The media-wary chief
IN recent days, the Twitter world didn’t just throw up the Tharoor-Tarar controversy.
The Pakistani twitterati also discovered, to their excitement, an account run by Army Chief Raheel Sharif. Though the account appeared to have been active since December, the increased frequency of tweets in January drew the attention of many in the previous week till DG ISPR Asim Bajwa had to clarify (on Twitter) that the account was fake.
The momentary excitement once again highlighted the enigma the new army chief is, compared to his predecessor whose midnight sittings with the journalists were the talk of town.
There were few hacks in town Islamabad who didn’t have a story to tell about the quiet general, former chief of army staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. And Urdu columnists wrote detailed accounts over the past six years of what they advised or told Pakistan’s most powerful man to do.
Kayani’s media offensive began shortly after he took over. By January 2008 he was holding long sessions with journalists and media owners, setting out his vision — that elections should take place; that he thought a chief of army staff could play a positive ‘role’ (and different from Musharraf’s); and explaining the military’s then predicament in Fata.
But then Kayani enjoyed a number of advantages. As a journalist, who had attended some of these sessions, explains “Kayani carried on the [media] interactions that he had earlier held as DG ISI”.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior journalist concurs, “He was familiar to the job and knew how to handle the media,” adding that “he would please journalists by referring to their articles”.
All this, on the other hand, is not familiar territory for Gen Sharif, who unlike Kayani, has not held a high-profile job during the time that the military was directly in power.
But it’s not just because of lack of familiarity that Sharif is keeping the media at bay. Other factors are also at work.
The notorious civil-military gap has reared its ugly head again — over two of the most controversial issues dominating the national political scene.
The first is the policy towards the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the second is the Musharraf trial.
Yusufzai points out that, “Sharif has nothing concrete to offer at the moment as the policy is not clear”. He explains that “the military has serious reservations about the government’s insistence on talks”.
He feels that after attacks such as the one in Bannu on Sunday, these reservations will only strengthen.
However, at the moment it seems the army is willing to keep quiet in the background as the government waffles at the podium.
But for Imtiaz Gul, another senior journalist who too can tell stories of chit-chat sessions with Kayani, the Musharraf trial has “put Sharif on the defensive”.
More than the lack of clarity on the security policy, Gul feels that the new chief does not want to be in a situation where he is asked questions about whether or not Musharraf’s admission to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology happened with the consent of the military. The answer would once again highlight the civil-military tensions. “If he does not answer the question, the evasion will also become a story,” he adds.
Undoubtedly, Gen Raheel Sharif has not landed an easy job.
And his troubles are not of his own making. Kayani, after all, as DG ISI, had helped set up what he dealt with for six years. He was part of the deal between the PPP and Musharraf.
“After all, he more or less brought Asif Ali Zardari in,” says Gul.
Sharif, on the other hand, has played no role in shaping the dispensation he now has to deal with. In that sense, the new COAS is a professional soldier who is still settling in — “he is still getting briefings and making visits; the media will come later,” says DG ISPR, Gen Asim Bajwa.
Among other issues, he also has to “outgrow the impression that he is Nawaz Sharif’s man”, says Yusufzai.
But history shows that no Pakistani COAS takes long before growing up. Even Kayani did not take long to prove he was not Musharraf’s man.
But that is now the past.
The future will be shaped by the path Sharif opts for. But whether or not, “this khula dula [easy-going man] joh sab kuch keh deta hai” in the words of President Mamnoon Hussain, will say it all directly to the media or communicate more indirectly remains to be seen.