THE untimely death of General Asif Nawaz, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, has opened a Pandora's Box for the country's still fragile democracy.
The last of the Sandhurst- trained generation of Pakistani officers, Nawaz was known as a 'soldier's soldier' who had no political ambitions. His aim was to keep the army out of politics and restore the military's professional credibility both at home and abroad after long bouts of martial law. During his short 16 months in office, he was instrumental in trying to restore Pakistan's relations with the West, after Washington cut off all aid to Islamabad because of its nuclear weapons programme. As a strong believer in liberal values, he was trying to improve the military's relations with India and take Pakistan out of the dead-end legacy of Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric left by his two predecessors, General Zia ul-Haq and General Aslam Beg. Almost immediately after his death following a stroke, intense speculation began about the political implications of his death and who would be appointed his successor.
Nawaz was born in 1937 in the village of Chakri in the Jhelum district of Punjab - the heartland of military recruitment by the British Indian Army. He was educated at St Mary's, a mission school in Rawalpindi, about which he later said that two Irish teachers, Fr Burns and Miss May Flanagan, had most influence in teaching him the values for his future career. He was the third generation of his family to join the Punjab Regiment and as an outstanding cadet went on a scholarship to Sandhurst.
Commissioned in 1957, he spent most of his career in the field, holding command positions during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. From 1982 to 1985 he commanded a division in Peshawar and then headed the military academy in Kakul until 1988. From April 1988 to March 1991 he was Corps Commander, Karachi, in charge of three army divisions. In April 1991 he became Chief of General Staff and was appointed Chief of Army Staff in August 1991 with a tenure of three years.
It was in Karachi and Sind that he came to political prominence as the province wilted under the most violent period in its history. Ethnic battles between Sindhis and Muhajirs claimed thousands of lives, and General Nawaz's troops were frequently called upon to impose curfews and break the civil strife. In a celebrated incident he was instrumental in organising a handover of 'prisoners of war' between ethnic extremist groups. His experience in Sind stood him in good stead when the government asked the army to take over law and order in Sind last year for a six-month period. Over the past few days there has been intense politicking in Islamabad between the army and the government as to whether the army would continue its role in the province.
Nawaz re-established a close relationship with the Pentagon, without making any concessions on Pakistan's nuclear bomb, which had led the US to cut off aid to Pakistan. He refused to be drawn into fiery speeches against India even during the recent Ayodhya incident, when Indo-Pakistani relations plunged to their lowest ebb. He was always a man of few words, given to answering questions in a single sentence and refusing to be drawn out as to what was really on his mind. A close family man, he loved nothing better than a family reunion and often talked of how he would relax when he retired, unlike other generals who have plunged into politics. Unlike so many of his predecessors, Nawaz was incorruptible, and frequently joked about the kinds of bribes he had been offered by some of the highest in the land
Over the past few months as the government harassed the press mercilessly and encouraged police thugs to beat up journalists and their families, many journalists' last court of appeal was a telephone appeal to the Army Chief's office asking for protection. The army took on the surprising role of becoming a protector of a free press and liberal values of criticism.
Asif Nawaz's death has left a vacuum in Pakistan at a time when the country is faced with serious problems on its borders and a political crisis at home.