Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have had a chequered political career, but he has appointed several Army chiefs, a rare distinction in a nation that has seen more military dictatorships than civilian governments.
On Saturday, Sharif named Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa as the successor to General Raheel Sharif, who will step down as Army chief on Tuesday. Bajwa, currently serving as inspector general of training and evaluation, was not the incumbent chief’s first choice. Many believed General Raheel Sharif would have gone with Lieutenant General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad. But the fact that Bajwa made the cut shows that the prime minister is reasonably in control at a time when his government has been dogged by reports of a major rift with the military.
But the appointment of an Army chief in Pakistan by a democratically elected government is no assurance of a stable regime. Sharif had also appointed General Pervez Musharraf to the post, only to be toppled and exiled by him in 1999. Bajwa, though, is clearly Sharif’s choice and reports indicate that they share a cordial relationship.
However, another appointment on Saturday went almost unnoticed – that of Lieutenant General Zubair Mahmood Hayat as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the other most powerful seat in the Pakistani military. While the prime minister was in favour of another contender, Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal Ramday, for this post, Hayat had the Army’s backing and eventually emerged successful. Clearly, Sharif had his way with the Army chief’s appointment but had to concede on the other key position.
Seasoned Kashmir hand
Commissioned in the Baloch Regiment, Bajwa – Pakistan’s 16th Chief of Army Staff – is an infantry man with extensive experience in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir at various stages of his career. He served in the region as a lieutenant colonel when he was deployed on the Line of Control, and then again as a major general of the Force Command Northern Areas. This formation is responsible for maintaining the Line of Control and Bajwa’s tenure saw a fair uptick in hostilities. He returned to the Line of Control once again as commander of the 10 Corps, the Pakistan Army’s largest formation. Though headquartered in Rawalpindi, next to the Army’s General Headquarters, the 10 Corps is a predominant formation deployed on the Line of Control as a holding as well as attacking force.
Naturally, its commanders are not known to be well-disposed towards India. Years of conflict and maintaining an aggressive posture ensures that they continue to view India as the prime enemy. In fact, just after staging a coup, Musharraf had appointed a Kashmiri officer, Lieutenant General Mohammed Aziz, as commander of the 10 Corps. But he had to rescind the order very quickly after he faced stiff resistance from several fundamentalist groups, who pointed out that a Kashmiri general would weaken the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. Any senior military officer who commands the 10 Corps is selected carefully and this speaks volumes of Bajwa’s merit as the next Army chief.
However, Bajwa is on record stating that extremism is a bigger threat than India. A spate of attacks on civilian and military targets by various militant outfits has sharply brought the Pakistan Army in conflict with its former allies. While it had played a decisive role in the mujahideen effort against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and was one of the first nations to recognise the Taliban government there, the situation changed after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Faced with an ultimatum from the US government, the Pakistani Army took on militant outfits operating from its tribal areas, and it led to a fierce backlash, claiming hundreds of non-combatants. The Tehreek-e-Taliban, also known as the Pakistan Taliban, continues to pose a threat. In June 2014, the Army launched Operation Zarb-i-Azb against the militant group in North Waziristan and this will continue in Bajwa’s tenure. Clearly, the new Army chief, like his predecessor, will have his hands full on the domestic front.
But like all Pakistan Army chiefs, India will also continue to be high on Bajwa’s radar. This is especially true as he finds a much more aggressive government in New Delhi, which not only wants quick retribution for each attack but also wants to address its domestic constituency through increased aggression on the Line of Control. For the Pakistan Army chief, who also controls the country’s spy agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence – and nuclear arsenal, and faces a vocal population, the current situation will demand a lot of tightrope walking.
An affable man
Indian security analysts describe Bajwa as an “affable man” and believe the Pakistan prime minister picked him in the hope of having greater control over the Army. But they are also confident that Bajwa will follow his own script as he settles into his new job. Most commanders of the Force Command Northern Areas develop an intense dislike for India because of the fiercely contested nature of the Line of Control. From the Siachen glacier to Kargil, these areas have seen a high rate of conflict between the two armies. It is expected that even though Sharif may want some negotiating room on Kashmir, he is unlikely to find a willing partner in his new Army chief.
But some in the Indian security establishment are also cautiously hopeful that Bajwa will be willing to reduce tensions on the Line of Control, if New Delhi is ready to dial down its aggression. Much will also depend on how he uses the ISI and jihadi groups – usually a sore point in bilateral relations and deeply associated with the Kashmir dispute. If he continues to hold on to his views from his role as commander of the Force Command Northern Areas, then chances are that tensions and violence will escalate.