Why is Pakistan’s Army Chief So Popular?
Pakistanis simply cannot get enough of their army chief these days.
In recent months, Pakistan’s media have gone overboard to lionize General Raheel Sharif. He’s been lauded for his heroism and, ironically, credited with strengthening democratic institutions. One prominent TV talk show host dedicated an entire show to discussing what he described as the public’s desire for an extension of Sharif’s term (which is scheduled to end next year).
This is heady praise — even for Pakistan’s largely pro-military press.
On social media, #ThankYouRaheelSharif has become a common hashtag in Pakistan — so popular that the satirical publication Khabaristan Times announced that it trended in Burkina Faso after soldiers tweeted it while staging a recent coup.
Meanwhile, posters and billboards have sprouted up across Pakistan bearing the army chief’s likeness and thanking him for his service. This type of treatment would not be uncommon in many dictatorships. And yet Pakistan is technically a democracy with an elected civilian government. Notably, Sharif’s image was also featured in campaign literature produced by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the political opposition party of Imran Khan, for a recent by-election.
And then there’s the underwear.
General Sharif’s face recently appeared on packages of men’s undergarments (brand name: “Captain Men’s Wear”).
Sharif is seemingly the man of the hour, the hero of the day, and the flavor of the month all rolled into one. He was also Newsweek Pakistan’s Man of the Year last year.
So what is happening here?
“We Wait Patiently for a Savior”
Actually, not much — or at least not much that is new.
For decades, Pakistani military leaders have been projected as saviors: messiah-like figures who swoop in to save the nation when in crisis, and to protect it when vulnerable — which is all the time.
This narrative, more implied than stated, exploits the deep anti-government grievances harbored by many Pakistanis, who believe (with good reason) that civilian institutions are incapable of solving the nation’s myriad challenges. In the words of one Pakistani commentator, “We wait patiently for a savior who will deliver the solutions to our problems.” It’s not coincidental that the two civilian leaders who have recently tapped into this savior mentality — Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri — are thought to have close links to the security establishment.
Most importantly, this savior narrative strengthens the military, boosts the popularity of its leader, and helps legitimize its outsize role in politics and statecraft. Little wonder that previous Pakistani army chiefs were also held up as savior figures — including the last two.
Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani were not widely admired figures when they stepped down. Still, as the columnist Cyril Almeida reminds in a recent op-ed, they were once hailed as heroes. During his first few years as president and military chief, Musharraf was credited with helping stabilize Pakistan’s economy and for improving governance. He was also quite popular abroad, and as I’ve written previously, retains many friends in Washington. Only during the last year of his term as army chief and president, when he suspended the Supreme Court chief justice and cracked down on the media, did he become truly unpopular. With a pro-democracy movement sweeping across Pakistani cities, Musharraf resigned as army chief in November 2007. He held parliamentary elections in February 2008, and resigned the presidency in August 2008 just as the new civilian government was preparing impeachment proceedings against him.
Kayani, meanwhile, took over as army chief in November 2007 amid the pro-democracy campaign that ultimately ended Musharraf’s military rule, ushering in the February 2008 elections. With the public down on the military and a new civil administration in place, all against a backdrop of growing militant threats, Kayani scaled down the army’s role in politics and simultaneously took steps to raise military morale. He also initiated counter militancy offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat and later South Waziristan. Only during the last few years of his term, from 2011 to 2013, did his star begin to fall. His reputation took a major hit in 2011, when Pakistanis were embarrassed by the U.S. unilateral raid to apprehend Osama Bin Laden. He also angered army officers and the broader public when, with the U.S.–Pakistan relationship in deep crisis in 2011 and 2012, he insisted on continuing to work with the Americans.
Nevertheless, Kayani, like Musharraf before him, enjoyed many earlier years of popularity.
Savior Complex Redux?
And now comes Sharif, the latest incarnation of Pakistan’s savior soldier.
Some might actually argue that he doesn’t need the savior treatment, because he has already won the masses over — and not just because of his consistently belligerent position toward India, a position that has after all been taken by most previous Pakistani army chiefs.
Both his personality and policies have endeared him to many — both in Pakistan and abroad. His gregarious demeanor contrasts with that of the dour Kayani, and has played well in Washington — where Sharif took a long trip last year and impressed many with his can-do attitude and stirring (albeit unfulfilled) promises to combat militancy of all stripes. And it has likely played well in London, Rome, Moscow, Kabul, and Beijing — all key capitals he visited in more recent months.
Additionally, Sharif is getting things done. The word that Pakistanis tend to invoke the most in describing Sharif, both in written assessments and in informal conversations I’ve had with them, is “doer.” He spends time with troops in the field, condoles with victims of terror, and meets visiting dignitaries. In effect, he does what good military leaders should do — and what Pakistan’s civilian leaders often fail to do.
