“He stood, smashed the screen with some object and shouted ‘Don’t you guys have any decency? Families are sitting here and you screened such rubbish,’” Simon Sharaf, a former roommate of Sharif who witnessed the exchange back in 1993, said in an interview in Rawalpindi, home to the military’s headquarters. “Nobody dared to move or say anything.”
Nawaz Sharif bypassed two more senior generals last year when he appointed Raheel Sharif, who was seen as an apolitical choice that would enhance civilian control of the armed forces. Tensions slowly rose as the government sought talks with Taliban militants and brought treason charges against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted Nawaz Sharif in 1999.
Now, after six of weeks of protests led by opposition leader Imran Khan, Raheel Sharif has asserted the army’s role as power broker.
In mid-August, Khan and religious cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri moved past police lines into a restricted zone and set up camp in parliament. Nawaz Sharif then held meetings with Raheel Sharif to help resolve the impasse.
Raheel Sharif met separately with Khan, Qadri, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who leads Pakistan’s state of Punjab. Nawaz Sharif later told parliament he never asked Raheel Sharif to mediate a solution, prompting Khan to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court seeking the prime minister’s disqualification for lying.
Amid the protests, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration scrapped the first formal talks planned with Pakistan in two years after its envoy sought to meet Kashmiri separatist groups. The army has also continued a fight against Islamic militants on the border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban is seeking to regain power as the U.S. withdraws troops over the next few years.
“Sharif is building himself up,” Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc., a book about Pakistan’s armed forces, said by phone from Islamabad, referring to the army chief. “Maximum manipulation ensures civil institutions remain weak and cannot challenge the military.”
Raheel Sharif, 58, was born in Quetta on the Afghan border in a military family. He and his brothers followed in the footsteps of his father, a major. One of his brothers, Mumtaz Sharif, is a captain, while elder brother Major Shabbir Sharif was killed in 1971 while battling Indian soldiers during one of three wars between the neighboring countries.
Raheel Sharif is Pakistan’s first army chief who hasn’t seen combat with India, and regards home-grown militants as an existential threat on the same level, according to Burzine Waghmar, an academic at the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Pakistan’s top general is also reserved in private, according to those who’ve worked with him over the years.
“He isn’t talkative,” said retired Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik, the former top bureaucrat in the defense ministry. “But when he speaks, he speaks clearly.”
Abdul Qadir Baloch, a member of Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet who previously served as Raheel Sharif’s commander for three years, said the army chief remains courteous when they meet in private.
“He believes in democracy and constitution, but there is pressure,” Baloch said. “The army has a mindset. It ruled the country for more than half its existence, so there is always pressure.”
Pakistan Army Chief Seen Keeping Premier Sharif on Edge - Bloomberg