Sometime ago, before writing an article on civil-military relations, I decided to do a simple experiment.
I asked whoever I met that day to name Pakistan’s air force and navy chiefs. Except one, a former army officer, no one could. Even the officer paused a little before naming the navy chief. All of them, however, knew the Chief of Army Staff (COAS).
The point is simple: the traditional civil-military imbalance in Pakistan is mostly about civil-army relations, not civil-military relations.
Army chiefs don’t make news in most countries. They shouldn’t. The police and paramilitaries chiefs routinely come and go and no one even notices, outside of the small circle of reporters and analysts whose job it is to report and comment.
But that is not the case when it comes to the Army Chief in Pakistan. When General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani indicated that he would like another full term, the then Pakistan Peoples Party government was quick to oblige.
There was intense speculation about General Raheel Sharif, the recently retired COAS. At least a year before he was to hang up his boots, mysterious posters would appear in different cities, asking him to stay on.
Some even urged him to take over from the ‘political jokers’ whose corruption had stymied Pakistan’s progress. It did not matter that at least eight months before his term was to end, Gen. Sharif got the Inter-Services Public Relations directorate (ISPR) to state that he would not seek extension in service, the first time any sitting chief did that.
Both the army’s centrality, and the aura the ISPR’s cleverly crafted PR campaign created around Gen. Sharif, turned him into a larger-than-life hero, and helped fuel expectations that he will be granted at least another year in uniform, if not a full term.
It was only ten or so days before November 29, Gen. Sharif’s retirement date, when he began packing up and doing the farewell rounds that speculations about an extension finally started dying down. But true to form, speculations and theories were now directed towards who would be the next chief.
TV channels went into overdrive. Everyone had something to say even as no one really knew until a couple of hours before the actual announcement.
Enter Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the newly appointed Army Chief. What’s the measure of the man and how will he deal with the challenges Gen. Sharif has left behind?
There are two ways of looking at the issue. The tempting framework is to think that Gen. Bajwa will take a leaf from his predecessor’s book and turn himself into an icon, a savior. If that happens, and the formidable ISPR media management machine is fully in place and well-oiled to do that job, he would like to retain the army’s space to guide and, in some of the core relations — India, Afghanistan, the U.S. — also steer elements of foreign policy, pegging it on its traditional concept of security policy.
The other framework is that Gen. Bajwa will temper expectations, focus on the army’s professional advice to the government and let the government handle the bigger, strategic picture while providing the muscle. He is known as a top professional with a good sense of humor and a practical head on his shoulders. The current government also believes that Bajwa is clear about the limits of his remit, perhaps one of the reasons for his selection. He also realizes that the army is stretched thin and needs to shed some of the responsibilities it has taken upon itself during Gen. Sharif’s tenure.
The difference between the two approaches is important and interesting.
For instance, if we take the first approach, we could formulate his challenges broadly in four areas: India, Afghanistan, the U.S. and internal security, which relates to counter-terrorism operations.
The second approach would take the same challenges but formulate them differently: Pakistan, meaning the government currently tasked with the affairs of the state, faces these challenges and Gen. Bajwa, as the new Army Chief, has been entrusted with providing his professional input just like many others — ministers of foreign affairs, finance, commerce et cetera — to the prime minister who is the head of the government and who has the broader, strategic responsibility to handle these challenges.
Put another way, while the first approach assumes that the new chief will tread the old path and Pakistan’s capacity to deal with the challenges will continue to be determined through a security prism that looks at solutions mostly in kinetic terms, the second approach puts the responsibility on the government with the army as one element of the national power at its disposal.
The prime minister leads; the COAS follows, as do the government ministers.
This essentially means that while Gen. Bajwa would and should be prepared to respond militarily where and when necessary, the measure of the policy to do so will have to be provided by the government.
“The Prime Minister of Pakistan has a grand vision of establishing a long-lasting peace in the region, which would lead to sustainable development, economic prosperity, and eradication of poverty,” Dr. Musadik Malik, Minister of State and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s spokesperson tells Newsweek Middle East.
He adds that “General Bajwa’s appointment is an important milestone toward actualizing the PM’s vision. His military leadership would eliminate the menace of extremism, and assist Pakistan in winning the war against terrorism and external interference in Pakistan.”
Lt-Gen. Waheed Arshad, the former Chief of General Staff, the second-highest office in the army, thinks the army has to take the second approach.
Speaking to Newsweek Middle East about tensions at the Line of Control, Arshad says that the “Army Chief cannot do anything to defuse [the situation]. It all depends on the government’s policy. If the government does not want to escalate, the army will respond to Indian provocation and firing in a measured and calibrated manner.”
The strategic side of managing relations with India or getting the space to put relations back on the rails where the two sides can begin to engage meaningfully, is a task bigger than the army can manage. However, as Arshad points out, “What no army chief can do is to tell his troops not to respond to Indian firing…or direct targeting. [The] LoC is being used as a tool for political ends by [Narendra] Modi. Defusing it has to be a political decision.”
Positive engagement, however, doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
Since the Pathankot attack, the process which began in December 2015 on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, has remained stillborn.
