General Raheel Sharif has become perhaps the most popular military chief in Pakistan. What’s interesting is that his status in this respect has risen parallel to a popularly elected government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N).
Theoretically, such an arrangement is beneficial for a country now fighting a complex battle against certain ogres that were allowed to mutate and become an existential threat to the state and polity of Pakistan.
Gen Raheel is credited for adding a more determined and decisive dimension to this battle which the state and society have fought for over a decade but without much direction. The enemy was smart to exploit this and that’s why up until December 2014, various shades of military, civilian and religious elements were navel-gazing about the issues of terrorism and extremism as suicide bombers and assassins were causing unabashed mayhem.
If we minus the initial popularity enjoyed by men such as Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Gen Pervez Musharraf out of the equation, then, certainly, Gen Sharif stands out as the most highly regarded military chief in the country. The admiration for Ayub and Musharraf largely rode on their somewhat popular coups, but this popularity had completely eroded by the time both were forced to resign. Moralising soldiers had become amoral politicians.
The other general
But Gen Sharif is not quite an anomaly, as such. Some 28 years ago another military chief had rapidly risen during a democratic set up. For a while his fame rivalled the likes of popular civilian politicos such as Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Then it just collapsed in the rudest of manners. The general’s name was Mirza Aslam Baig.
Gen Baig’s emergence was rather extraordinary. He had been made the vice chief of army staff in 1987 by Gen Ziaul Haq’s handpicked PM, Muhammad Khan Junejo – despite the fact that Gen Zia was not happy about the appointment.
Author and columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in 1991 (for Newsline) that Gen Baig’s ideas about the end game in Afghanistan and democracy in Pakistan clashed with those held by Gen Zia. However, before Junejo was chucked out by Gen Zia, he exercised his prime ministerial prerogative to elevate Gen Baig’s rank and position.
In August 1988, Gen Baig became the military chief after Gen Zia was killed in a plane crash. Many suspected sabotage. Gen Baig too was supposed to be on that plane but backed out at the last minute. Some critics still maintain that Gen Baig knew what would happen.
However, the truth is that it was Gen Zia who had advised Gen Baig to travel on another plane. Gen Baig suggested the same. And so did one of Gen Zia’s closest confidants, Gen KM Arif, in his 2001 book Khaki Shadows.
Military expert and author HG Kiessling, in his most recent book Faith, Unity, Discipline, writes that Gen Baig was encouraged by some officers to take over the reins of the government after Gen Zia’s demise. But Gen Baig believed that “the era of dictatorships was over” and the time was ripe for a return to democracy.
In a 2005 interview, Gen Baig claimed that he had suggested the same to Gen Zia in 1985 only to be told (by Gen Zia), “Baig, do you want a noose around my neck?” Gen Baig began being dubbed as "General Glasnost". Glasnost is a Russian word meaning openness and was made famous by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Falling out of favour
Chairman of the Senate, Ghulam Ishaq Khan – a wily and aged bureaucrat – was made interim president and elections were announced. But Junejo went to the Supreme Court with a plea that his government which was dismissed by Gen Zia should be restored. Kiessing writes that the court had “pro-Zia judges” at the helm.
Fearing a sweep in the elections by Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, the judges were likely to rule in favour of Junejo. Gen Baig sent the Minister of Justice, Wasim Sajjad, to them with a message that their verdict in favour of Junejo would be highly displeasing to him. Almost overnight, the judges changed their minds and ruled against restoring Junejo.
Gen Baig was conscious of the fact that his actions had irked many so-called Ziaist officers in the military. Kiessing claims that to strike a balance, he went along with a proposal of constructing an electoral alliance of conservative and religious parties. The alliance was named the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. The idea was floated by the then chief of the ISI, Hamid Gul, who warned Gen Baig that a sweeping election win by the PPP would be detrimental to the causes dear to the military.
Speaking to the Herald in 2001, Gen Baig said that he went along with Gul’s plan because otherwise the military would not have allowed Benazir to come to power. PPP won (but could not sweep) the 1988 election and Benazir became prime minister.
Relations between Gen Baig and the new prime minister were initially cordial, until the latter decided to chuck out the controversial Gul from the ISI and replace him with a non-serving general, SR Kallue.
Gen Baig was more than happy to see Gul go, believing he had become "too political" as an ISI chief. But Gen Baig advised the prime minister not to pick a non-serving military man to head the ISI. He sent Benazir his own list of men to choose from. The young prime minister however, stuck to her decision.
Benazir’s government was dismissed by Ishaq Khan in 1990. She told Voice of America that Gen Baig too was involved in engineering her ouster, but only after “Ishaq and some members of the agencies had convinced him that I wanted to replace him as COAS [Chief of Army Staff].”
Kiessing is of the view that Gen Baig had hoped to cooperate with Benazir but his overtures were rebuffed by the inexperienced prime minister.
The Islami Jamhoori Ittehad finally managed to win the next election and Nawaz became prime minister. In 1991, Gen Baig’s reputation evolved from being a pro-democracy and open general to becoming a populist hero of sorts when he aired his displeasure against sending Pakistani troops to join an "international force" set up by the US to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In a statement, Gen Baig warned that Iraq would become “another Vietnam for the Americans.”
Prime Minister Nawaz was highly displeased by the remarks of his Chief of Army Staff, especially when posters and banners praising Gen Baig began to appear during large pro-Saddam rallies in Pakistan. Nawaz did not extend Gen Baig’s tenure and he retired.
But exulted by his new-found hero status, Gen Baig plunged into politics and joined a strong PML faction, the PML-Chattha. Though this faction allied with the PPP during the 1993 election, Gen Baig was determined to use his popularity to unite and lead all PML factions.
But this was not to be. In 1994, a banker, Younus Habib, suddenly emerged to confess that “money was the motivating force for political intrigue, especially against the first PPP government.”
Habib added that he had used fraudulent transactions to the tune of Pakistani Rupees 5.6 billion (from public administration money) to pay off various politicians and officers. Gen Baig’s name also came up when Habib alluded that the orders had come from high up.
Gen Baig vehemently denied ever receiving the money, even though Habib also claimed that the general disbursed money to the people he wanted to get elected during the 1990 election. Some believe Habib was activated by Gen Baig’s detractors in the agencies, while others suggest it was the second Benazir government which facilitated Habib’s confessions.
Gen Baig tried to reconstruct his reputation, but the scandal refused to go away. His image began to rapidly erode and his political career came to a grinding halt. He is still entangled in the case which undid his speedy rise and hastened his equally rapid fall.
This article first appeared on Dawn.