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Pakistan's Army Chief Gains Power Under Democratic Rule


Pakistan has spent much of its 70-year history under military rule. These days, it has an elected civilian government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the power of the army and the general who leads it is growing.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In many countries, people don't actually know who commands their military. Fame is for movie stars and sporting heroes, not soldiers. Pakistan is different.


RAHEEL SHARIF: Honorable Chief Minister of Balochistan...

REEVES: This man is one of the best-known people in the nation. Gen. Raheel Sharif seemed low key, a little dull even, when he first became army chief a couple of years ago.


REEVES: Pakistan's sophisticated military publicity machine has been hard at work. Turn on the TV here or log onto Twitter and you're sure to find fresh footage of the barrel-chested general on parade, inspecting troops or hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries. The public love him, says political analyst Raoof Hasan.

RAOOF HASAN: He is, by far, the most popular leader in Pakistan today, by far. He has come forth as a leader who actually does what he says he will do.

REEVES: A few years back, Pakistan's army was getting a lot of criticism over failing to avert deadly Taliban attacks. Gen. Raheel turned that around. The army launched a major offensive against the militants. The number of attacks has dropped significantly. Then in late 2014, the Taliban massacred more than 130 boys at an army-run school. Pakistanis rallied around the military. The government gave the army the right to try suspects in military court. For Farzana Bari, that decision was a big step in the wrong direction.

FARZANA BARI: It absolutely worries us. It is total capitulation.

REEVES: Bari is a civil society activist. She was in the front line of the street protests demanding the removal of the last general to rule Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. She says even now under civilian government, Pakistan's generals have much influence over politicians.

BARI: They always make sure that who's ever come to rule the country, that political party must consider them as their bosses.

REEVES: There are tensions between the military and the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The military determines policy in key areas, areas that in other democracies would be in civilian hands.

HASAN: The foreign policy with regard to the region, which means China, Afghanistan, India. Then of course the security situation within the Pakistan - how to tackle that, and part of the economic policymaking.

REEVES: That's Raoof Hasan again. Zafar Hilali was a top Pakistani diplomat and a confidant of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He says there's a reason people are noticing the army's influence more now than before.

ZIFAR HILALI: It is more brazen. It is more blatant. It is more in your face, the army actions. That is why you are noticing it to the extent that you are.

REEVES: Hilali says the rise of Gen. Raheel has to do with the ineptitude of Pakistan's elected politicians.

HILALI: They have failed. They haven't delivered. They are regarded as crooks. Every single person regards the politicians as crooks. There is no justice. There is no equality. Why should the people not turn to a man who is honest and effective? Why not?

REEVES: In November, Gen. Raheel is due to retire. Banners have appeared in the streets appealing for him to stay on. There's much speculation in Pakistan over whether he'll get an extension to his term. Hilali thinks not.

HILALI: He doesn't want one. He's said so publicly. He can't go back on that.

REEVES: While that plays out, some Pakistanis worry that their military could one day seize outright power again. Political analysts here tend to doubt that will happen, and so does Farzana Bari.

BARI: It is a deep understanding amongst the military elite that they're going to be in trouble as an institution of they come and directly rule this country.

REEVES: Bari says that although Pakistan's not really a democracy yet, democratic values have taken root. And that means people won't again allow their generals total control of their country. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.