronies to lie low for a while. This could mean that he expects the Afghans to cooperate on Mullah Fazlullah and others of the Tehreek-e-Taliban. But it would be very difficult for Raheel Sharif to order the Pakistan army to shut down strategic assets like the Haqqanis.

Both countries seem to be making an effort - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made the GHQ in Rawalpindi one of his earliest ports of call. This will probably be encouraged by the Chinese and Americans - both want the Pakistan army to quell terrorism.

The real test will be how Raheel Sharif handles groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Al Qaeda groups dotting the frontier agencies and Balochistan. LeT has become a transnational terror outfit, even though its avowed focus is on India. It has ties with the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, which does Pakistan's bidding against Kabul. Some commentators say there could be a deal between Hafiz Saeed and the Pakistan army - that the groups will be mainstreamed in return for LeT scaling down terrorism. But nobody is holding their breath on this one.

Raheel Sharif has a fairly cordial working relationship with PM Sharif. His real mentor and political ally is Nawaz Sharif 's close confidant, Abdul Qadir Baloch, and that helps him maintain channels of communication with the PM.

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