What makes the Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif so popular?

These days the hero in Pakistan is its army chief General Raheel Sharif. There are talk shows dedicated to him also trends on Twitter with the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif. While there are reasons for his growing popularity in Pakistan, it is also argued that this is something that may last too long.

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC writes this very interesting article on the popularity of the Pakistan General while also adding at the end, that by no means the popularity is likely to last.

Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif

Why is the Pakistan Chief so popular?

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).

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. 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.

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.

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 US unilateral raid to apprehend Osama Bin Laden. He also angered army officers and the broader public when, with the US-Pakistan relationship in deep crisis in 2011 and 2012, he insisted on continuing to work with the Americans.

Zarb-e-Azb and Afghanistan:

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.

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."

The war against the media:

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.

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