Speculation over the appointment of Pakistan’s 16th Army Chief ended on 26 November 2016 when a comparative `dark horse’, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, was declared, with much media fanfare, as the country’s new ` Sipah Salar’ (Commander in Chief).
Pakistan’s President, Mamnoon Hussain, formally appointed Bajwa as the Army Chief, exercising his powers under Article 243 of the 1973 Constitution. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have exercised some discretion in making this choice, albeit it is likely that Gen Bajwa’s predecessor, former Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif’s recommendation was given due weightage. After the 18th Amendment, the prime minister’s advice is binding on the president.
The timing of the announcement was significant. It came just after Prime Minister Sharif returned to the country from a visit to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and two days after an elaborately covered reception hosted by the prime minister on 24 November 2016, where all the principal contenders were present. These modalities of transition would suggest careful orchestration by Nawaz Sharif’s media managers to underplay any civil military discord over this selection.
Commissioned in the Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan Army (16 Baloch) in October 1970, Bajwa was the junior-most in the pecking order of the current cohort of 3 Star Generals of the 62nd PMA Long Course who were eligible for selection. Bajwa pips to the tape, two other officers of the same batch – Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Corps Commander, II Corps, Multan, and Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday, Corps Commander, XXXI Corps, Bahawalpur.
Gen Bajwa’s long stint in difficult terrain, confronting India across the Kashmir front in different assignments must have weighed in his favour. Starting as Colonel, he served as General Staff Officer to earlier X Corps Commanders; and then as Brigadier and as Major General in the same sector. He was Force Commander Northern Areas, before serving as GOC, X Corps, Rawalpindi himself, under both Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Gen Raheel Sharif, from August 2013 to September 2015. In between, as a Brigadier, he also did a UN peace-keeping stint in Congo. He was also Commandant, School of Infantry & Tactics, Quetta, always regarded as an important faculty assignment.
The senior most Lieutenant General eligible for elevation, Zubair Mahmood Hayat, has been kicked upstairs to the largely ceremonial post of Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, to succeed Gen Rashad Mahmood, who also demits office on 29 November 2016. Though Lt Gen Zubair had done a year as Corps Commander in Bahawalpur and headed the Strategic Plans Division before moving in as Chief of General Staff, his exposure to conflict areas of command was regarded as inadequate. The political leadership may have apprehended that he would be too powerful if made Chief, as two other brothers are also serving Generals.
According to the media grapevine, Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem, II Corps Commander, Multan, though reputed to be most efficient, was regarded as too brusque and blunt while Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday, XXXI Corps Commander, Bahawalpur, despite having family connections to PML (Nawaz) was considered closer to brother Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister, Punjab than to the prime minister. In contrast, Bajwa was seen to be cool-headed and solidly proficient. Reports in sections of the vernacular media even suggested some resonance in his views with Nawaz Sharif as a comparative dove on India, as he is reported to have issued statements in recent times, condemning domestic terrorism being faced by the Pakistani Establishment as a greater threat.
Historically, the Bajwas are known as `the clan of the hawk or falcon’ – a prominent jaat clan hailing from Sialkot and Narowal districts of Punjab. Qamar Javed Bajwa hails from a nearby area of Ghakar Mandi village, Gujranwala district. He would be the seventh Punjabi to head the Army, and the fourth General from the Baloch Infantry Regiment to make it as Chief after Generals Yahya Khan, Aslam Beg and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. He also ascends to the top post following Gen Raheel Sharif from the same staff position of Director General, Inspectorate of Training and Evaluation. Earlier regarded as something of a sinecure, this post is now proving to be a lucky mascot.
Two other Lieutenants General – Syed Wajid Hussain and Najibullah – were not eligible as they had not held Corps Commands. They are slated to fade out in January 2017. Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem and Let Gen Ramday have the option to retire as scheduled in August 2017 or resign earlier, if they wish to make an issue of their notional supersession.
Gen Raheel Sharif has retired on time, after serving a full tenure of three years, just as he had promised way back in January 2016. This is certainly unusual and creditable in the context of strengthening institutional conventions in Pakistan, given how he is only the seventh Army Chief of Pakistan of fifteen to have quit on time. His determined actions under Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan terrorists in North Waziristan and the Karachi cleansing operations made him extremely popular and significantly brought down terrorist violence and crime in these areas. This even led to periodic wall-postering by all manner of sycophants, suggesting he do a re-think on retirement. Gen Sharif wisely chose to ignore these moves.
After he has quit, there is some tongue in cheek criticism in Pakistani media of Raheel’s penchant for `endless self- projection’ and `deliberate myth building’, through his crony and close friend, Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, Director General Inter Services Public Relations (a post unusually upgraded from Major General only to accommodate his seniority). The new Army Chief is reminded of unfinished tasks in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the difficulties in resettling civilian internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He is cautioned to avoid `quick fixes’, `big claims’, and `excessively embellishing modest gains’ on the terrorism front. Instead the counsel is to go back to traditional forms of decision making, relying more on the collegiate leadership of senior Generals.
The new Army Chief will undoubtedly emerge as his own man on major issues of security and foreign policy – traditionally considered sacrosanct by the Pakistan Army – notably those concerning India, Afghanistan and nuclear issues. His style may be different. Early pointers suggest he may keep a non-controversial, low profile to begin with.
As far as India is concerned, it would be naïve to expect any major changes of course. Media in Pakistan is making no bones of emphasising to Bajwa the major challenge of standing up to a nationally resurgent India under a hardline leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This would make it difficult for the Nawaz-Bajwa duo to signal any de-escalation in confrontational policies even if they want to. For starters, Gen Bajwa will need to build his own team of officers without ruffling too many feathers of his peers. For one, he may like to bring in a new Director General in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The current Director General of the ISI, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, was regarded as close to Gen Raheel Sharif. He may be moved to a Corps Command. These changes will be watched with interest.