Pakistan’s Army chief stepped aside, scotching coup speculation. Rahimullah Yusufzai appraises the new man
After months of uncertainty in Pakistan, and speculation about the possibility of a military coup, the appointment of a new Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, for a three-year term could not have been more smooth and routine. The outgoing Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, handed over the traditional cane to his successor at a ceremony at the Army Hockey Stadium in Rawalpindi on November 29.
To the relief of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, General Sharif refused to be tempted by some politicians, journalists, civil society figures and a multitude on social media, who were urging him to topple the government or seek an extension in service to complete the unfinished war against terrorism in Pakistan. Instead, Sharif profusely praised the outgoing Army chief for his leadership qualities and his services to the nation.
In all likelihood, it will take time before General Bajwa can establish himself and attain the same level of popularity as his predecessor. This would enable the Prime Minister to complete his five-year term in May 2018 without worrying about being deposed by the military, as happened to him in 1999, when he was ousted in a coup by General Pervez Musharraf.
Though civil-military relations in Pakistan have been traditionally unequal in favour of the military, the last two Army chiefs – General Raheel Sharif and before him General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani – backed civilian governments. During their time, one elected government succeeded another for the first time in Pakistani history, and it appears that this will continue in the foreseeable future.
However, the power of the military remains such that changes at the top, and senior appointments, are closely watched. Since General Bajwa was fourth in the seniority list, his appointment meant that the Army generals who were superseded were expected to resign, in accordance with tradition. But a day earlier the most senior, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, technically the top military appointment in the country, though it is less powerful than the Army chief, who commands the nearly 600,000 soldiers. The other two – Lt General Ishfaq Nadeem and Lt General Javed Iqbal Ramdey – were reportedly requested by General Bajwa to remain in service until this year, when they were due for retirement, but they declined.
Along with certain other vacancies, this enabled General Bajwa to put men of his choice in powerful positions early on, including the Corps Commander of the largest 10th Corps, responsible for not only the security of the federal capital, Islamabad, and its twin city, Rawalpindi, but also the Line of Control in Kashmir, where Pakistani and Indian troops confront each other. In the past 10th Corps soldiers have taken part in military coups and arrested democratically-elected prime ministers.
General Bajwa also installed a new head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), where Lt General Rizwan Akhtar was replaced by Lt General Naveed Mukhtar, previously the Corps Commander for Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. Maj General Asif Ghafoor, fresh from serving in the previously volatile Swat valley, which was controlled by the Pakistani Taliban from 2007 to 2009, became director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, replacing Lt General Asim Salim Bajwa, the public face and spokesman of the military for the last four years.
Unlike his predecessor, the new Army chief has maintained a relatively low profile. General Bajwa did not respond to claims by two opposition leaders, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the Pakistan People’s Party’s Syed Khursheed Shah, that he had been appointed because he was close to the Prime Minister. The same suggestion was made about the newly designated Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who also ignored it
Emulating his predecessor, General Bajwa visited the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, the second anniversary of the terrorist attack in which 147 people, including 132 schoolchildren, were killed. He told the gathering that like General Sharif, who visited the school several times, he has kept the pictures of the slain students in his office, to remember them daily and renew the pledge to avenge their deaths.
General Bajwa also confirmed without hesitation the death sentence awarded by the military courts to 13 convicted hardcore militants. The military claimed these men were mostly members of the TTP, the organization of Pakistani Taliban, and were involved in a number of terrorist attacks across the country in which 325 people were killed and another 366 injured.
Among those convicted and facing the gallows is Latifullah Mahsud, former deputy chief of the TTP and a right-hand man of the late TTP head, Hakimullah Mahsud. Interestingly, Latifullah Mahsud was delivered to Pakistan by the US military, which snatched him from the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, in Afghanistan’s Logar province, to the publicly expressed anger of the Afghan government.
The first forward positions that General Bajwa visited after assuming command were near the Line of Control in Kashmir, where he served for years, to deliver a message warning of swift retaliation to any Indian aggression. Though firing across the Kashmir boundary subsided, as he predicted when he took over as Pakistan Army chief, tensions remain high following Indian claims that it has carried out ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to avenge the attack on its base in Uri, in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir.
General Bajwa also lost no time in visiting the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), bordering Afghanistan, where the Pakistani military has been fighting against local and foreign militants since 2003, making steady progress at a huge cost in blood and treasure. His predecessor used to visit his troops almost every month to update himself on the security situation and inspect army-run reconstruction and development projects.
The new Army chief has also sought to revive high-level contacts with Afghanistan. He has twice called President Ashraf Ghani since the New Year, and is expected to visit Kabul before long. While General Sharif tried to play a similar role, undertaking several trips to Kabul and hosting President Ghani at the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, the huge distrust between the two countries stymied progress. It remains to be seen if General Bajwa will fare any better.
If nothing else, these moves emphasise the many challenges the new Army chieffaces. There is more than enough to keep any commander busy, without seeking to take over the functions of government as well.