Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa
Gen. Bajwa has assumed charge when domestically civil-military relationship is in a very delicate stage. This is particularly true in the context of the situation arising after the September 2016 Uri terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir and India’s subsequent military strikes along the Line of Control (LoC) on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Tensions between the civilian and military leadership came to a boiling point when Cyril Almeida of the prestigious daily of Pakistan, DAWN reported that the civilian leadership had issued an ultimatum to the Pakistani Army over the latter’s continued support to terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which had carried out the Uri attack.
The military leadership made every attempt to play down DAWN’s report, but signals of civil-military discord were clear. Bajwa has to navigate the Pak Army in this tricky situation, as the 2018 general elections approach. The civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, despite scores of allegations of corruption and nepotism, has managed to survive. This would have offered a unique chance to the Army to assert its supremacy but the international isolation which Pakistan may face at the prospect of a military coup means that Bajwa will have to invent newer methods to maintain Army’s predominance.
But this becomes even more difficult as the Army’s patience is tested by an increasingly resilient multiple factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which continue to carry out periodic mass-casualty attacks, despite the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR)’ self-proclaimed successes in the ‘Zarb-e-Azb’. Last year, Pakistan suffered a number of terrorist attacks, including the March 2016 suicide bombing in Lahore, which killed more than 70 people and the August 2016 blast in Quetta which almost wiped out an entire generation of the city’s lawyers.
Tragic as these deaths are, the selective attitude of the Pakistani Army towards terrorism is what makes these deaths even more ironic. If media reports are to be believed Gen. Bajwa “is said to consider extremism a bigger threat for the country.” Pakistan’s neighbours would be more than willing to see how he translates those words in actions. The oft-repeated rhetoric of Pakistan being the biggest victim of terrorism with reported casualties of 80,000 civilians is a good public relations exercise at international level, but if the Pakistani establishment, specifically the Army, continues to engage in the dangerous game of supporting the religious fundamentalist and terrorist groups, then it would not cut much ice regionally and its civilians will continue to suffer.
So, the challenge for Gen. Bajwa will be to ensure that the clean-up operation launched by the Army after the 2014 Army Public School (APS), Peshawar massacre, should ultimately reach the fountainhead of terrorism i.e. the province of Punjab. This is the place from where terrorist and extremist groups, with continued political patronage including that of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), have continued to hit out at the Pakistani state and civilians with relative impunity. This would also include cracking down on the sectarian groups and more importantly the madrassas, which act as henchmen of the major terrorist groups. Gen. Bajwa’s predecessor had deliberately left out these elements in his crackdown, with terrible consequences. He will hopefully not repeat the mistake.
These domestic challenges before the COAS are in turn linked to Pakistan’s entangled relations with its neighbours on western and eastern borders.
On the east, the situation on LoC with India, poses a serious challenge for Bajwa. The increasing violence on the LoC and its after effects in terms of growing casualties- civilian and military, on Indian and Pakistani sides, has obviously created discontent, more so in Pakistan. This situation has essentially been a result of the intransigence of Gen. Raheel Sharif, who engaged in a game of military one-upmanship with India for the past two and half years- effectively trashing the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan which was in place between the two countries for the past many years.
It is the time that Gen. Bajwa utilises his extensive experience of handling Kashmir, during his time previously as the Commander, X Corps to lower tensions with India. Related to the LoC issue is Pakistan’s role in Kashmir. Here, Gen. Bajwa has the challenge of evaluating Pakistan’s escalating rhetoric and what it has achieved for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Can Islamabad afford escalation on the issue is the question that will need serious review in Rawalpindi, as New Delhi’s growing economy and rising international stature makes it a fait accompli for Islamabad to yield diminishing returns on Kashmir rhetoric, not to add, damage attempts at dialogue by the Kashmiri separatists with the Indian government.
It is also time Gen. Bajwa realises that the often repeated rhetoric of Kashmir being a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ raises more uncomfortable and awkward questions internationally about safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, than evoke any fears about India’s nuclear posture. In any case, the military strikes along the LoC by India have effectively punctured Pakistan’s nuclear escalation argument in South Asia.
If the situation on eastern border looks complicated, Pakistan’s western border looks equally grim. Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have reached rock bottom as the former continues with its policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban, providing it safe havens and meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. This directly impacts the legitimacy of the government in Kabul. The fact that Afghanistan sided with India at the recently held Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar and in withdrawing from the November 2016 Islamabad SAARC Summit has further embittered the bilateral relations. Gen. Bajwa’s challenge will be arrest the slide in this relationship, but by focusing more on the meddlesome policies of Pakistan, rather than pressuring Afghanistan.
The success of how he deals with these complex set of challenges will also be determined by how he handles relations with China and the United States.
The military, not to mention the Fauji Foundation, is the major stakeholder in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, the challenge for Gen. Bajwa will be to fend off the increasing resistance to and attacks against the CPEC. China’s growing involvement, has not escaped the domestic scrutiny in Pakistan. The Chinese dominance is set to grow further as recently a Chinese consortium has bought 40% strategic shares in the Karachi-based Pakistan Stock Exchange.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s relations with the US are set to enter a tumultuous phase, when Donald Trump enters the White House on January 20. While Pakistan tom-tommed about the phone call between Trump and Nawaz Sharif, Gen. Bajwa realises that it will be a whole new game now when it comes to Washington. The frequent complaints from the US about Pakistan not doing enough to deal with the militant groups are now likely to be tied up with US aid. So far, between 2002 and 2016, the direct US aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan have been about $7.9 billion and another $14 billion in the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) disbursements. Additionally, the U.S. civilian economic assistance to Pakistan was at least $11.1 billion. President-elect Trump has not talked publicly much about Pakistan, except citing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as a reason to keep US troops in Afghanistan. However it is clear that Gen. Bajwa will soon hear a lot on counter-terrorism front from Washington, especially as India-US ties grow stronger.
It is clear that Gen. Bajwa has inherited multiple challenges. Much will depend on his acumen how he deals with them, as Pakistan navigates the current regional and international environment. It will be observed with great interest how Gen. Bajwa, in coming months, would steer away the Pakistani Army from his predecessor’s shadow, whose obsession with India and considering Afghanistan as a ‘client state’ of that country , has allowed little space for the civilian government to maintain normal diplomatic relations with its immediate neighbours.