Pakistan’s army Hail to the chief

Politicians are overshadowed by a publicity-seeking general

THE image of a mustachioed man with peaked cap and a chest full of medals is becoming hard to avoid in Pakistan. It is splashed across the posters of a politician competing in a by-election in the eastern city of Lahore. It looms large on giant billboards in the port city of Karachi, apparently paid for by adoring citizens. And it is a rare day when Pakistan’s chief of army staff is not pictured on a newspaper front page. He has even entered the colourful repertoire of artists who decorate the nation’s trucks and rickshaws.

The apotheosis of General Raheel Sharif (pictured, wearing beret) makes it harder than ever for his unrelated namesake, Nawaz Sharif, who is prime minister, to claw back powers from an army that has directly and indirectly controlled Pakistan for most of its history. Nawaz Sharif’s election victory in 2013 resulted in the country’s first transfer of power from one civilian government to another. But the extent of his authority is debatable: the army is reasserting itself.

This marks quite a turnaround for an institution that eight years ago was so unpopular that off-duty soldiers in the most restive areas were advised not to wear their uniforms in public. The long rule of General Pervez Musharraf, a coup-maker, had seriously tarnished the army’s prestige. A particular setback was the violence unleashed in central Islamabad in 2007 when General Musharraf decided to clear out a pro-Taliban mosque in the heart of the city. The army was humiliated in 2011 when the public discovered Osama bin Laden had been hiding next to the country’s officer-training school and that American special forces had been able to penetrate deep into Pakistan to kill him.

Today the army is riding high, buoyed by an improvement in security following a decision in June 2014 to launch an all-out campaign against the Pakistani Taliban. Many credit General Sharif with taking the initiative. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has seen key towns in the former Taliban sanctuary of North Waziristan retaken by the state. Militants have been hunted down elsewhere, particularly in Karachi, which had been a major centre of Taliban activity. All this work has helped cut militant violence by nearly half in the last nine months, according to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, a think-tank in Islamabad.

At the same time the army has been waging a public-relations war, promoting General Sharif as a star. The media dutifully report on his every visit to the front lines and publish photographs of every honour-guard he inspects during his numerous overseas trips.

Read more » The Economist
See more » http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21667980-politicians-are-overshadowed-publicity-seeking-general-hail-chief

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