More broadly, Sharif launched Zarb-e-Azb, the much-needed offensive in North Waziristan. He actively and aggressively sought rapprochement with Afghanistan (albeit unsuccessfully). And one can assume he signed off on the decision to punish several officers who were found to have failed to protect the children massacred in the Taliban’s 2014 attack on an army-run school in Peshawar. The military holding its own to account is rare and welcome — and Sharif deserves credit for doing so.
Today, terror attacks in Pakistan are down dramatically from previous years. The millions of Pakistanis who are sick of terrorist violence and simply want to live in peace are well aware of this.
And they know who to thank.
There is a chicken-and-egg dynamic here: Has the savior narrative fueled Sharif’s popularity? Or have his actions alone made him popular, thereby creating a fertile environment for the savior narrative to take root and flourish? The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
Nonetheless, public relations are a big part of Sharif’s game, and particularly for legacy-building. As Pakistani security analyst Ejaz Haider recently put it, previous army chiefs used the 111 Brigade, the Pakistani infantry unit that has provided the shock troops for coups, as “their maneuvering force.” This time, it is the “highly efficient officers” of the military’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) outfit who provide “both the maneuvering force as well as supporting fire.”
In effect, for General Sharif, flacks have supplanted flak jackets as a chief image-shaping tool. This heavy PR campaign paves the way for the widespread marketing of Sharif, from signs to skivvies. Additionally, this campaign is strengthened by a powerful new type of ammunition: social media, an image projection multiplier. A single message or photo from ISPR’s nearly one-million-follower Twitter feed can rapidly reach many Pakistanis.
For the military, the timing of these efforts is critical. As it fights its battles in North Waziristan, it needs all the public support it can muster.
Cult of Personality
Of course, the real story is much more complicated than Sharif’s statements, actions, or public relations may suggest. The Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan has focused its crosshairs only on anti-state militants. The actual success of the mission is unclear, given that media have no access to the region. Other measures associated with Zarb-e-Azb — such as the introduction of anti-terror military courts and the resumption of capital punishment — have targeted only anti-state militants as well. Additionally, purportedly anti-terrorist crackdowns in Karachi seem more designed to weaken dominant political parties than to drive out militancy.
Above all, a key positive outcome of Zarb-e-Azb — a reduction in terror strikes nationwide — should be credited in part to Kayani, who laid the foundations for Sharif’s anti-terror efforts. It was Kayani who took ownership of Pakistan’s domestic fight against militancy, a conflict that has been described as “Ashfaq Kayani’s war.” And it was not Sharif but Kayani, through offensives in Swat and in the tribal belt, who first took a more serious approach to countermilitancy — an approach that emphasized robust military operations over truces with militants.
Furthermore, little information has been heard in Pakistan about the civilian casualties caused by Zarb-e-Azb, or the fate of the one million people it reportedly displaced. Additionally, nothing is heard about the military’s ongoing brutalities in Baluchistan — including an intensive operation in the district of Awaran that according to one overseas Baluch news site killed more than 300 people in just 10 days back in July, soon after it was launched.
Meanwhile, little has been said in Pakistan about the draconian measures the military continues to take against media channels and their reporters when there is even the slightest bit of coverage critical of the armed forces. No wonder the media has provided scant coverage of a Supreme Court investigation of alleged corruption within the military’s economic empire.
In Pakistan, where key sources of information — television channels, school textbooks, mosque sermons, and old fashioned word of mouth — tend to amplify pro-military sentiment, this alternate picture is often ignored, contested, or dismissed as foreign conspiracy-mongering.
All these structural factors have helped amplify Sharif’s cult of personality. When you are a cult of personality — and when your image is used as a marketing tool for men’s underwear, you are very much a cult of personality — what you say is what people believe, irrespective of ground realities. Perhaps the rock band Living Color said it best in its infectious hit song from 1988: “I sell the things you need to be/I’m the smiling face on your TV … I exploit you, still you love me/I tell you one and one makes three/I’m the cult of personality.”
The Term Extension Question
Raheel Sharif is in a good place right now, and his popularity is unlikely to be punctured anytime soon — unless, perhaps, his term is extended. The fortunes of Musharraf and Kayani, as noted earlier, went south during their final months in power — and after they were granted extensions.
Will Sharif get an extension? It’s unclear. Still, as noted by the analyst Abbas Nasir, even if rumors arise that one is being sought, then he risks getting distracted from the important (albeit incomplete) steps taken in recent months to address the scourge of militancy.
Additionally, such speculation could stoke perceptions about personal goals trumping the national interest. And that could undercut his carefully cultivated image.
In effect, Sharif’s popularity, whether manufactured or real, is strong — but by no means guaranteed to last.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.