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Will Pakistan's new army chief cool down tensions with India?

November 27, 2016 17:55 IST

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's new army chief

'General Bajwa is believed to consider the internal threats to Pakistan's security as far more serious than the bogey of the Indian threat.'
'This doesn't mean that he is soft on India, only that he is more rational and sensible than his predecessor who had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about India,' points out Pakistan expert Sushant Sareen.

In all the anticipation and excitement surrounding the announcement of the appointment of Pakistan's next army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, the lines from an old The Who song, appropriately titled (when seen in the context of India-Pakistan relations in general and the Pakistan army in particular) 'Won't get fooled again,' immediately come to mind: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would be keeping his fingers crossed while picking General Bajwa as General Raheel Sharif's successor.

The primary reason for the choice is, of course, the new army chief's perceived political reliability. Nawaz Sharif hasn't had a very good experience with almost all the other seven army chiefs he has dealt with as prime minister.

In Nawaz Sharif's first term as prime minister, Aslam Beg openly defied the civilian government during the first Gulf War and was reduced to a lame duck when his successor was nominated six months in advance.

The successor, Asif Nawaz Janjua had a very strained relationship with Nawaz Sharif on Karachi operations. The relations worsened after Nawaz Sharif apparently tried to bribe Janjua with a BMW car. Janjua died in office and the next man Abdul Wahid Kakar forced both Nawaz Sharif and the then president to resign to end the political tussle between them.

In his second term as PM, Nawaz Sharif forced Jehangir Karamat to resign after the latter called for the formation of a National Security Council.

The next man in, Pervez Musharraf, ousted Nawaz Sharif in a coup, put him in jail and then exiled him to Saudi Arabia.

In his current term time as PM, Nawaz Sharif had a working relationship with Ashfaq Kayani, who in any case had lost a lot of goodwill after having accepted a second tenure as army chief.

With Raheel Sharif again, things remained pretty uneasy and there were times when it seemed as though civil-military relations had reached breaking point.

But although there was no coup, the military pretty much dictated terms to the civilian government, which almost always gave in to what the military dictated, demanded or desired.

The question now is whether Nawaz Sharif will be lucky the eighth time?

Even though he was number four on the seniority list, General Bajwa's selection doesn't really violate the order of merit or seniority.

The top three on the seniority list were General Bajwa's batch mates, so no serious violation of the seniority principle there, even less so considering that the names sent to the PM from the defence ministry included five names and it was the PM's discretion who he would pick.

The top most general has been kicked upstairs and made Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, a largely ceremonial post but technically senior to the army chief.

The next two generals have been superceded and the fourth on the list picked.

In terms of appointments, while General Bajwa has ticked all the check boxes that make him eligible for heading the army, one of the superceded officers, Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, has held far more high profile and critical positions -- Director General of Military Operations, Chief of General Staff, Commander of a strike corps etc -- than the new chief.

In fact, as CGS, General Ishfaq is believed to have made the battle plans for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which General Raheel Sharif has treated as his singular achievement.

The number three on the list, General Ramday, was a low profile officer but about whom it was said that his family's close connections with Nawaz Sharif would make him look like a lackey of the PM and would as such reduce his acceptability in the military, as also his effectiveness.

At the time of his elevation as army chief, General Bajwa was serving as the Inspector General Training and Evaluation, a position that is generally regarded as being sidelined, but which over the last two times seems to be have become the most important position for becoming the army chief.

General Raheel Sharif was also IG, T&E, before he replaced General Kayani as Pakistan's 15th army chief.

Earlier, General Bajwa has served as chief of FCNA and Corps Commander 10 Corps (Rawalpindi). Both these positions are believed to have been crucial in his selection.

The reasons for picking General Bajwa over the other contenders are not very complicated. The most important reason is that he is regarded (whether rightly or wrongly, only time will tell) as someone who doesn't believe in the military interfering in the political process, much less undermining and destabilising the civilian government.

What is often forgotten is that he served as Corps Commander Rawalpindi -- the coup corps -- during the critical period of 2014 when Imran Khan's dharna in Islamabad had created a situation in which it appeared at one time that a military intervention was inevitable.

It was at that time that General Bajwa is believed to have weighed in favour of the civilian government and dissuaded or backed or even advised General Raheel Sharif from any action against the Nawaz Sharif government.

While it is true that despite being pushed by some senior officers, General Sharif probably was also not keen on any precipitate action against Nawaz Sharif, the grapevine is that General Bajwa played an important role in ensuring the civilian government's survival.

For a civilian dispensation, perpetually under siege from the army, this role would make General Bajwa an ideal choice as the next army chief.

The second reason for picking him has probably to do with his experience dealing with India, especially in Kashmir.

He is believed to consider the internal threats to Pakistan's security as far more serious and existential in nature than the bogey of the Indian threat that many in Pakistan's security establishment keep bandying.

This doesn't mean that he is soft on India or is some kind of an Indophile, only that he is more rational and sensible than his predecessor who had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about India.

If indeed this is the case, then it is possible that the tensions along the LoC that have spiked in recent months will be tampered down.

Of course, what happens along the LoC in the months ahead will depend to a great extent on whether the new chief also prevents the jihadists from infiltrating and striking in Kashmir.

If Pakistan stops the flow of terrorists into Kashmir, tensions along the LoC will come down, but if the Pakistanis continue to push in terrorists, then the LoC will heat up very fast.

The third reason for General Bajwa's elevation is that he is seen as a relaxed and easy going sort of guy, professionally competent but not someone with the arrogance and stiff-upper collar, snootiness and contempt that many uniformed men display towards the 'bloody civilians.'

He is believed to be socially liberal and not an Islamist in orientation. At a time when Pakistan is at least making a show of combating extremism in society, a man with General Bajwa's attributes might just work better than someone with Islamist inclinations.

Of course, since General Bajwa will be the chief of not some normal army, but the Pakistan army, there is no money-back guarantee that he will turn out quite like what is being expected of him by the civilian leadership.

The simple fact of the matter is that just because you select an army chief doesn't make him beholden to you, and if the time and situation demands, your own appointee will become your nemesis.

That is the immutable law of Pakistani politics and only the very brave or the very foolish can assert that General Bajwa will remain subservient to civilian authority on everything and throughout his tenure.

While it is entirely possible that General Bajwa might want to lower tensions with India so he can concentrate on the internal threat and also the emerging threat from a severely destabilised Afghanistan (General Raheel Sharif's gift to Pakistan's western neighbour), he could end up trampling on the feet of the civilian government in attempting to clean up terror nests inside the country, particularly in Punjab.

This was a point of friction between the Nawaz Sharif government and General Raheel Sharif and could remain a sticking point if General Bajwa wants to crack down hard on the terror networks, especially in Punjab.

Cooling things down with India will also hinge on how seriously the Pakistan army moves against the terrorists operating from inside the country and whether it junks the distinction between 'bad' jihadists (those who attack Pakistan) and 'good' jihadists (those who attack India and Afghanistan).

If that distinction continues to be made, then clearly the border with India will remain heated.

How much General Bajwa is able to change the strategic orientation of the Pakistan army will become clear not immediately, but in about six months.

In the first six months, he will be hemmed in a little by the fact that most of his corps commanders and principal staff officers will be more or less his contemporaries, and his ability to make any big change will be limited.

But in about six months, he will be in a position to put his own men in the various pivotal positions.

Even then, for any army chief to change the institutions ethos and orientation is easier said than done because of resistance from within the institution.

What is more, he cannot completely ignore the institutions' corporate and other interests that could often run counter to the principle of civilian supremacy. Nor can he adopt a cavalier approach on strongly held and deeply ingrained views in the military on Islam, India and other such issues.

At best what can be done by an army chief, even one as powerful as the Pakistan army chief is to work on the margins, chip away at some of the conventionally held views and gradually try and shift things in a different direction.

It would be foolish on anyone's part to expect a new army chief to bring in revolutionary changes in as conservative a force as the Pakistan army, especially on the issue of India.

Remember that both Generals Kayani and Raheel Sharif had spoken about the internal threat being the most important threat facing Pakistan, and yet they did stuff that ratcheted up tensions with India.

As far as India is concerned, even though things may cool down on the LoC, it would take a leap of faith for anyone to think that it will be all milk and honey between India and Pakistan just because a new man is sitting in the Pakistan army chief's chair.

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.

Sushant Sareen