The last two months have been nightmarish for Pakistan Army General Raheel Sharif. Instead of retiring on a high at the end of November this year (as per his own assertion), he has been confronted with a series of reverses that have dented his knight-in-shining-armour image, built up so assiduously by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
There is no doubt about his popularity or that he struck a chord with the population. Examples abound, such as the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif commonly used on social media; the poster campaign urging him to take over; the plethora of T-shirts, badges and stickers with visuals of him in military uniform, selling like hot cakes.
General Sharif’s popularity is due to the early successes of operation Zarb-e-Azb (launched in North Waziristan on June 15, 2014, against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-TTP), success in restoring some semblance of order and peace in Karachi, and showing resolve to keep the democratic system in tact during the phase of "dharna" politics in 2014. He has comforted the nation with reassuring words that were missing from the civilian leadership - words that the population wanted to hear.
One striking example of this was his address on Defence Day, September 6, this year. The address was presidential, evidenced by his body language, as well as the range of subjects that he covered. The one notable feature was his underlining that Zarb-e-Azb had achieved its laid-down military objectives.
However, even before this speech, General Sharif’s reputation had already started unravelling.
On August 8, 2016, a suicide bomber struck at the Quetta Civil Hospital killing at least 70 and wounding 100, with the bulk of casualties being lawyers. The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the TTP as well as the ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack.
On August 11, 2016, 14 persons were injured in a roadside blast targeting a vehicle belonging to the Anti-Terrorism Force (ATF), again in Quetta.
Several excuses were found and touted. For example, General Sharif said the Quetta attack was an attempt to undermine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), even though Quetta is a long way off from Gwadar.
The most damaging, however, was his claim that “having been defeated in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), terrorists are shifting their focus to Balochistan".
However, less than a month after the two August attacks in Quetta, there were twin blasts in Peshawar and Mardan in KPK, on September 2, 2016. While one civilian and four suicide bombers were killed in Peshawar, at least 14 civilians, including eight lawyers, were killed and 60 others injured in Mardan.
On September 13, a suicide bomber injured a dozen people, four of whom were policemen, in Shikarpur in Sindh, while two were killed and 10 injured in an IED blast targeting a police vehicle in Quetta on the same day.
On September 16, at least 30 people were killed and dozens injured in a suicide attack on the Mohmand Agency.
Not surprisingly, questions have begun to be raised about how terrorists were operating with relative ease if Zarb-e-Azb was such a success. After all, these were not "lone wolf" attacks but complex ones that would have required facilitators.
The inevitable conclusion has been that despite Zarb-e-Azb, the country remains vulnerable to terrorism.
|Security officials gather at the site of a bomb explosion in Quetta. (Photo credit: Reuters)|
While all these attacks have embarrassed General Sharif and thrown doubts on his efforts to eliminate terrorism, worse has followed.
In the wake of the Pakistan-based terrorist strike on the brigade headquarters in Uri, J&K, on September 18, and the resultant anger in India, General Sharif made two significant statements.
On September 19, following a corps commanders' meeting, he announced: “Taking notice of a 'hostile narrative being propagated by India', the Pakistan Army is fully prepared to respond to the entire spectrum of direct and indirect threats.”
On September 23, he followed this up by telling officers at the National Counter Terrorism Centre near Kharian that the army would defend “each and every inch” of Pakistan “no matter what the cost”, and that Pakistan’s armed forces “have the capability to counter the complete threat spectrum”.
Against this backdrop, the Indian Army’s September 29 bold and daring surgical strike was clearly a huge loss of face for General Sharif. His reputation as a tough, hands-on Army chief has undoubtedly taken a big hit.
Hence, instead of retiring in a blaze of glory at the end of November, he will have to rethink his options. He has at least four.
The first is to absorb the reverses, both internal and external and retire with a severely damaged and dented image. The damage this would do to the public reputation of the Army and to its mystique of "defenders of Pakistan’s territorial and ideological frontiers" may make him think twice before going down this route.
The second is to carry out a spectacular retaliatory strike against India before he retires to retrieve his prestige and go out in a blaze of glory, leaving the resultant escalatory mess to be handled by his successor.
The third is to climb down from his pedestal and accept an extension as Chief of Army Staff despite his assertions to the contrary, or to get elevated as Field Marshal and try and salvage his reputation over a longer time period. Neither of these is likely to enhance his stature.
The fourth is to send Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif packing, citing tensions with India and internal instability in the wake of Imran Khan’s successful "jalsa" at Raiwind on September 30, and threats to close down Islamabad after Moharram if the PM doesn’t act on corruption charges against himself.
The second and fourth options seem more in the realm of possibilities than the first and third.
However, Nawaz Sharif has an ace up his sleeve. He could pre-empt any move by General Sharif by announcing his successor in the next few days or weeks.
This would make the General a lame duck, narrow his options and force him to go home, albeit battered and bruised.
The next two months would, therefore, be crucial for future developments in Pakistan as well as for the future of General Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif.