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What Was Pak Army Chief Doing in Britain?

By RANA BANERJI
August 19, 2022 09:46 IST
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Another extension for General Bajwa in office at this juncture looks unlikely at this juncture, observes Rana Banerji, who headed the Pakistan desk at the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency.

IMAGE: Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the passing out parade at Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as the first-ever Pakistani chief guest, August 12, 2022. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa addressed the passing out parade at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst on Friday, August 12, 2022. He was the first Pakistani dignitary who was invited as chief guest there.

Invitations to foreign dignitaries to attend this function are not that unusual. The passing out parade at Sandhurst, called the Sovereign's Parade, is held three times a year, in April, August and December.

The chief guest is usually a member of the royal family, a high dignitary at the level of a prime minister etc. In 2017, Jordan's King Abdullah II was the chief guest, when his son was graduating. A few months ago, at the April 2022 parade, US army chief General James McConville was the chief guest. In 2011, General David H Petraeus and in 2019, General Mark Miley were chief guests.

It is just a gesture.

Interestingly, among the foreign cadets passing out from Sandhurst this year was the elder son of Major General Babbar Iftikhar, current director general, Inter Services Public Relations. Another son has just joined Sandhurst.

In view of the current state of Pakistan-US relations, which have been on an ice block after then prime minister Imran Khan's diatribe about a 'foreign conspiracy' behind his ouster, Pakistan has been trying hard to reach out to Western countries, also in Europe, for a possible improvement in ties. This was the reason for General Bajwa's visit to Brussels in April 2022, to engage the European Union.

There is sometimes Anglo-American cooperation to handle Pakistan and this may have been thought of as a consolation prize. General Bajwa has been trying to get invited for a US visit this summer, but the Americans were not interested.

There is lot of anger in Washington, not only over Imran's intemperate pronouncements, but also on Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan. Except some intelligence folks, no one was interested to sit with the Pakistanis.

There was no specific or meaningful agenda for Bajwa's London visit. No military, economic or trade engagements were planned even though the Pakistan high commission tried hard to arrange something substantial, even after Bajwa got there.

The Pakistani authorities at the high commission in London had apparently indicated that the general would be happy to address a closed door session of the influential British strategic community at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, if only some substantive high level meetings could be scheduled with British counterparts.

However, this being the holiday season, this did not happen. No high dignitaries like the security adviser or the intelligence chiefs were readily available. The planned session at IISS fell through. Bajwa spent a relaxed evening instead at the high commission listening to a programme of music featuring Natalya Shmarenkova, the wife of Pakistani businessman Mohammad Zahoor, a former media tycoon in Ukraine.

Christian Turner, Britain's current high commissioner in Pakistan, worked earlier in the British prime minister's office and as deputy national security adviser. He is very much taken by Bajwa's personality and recent bearing.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine took place on February 24, much to the Pakistan military establishment's embarrassment, then prime minister Imran Khan was present in Moscow. The British were understandably quite displeased, despite their general proclivity to back the underdog, Pakistan, in the context of the fractious India-Pakistan relationship.

Apparently, Bajwa was able to convince Turner that the military leadership had counseled Imran against going to Russia at this sensitive juncture, but he disregarded this counsel and went ahead regardless.

Turner may have had a role to play in extending the Sandhurst ceremony invitation to the Pakistan army chief. He is reported to have passed on an assessment that given the disturbing insider politicking within the Pakistan army that has been going on after Imran Khan's ouster in April 2022, Bajwa's steadying hand at the helm in Pakistan would be preferable, through another extension in November 2022, instead of a new general coming to the fore.

However, Pakistani military analysts abroad and within the country who watch the situation closely believe the domestic angle to these visits could be secondary. There are a lot of rumours but another extension may not be on the cards.

They feel the environment at present is totally different from 2019, in view of the targeting of General Bajwa by pro-Imran trolls in social media, as also the not inconsiderable support for Imran Khan among military families.

Morever, there are many aspirants among senior officers to succeed Bajwa, for whom another extension may not be palatable.

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RANA BANERJI / Rediff.com
 
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