Majboori ka naam #shukria
Back in the day, when self-styled “defence analysts” on the media were evaluating as to which of the top generals in the running would make it to army chief, no one had given much thought to Raheel Sharif.
The prime minister, however, chose him to lead the army. And it was a good choice. Belonging to military royalty (nephew of Aziz Bhatti Shaheed and brother of Shabbir Sharif Shaheed), the infantryman had also served as commandant of the military academy at Kakul, where he is said to have functionally been part of the effort to change the ideology that the young officers are indoctrinated with, a drive that had started in the Musharraf era.
His exact role during the dharna of 2014, where the two enfants terrible even went to meet him, is not clear. They met him, either because the prime minister asked them to meet him or he acquiesced to their demand to meet him. And it remains unclear, after the Mushahid Ullah episode, as to what the government thought the military’s top spymaster was up to during the time. Whatever the truth might be, the ball of suspicion between the government and the armed forces had been set in motion.
Meanwhile, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military’s long-awaited all-out offensive against the militants, which had started in ’14, intensified this last year after the gruesome attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Questions are still being asked about the whole Good Taliban/Bad Taliban idea, but the relative inaction of the Kayani years seem to be over.
It was at this point in time that the work of another general intensified. No, not talking about Major General Zafarullah Khan, the Zarb-e-Azb commander, but another one at the GHQ. Major General Asim Bajwa, the military’s top spin-doctor.
Eventually promoted to Lieutenant General, Bajwa certainly deserved that third star. As the military was using jets and artillery to bomb Waziristan, the military’s PR machine was also firing volley after volley on the national media. High-budget publicity campaigns that could only be afforded by MNCs started doing the rounds. Attempts at the whole hearts-and-minds thing. And the #shukriaRaheelSharif trend on Facebook and Twitter, whether it was the general’s idea or not, spread like wildfire.
Soon, in the public’s mind, there was nothing the chief could not do. Each and every fortune was credited to the general, be it lowered petrol prices or successes in cricket. Peddlers in Anarkali Bazaar were selling undergarments with his image emblazoned on the packing. His mug shot even graced the banners of local neighbourhood Eid Milad-ul-Nabi celebrations.
On this list in the coming years: Roman generals, after winning wars, used to be given a celebratory march back home. Triumphs. The ancients felt it important to celebrate their returning generals. But they also felt it important to have a man at the back of the general’s chariot constantly whispering in his ear, in the midst of all the cheering, the words, memento mori. You are mortal.
The chief would realise that many have come before him. All were popular. His place on this list might be secure this year, but the next year depends entirely on whether he gets an extension. By the same prime minister who had initially picked him out of the five generals who were candidates for the job. Even if institutional propriety is pressed against and an extension is wrested from the civil government, what will happen when that expires?
The seemingly ambitious General Bajwa, on the other hand, has a very certain post-retirement career ahead of him. On Twitter, the @ISPROfficial account has 1.01 million followers. His own, personal account, @AsimBajwaISPR, has 1.64 million followers. They do teach strategy well at the PMA, it seems.