The saying goes that most countries have an army, but Pakistan's army has a country. Even when it is not formally in power — as it has been off and on for nearly half of Pakistan's 69-year history — the Pakistani military wields tremendous influence as a kingmaker. Its leaders are no less consequential to Pakistan's political scene. Having been deposed in 1999 during his second term in office by then-Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — now serving an unprecedented third term — is understandably cautious in deciding who will lead the military. On Tuesday, Gen. Raheel Sharif will step down at the end of his three-year term as army chief, turning power over to his successor, Lt. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The occasion — a significant achievement for Pakistan's government — offers insight into the past, present and future of the country's civil-military relations.
To understand the outsize clout that the military has long enjoyed in Pakistan, one must go back to the country's founding in 1947. At that time, the four provinces that would eventually become West Pakistan — Balochistan, Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province and Sindh — harbored strong autonomous tendencies. Yet to form a unified nation capable of standing up to India, which Pakistan's early leaders viewed as an existential threat, the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, favored a strong central government. To that end, he pulled power from the provinces toward Islamabad and devoted the country's scarce resources to national defense. Pakistan's military thrived under this arrangement, especially once the United States began funneling military aid to the country to advance its goals in the Cold War. The country's party system, however, failed to take root, and its democracy languished, leaving a void for the generals to fill.
During his time at the head of Pakistan's army, Raheel Sharif filled that political vacuum, though perhaps not as the prime minister had hoped. Though Nawaz Sharif chose Raheel Sharif to lead the army because of the general's supposed distaste for politics, since taking office in November 2013, the outgoing chief of army staff has demonstrated the military's political might. The general took it upon himself to visit Washington and Kabul as a sort of unofficial foreign secretary and wrested control over foreign policy from the civilian sector during 2014 protests. At the same time, he became (and remains) the most popular public official in Pakistan, having crafted an image of valor, integrity and patriotism that has resonated throughout the country.
Raheel Sharif's appeal is due in part to the army's social media prowess, but it is also a result of his success in fighting terrorism, Pakistan's biggest domestic problem. The general launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 to combat militancy. In the years since, deaths related to terrorism have decreased by an estimated 40 percent — no small accomplishment considering that some 40,000 Pakistanis have died terrorism-related deaths in the past 15 years. Notwithstanding his formidable efforts against terrorism, perhaps Raheel Sharif's most important contribution as chief of army staff will be his departure. By fulfilling the pledge he made in January to step down at the end of his term, Raheel Sharif is setting a precedent for future army chiefs to follow. His decision is all the more remarkable given that he could have easily used the heightened tension with India in Kashmir to justify a term extension.
With Raheel Sharif out, Bajwa, who currently serves as inspector general of training and evaluation at the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, will assume control of the army. Bajwa also did a stint at the head of Pakistan's largest army division, the 10 Corps, whose duties include defending the Line of Control in Kashmir — an experience that likely influenced his selection. Once in office, he will face familiar challenges: bringing Operation Zarb-e-Azb to a successful conclusion, achieving a peaceful balance in Kashmir and managing Pakistan's stance on the war in Afghanistan.
He will not, however, alter the military's role in Pakistan. The seeming intransigence of the Kashmir issue, coupled with the fact that Nawaz Sharif will use the conflict to win votes in the 2018 election, suggests that the military will not withdraw to the barracks under Bajwa. Nawaz Sharif recognizes that no matter whom he chooses as his chief of army staff, the collective will of the army as an institution will overpower that of the prime minister. Furthermore, the Pakistani public, disillusioned with the politicians it views as inept, looks to the military as the country's protector, thereby reinforcing its power and justifying its forays into politics.
Nevertheless, Raheel Sharif's transition marks a milestone for Pakistan: For the first time in 20 years, a chief of army staff is retiring after a single three-year term. If his successors follow this example, in time, the balance between Pakistan's military and civilian leaders may shift. But though the transfer of power between Raheel Sharif and Bajwa bodes well for the country's democracy, Pakistan's history has shown time and again that the journey from Islamabad to the barracks is a long one.