The bilateral talks between Sartaj Aziz, Advisor on Foreign Affairs to PM Sharif, and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had led to an agreement on a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process.
Since the Pathankot attack, Modi has returned to his earlier policy of trying to isolate Pakistan. He managed to scuttle the SAARC summit which Pakistan was hosting, kept Pakistan out of the BRICS outreach conference and refused a bilateral with Aziz at this year’s Heart of Asia conference in the Indian city of Amritsar.
Hostilities at the LoC, especially if they continue and are intensified, could force Pakistan to pull out troops from the western side for redeployment on the eastern front.
“If the LoC gets real hot and there is movement of [Indian] formations close to [the] eastern borders, the Army will be constrained to shift troops from [the] western borders,” says Arshad.
That is possible but most likely not probable for two reasons: Modi wants to keep the water boiling to a certain temperature. The idea is to raise the cost for Pakistan. If he raises the temperature, the world’s attention will be diverted to South Asia, especially if Pakistan is forced to downgrade its commitment against the Tehreek-e-Taliban. That would give Pakistan the space to blame India for opening a second front and it will defeat Modi’s policy of keeping Kashmir under wraps.
Former Air Vice Marshal, Shahzad Chaudhry, now with the Pakistan Peoples Party, agrees with Arshad that Modi’s policy at the LoC is part of a bigger game plan. He is also convinced that if hostilities intensify, Pakistan will pull some troops from the West. As for the Air Force, Chaudhry says it “is quite evenly deployed already and is in a position to respond to situations on either border.”
However, “were the LoC to begin seeing some sporadic air action [from India], it is almost certain that the focus of air operations will shift to the eastern border where the chances of war escalating from sporadic to limited to all-out to non-conventional may become a rapidly slippery slope, sucking the air force away from its usual focus of war against terror on the western front.”
The western border itself will, in many ways, depend on how relations unfold between Kabul and Islamabad. President Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan is all but over. Like his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani also avails every chance to attack Pakistan. The most recent was his speech at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Amritsar on December 4, in which he squarely blamed Pakistan for Afghanistan’s insurgency, ignoring completely the fact that Taliban groups do not require foreign soil to operate from and control large swathes of territory in the eastern, southeastern and northern provinces. Internally, his “unity” government is in disarray.
The economy is in shambles, unemployment is increasing, the wealthy Afghans have their capital outside, the Taliban are on the march. Ghani had thought that Pakistan could deliver Taliban. That was only partially possible. The discrepancy in expectations has resulted in much bad blood.
Again, for Gen. Bajwa, as for Gen. Sharif, the task of managing relations may be just too big. That has to be the government’s job. The Army has to manage the border as best as it can and to continue with its counter-terrorism operations in combination with other forces.
Its job becomes relatively easier if Islamabad and Kabul can get back to some mutual understanding. For now, the prospects of that seem dim. Operationally, this means more of the same for the army and other security forces that have to deal with a long and porous border.
In the U.S., with President-elect Donald Trump’s administration about to take control from outgoing president, Barack Obama, nothing is very visible yet. At the campaign trail, Trump’s messages fed the fantasies of the alt-right, a euphemism for white supremacists. He also talked about draining the Washington swamp, a reference to the establishment. His cabinet selection, however, shows that he is playing with old establishment hands whether it’s the former generals, Wall Street icons or corporate moguls.
How far will he be able to drain the swamp with help from those who have been, and still are, a part of the swamp, is anybody’s guess.
On the campaign trail, he also indicated that he considered Pakistan a dangerous place. Yet, his telephone conversation with Pakistani PM indicated a different mood.
It is important to remember that so far Trump, despite having spoken to at least 40 heads of government and state, has not consulted the State Department or the Pentagon. According to officials cited in the U.S. media, Trump has ignored intelligence briefings. Put another way, his jog so far is unguided by any knowledge of established policies and their determinants.
That said, Pakistan will have to keep a close watch on what happens in Washington D.C. The Pakistani military, especially the army, has had longstanding relations with the U.S. military. The U.S. and Pakistan have always been disenchanted allies, more disenchanted now than allies. Yet, neither can afford to disengage.
A recent $900 million bill for Pakistan has been moved in the Congress with some conditionalities and certifications, which is not a new process.
But, lately, the U.S. has refrained from providing those certifications like it used to earlier.
The signal is clear: they are trying not to break ties but the going is getting tougher. The trend is set and would have continued under Hillary Clinton. With Trump in the seat, it’s a complete unknown. It could continue as is (unlikely), the U.S. could take a much harsher position (likely), the U.S. could choose to divest from Afghanistan in which case Pakistan may become more important (less likely). Overall, assistance could be in trouble.
But like other challenges, steering policy, if Pakistan wants to improve its external environment, is a function of the government. Pakistan has diversified relations, including with Russia, but none of that can be at the cost of minimum bilateral cooperation with the U.S.
Gen. Bajwa will be able to play a more effective role and serve the government as its chief advisor on the security policy, a policy that swings in tandem with other policies and inputs that must determine the umbrella concept of national security strategy.
Ejaz Haider is a journalist and an expert on National Security Affairs. He is also a former Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.