Meet the Most Powerful Man in Pakistan

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might be officially calling the shots in Islamabad, but as of Friday, the most powerful man in Pakistan is someone else: Lt. General Raheel Sharif.

Sharif, who despite the shared surname is not related to the current prime minister, assumed control of the Pakistani armed forces with his installation as army chief of staff on Friday. He takes the reins from Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who enters retirement after six years in the position.

The appointment of Sharif was somewhat unexpected. One of four names submitted for consideration by Kayani to the prime minister, Sharif was chosen ahead of Lt. General Haroon Aslam, the second-most senior army official, and Lt. Rashad Mehmood, the candidate thought to be the favorite of Kayani. Sharif has strong credentials, and comes from a distinguished military family, but in a country where the army has ousted the civilian government on three separate occasions, perhaps his most important qualification is that he is considered a safe pick.

Prime Minister Sharif does not have the best track record in choosing his generals. The prime minister was ousted in 1999 when his hand-picked appointee, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, led a military coup. According to Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Sharif's expected stance toward Islamabad played a critical role in his appointment. "In Pakistan the question uppermost on the prime minister's mind will be the civil-military relations in which the personality and ambitions of the man you choose becomes a critical factor," he told Foreign Policy.

Pakistan has seen three periods of military rule in its 66-year history, but in recent years, General Kayani was careful to avoid the appearance of interfering in Islamabad. His hands off approach saw the country's first successful transition between democratically elected governments. While the new army chief is beholden to his own military constituency and is therefore unlikely to dismantle the army's control over security decisions, Sharif, a reported moderate, is unlikely to waver from his predecessor's hands-off approach to politics. "The army no longer wants to appear to directly intervene in politics but it still wants to set the course of Pakistan's policy," Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told FP. "General Kayani charted that path well and General Sharif will likely continue along that path." For the prime minister, Sharif's ability to maintain the tenuous détente between the military and civilian leaders was his chief qualification.

Sharif assumes power during a critical time. With the United States set to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, the new army chief will be a vital powerbroker in shaping the complexion of post-war Afghanistan. With militants often launching raids from Pakistan's restive border areas, the Pakistani borderlands have become a key theater in the Afghan war. But American military commanders have been less than successful in recruiting the Pakistani army to their cause. Pakistan has long been hesitant to crackdown on Afghan militants whom they view as potentially valuable allies in promoting Pakistani interests across the border once the United States pulls out. Kayani rebuffed Washington's repeated demands for an aggressive military force to squeeze Taliban insurgents in the North Waziristan tribal areas and that calculus is unlikely to change under Sharif.

The flipside, of course, is the emergence of a violent Taliban insurgency at home. The blowback from Pakistan's reliance on militants to fight proxy wars in the region has been significant -- thousands of civilians and security forces have died in recent years. Sharif's familiarity with the army's counter-insurgency operations was likely a factor in his appointment. "Raheel has been active in developing Pakistan's [counter-insurgency] strategy both in his present position and as Commadant of the Pakistan Military Academy," Touqir Hussain said. "And he is known to be concerned about Pakistan's internal security challenges."

While some Pakistani politicians are eager to negotiate with the insurgents, the army has so far resisted sitting down with domestic militant groups. Rather, the generals have walked a fine line between pursuing military action (with a heavy dose of U.S. drone strikes) and nurturing a force that can still be valuable in projecting power in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

How Sharif negotiates this complex set of priorities amid a U.S withdrawal will not only dictate domestic and regional security, but also his country's relationship with the west. And while his positions with regard to politics, counterinsurgency, and Afghanistan remain unclear, most analysts expect Sharif to stick to the Kayani script. It is why he was chosen.

But then again, this is Pakistan, and when it comes to the army chief, nothing is certain.



Is it Time to Shred the 'Paper Tiger'?

At a press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, a reporter asked a question that seems to come up whenever China attempts to do anything of global significance: Is China a paper tiger? His question pertained to China's controversial new air defense identification zone, and the government's failure to respond when the United States defied it by flying two B-52 bombers through the area. At the briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson deflected the question, saying: "The word paper tiger has its special meaning. You should look it up."

Well, we did. And guess what: Everyone has a different definition.

Journalists seem to never tire of comparing China, in one way or another, to a paper tiger. Is China's economy a paper tiger? Are its cyber threats a paper tiger? How about its banks? Or it's ability to innovate? The list goes on. Apparently, everyone wants to make a paper tiger out of China. Ironically, it was Mao Zedong who helped popularize the phrase that journalists have now come to rely on when disparaging the country he shaped. But in Mao's usage, it was the United States, not China, that deserved to be called a paper tiger. In a 1956 interview, he had this to say about U.S. imperialism: "In appearance [U.S. imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain."

The paper tiger, according to Mao, has two distinguishing characteristics: It's shallow show of strength and its disengagement from ordinary people. "The wind and the rain" refer to the masses, both in the United States and elsewhere, who will batter the tiger until it finally crumbles. Could this apply to China? To find out, we took Mao's 'paper tiger' interview and replaced all mention of the United States, Americans, and imperialism with the words "China" and "Chinese." Here's an excerpt:

"Now [China] is quite powerful, but in reality it isn't. It is very weak politically because it is divorced from the masses of the people and is disliked by everybody and by the [Chinese] people too....

At present, [China] is powerful, but when looked at in a broader perspective, as a whole and from a long-term viewpoint, it has no popular support, its policies are disliked by the people, because it oppresses and exploits them. For this reason, the tiger is doomed. Therefore, it is nothing to be afraid of and can be despised. But today [China] still has strength, turning out more than 100 million tons of steel a year and hitting out everywhere."

For what it's worth, China churned out 716.5 million tons of steel in 2012.

Anyway, Mao's definition isn't the only one out there. Years before Mao popularized the phrase, Amelia Earhart used paper tigers as a metaphor for fear. In 1998, Osama Bin Laden described the American soldier as a paper tiger, "unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled." Philosopher Paul de Man used paper tigers as a metaphor describing anxiety around the emerging field of literary theory. (He concludes that one should just call a cat a cat.) 

Merriam Webster defines "paper tiger" simply as "one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual," which is probably what journalists mean when they use it. Still, the phrase has been used so liberally and so often that, like Mao's original tiger, it begins to lose its teeth. Perhaps it's time for a new definition -- one from Bill Watterson's much loved comics: As Hobbes, Calvin's striped cartoon companion, once defined "paper tiger," it's simply "a tiger with a newspaper route."

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