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Pak General Raheel Sharif's Defence Day address: 5 key takeaways

Tilak Devasher | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

In Pakistan, 6 September is observed as \'Defence Day\'. It is an occasion for collective pats on the back, led by the Army and the media, about how India was taught a \'befitting\' lesson for its \'treacherous\' attack on Lahore on this day in 1965.

The official narrative of the 1965 war totally ignores Pakistan\'s own aggression in Jammu & Kashmir, launched in August 1965 via Operation Gibraltar, and its supporting Operation Grand Slam.

The climax of the \'victory\' celebrations is the wreath-laying ceremony and address by the army chief at General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, paying tribute to the martyrs of Pakistan.

Every country has similar ceremonies to honour their soldiers, but in Pakistan\'s case it has added significance, given the elevated stature of the army chief and the precarious civil-military relations.

This was General Raheel Sharif\'s third such address, and most people were wondering whether he would give some indication if this was going to be his last. However, Sharif gave no such hints. On the contrary, his address was presidential, evidenced by his body language, as well as the range of subjects that he covered.

Apart from the macho pronouncements that can be expected on such occasions, five points were especially significant - two related to the internal situation in Pakistan and three to the external.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb

He proclaimed that the process of 'indiscriminate elimination of terrorists', started two years ago in the form of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, had attained its laid-down military objectives. On earlier occasions too, he and Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) head Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa had clarified that it was an across-the-board operation against terrorists of all hues.

It has been apparent for the last two years that the operation has not targeted 'strategic assets' like the Haqqani network or the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) or the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). In other words, either the General was lying about 'indiscriminate elimination of terrorists', or the army does not consider these groups to be terrorists.

In either case, if any additional proof was required by India and Afghanistan that such groups would not be targeted, Raheel Sharif's speech should be the clincher.

Lack of implementation of NAP

The General did admit that "internal and external threats to peace have not been completely eliminated", and for this, he blamed the lack of implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) in its letter and spirit.

This has been a persistent theme for the army, pulling up the civilian government for not pulling its weight.

His criticism was stringent and pointed - he called for wide-ranging legal and governance reforms to sustain the military's achievements against terrorists, and said that all stakeholders and institutions of State needed to play their respective roles with the utmost sincerity and commitment. Since, according to him, the army was already doing more than its bit, his statement reiterated the army's perception about the government's lethargic performance, which was impeding the elimination of terrorism.

The General also went a step ahead and called for breaking the nexus between corruption and terrorism, in order to fully consolidate the successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the entire country. With the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif figuring in the Panama Papers leaks, and Imran Khan launching a movement on the issue, the mention of corruption was but a thinly-disguised reference to the PM to set his own house in order.

Solution to Kashmir

On Kashmir, the General stated the solution to the problem lay in the implementation of the resolutions of the United Nations, even as he assured Pakistan's diplomatic and moral support to the 'freedom movement at all levels'.

For Pakistani leaders of all shades, the UN resolutions on Kashmir have become some kind of magic wand, that would land Kashmir in their lap. Like the myth about 'victory' and Indian aggression in 1965, the UN resolutions on Kashmir have been sold to successive generations of Pakistanis as the panacea on the Kashmir issue.

It is debatable if many in Pakistan have actually read the resolutions and the sequencing that is required, including the complete withdrawal of the Pakistan Army from Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as well as the removal of those not normally resident there.

Was General Sharif signaling that the Pakistan Army would be willing to withdraw from these areas? He may well get a shock when he realises the implications of what he said.

Relationship with China

His best words were reserved for the Pakistan-China friendship, which he held as the greatest example of a relationship based on mutual respect and principle of equality in the region. He held the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the paramount evidence of this relationship. He vowed to defeat all designs against CPEC, and assured of its timely completion and protection, issues about which the Chinese have expressed concern.

Message to the US

In a thinly veiled message to the US, Raheel Sharif averred that the best guarantee for peace in the region was maintaining the balance of power. The reference, of course was to the growing US defence cooperation with India, which, the Pakistanis feel, would disturb the regional power equations.

The General's parting shot was that the army "will go to any length for the sake of national security". This may sound innocuous enough, but given the current situation in Pakistan, could well have a double meaning.

With the tardy execution of the CPEC that is frustrating the Chinese, lackadaisical implementation of the NAP, the government stonewalling any investigation into the Panama leaks, a gathering agitation by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, the General's statement could well be hinting at the domestic situation, asking the civilian Sharif, Prime Minister Nawaz, to pull up his socks.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 9 September 2016, 6:41 IST
Tilak Devasher @tilakdevasher1

Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, to the Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is releasing shortly.