Comment: Gen Bajwa: six tumultuous years and a legacy unlike any other

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the 16th chief of army staff in the country’s history, retires today (Tuesday) after two eventful terms as the commander of the Pakistan Army, which is among the world’s largest in terms of active personnel, with a standing force of around half a million.

In Nov 2016, when Gen Bajwa was appointed army chief, Pakistan was battling a wave of terrorism in the north-west, managing a difficult relationship with arch-rival India, and figuring out the changing dynamics of its relationship with long-term ally United States, where the mercurial Donald Trump was about to take over as president.

Stepping into the larger-than-life shoes of his predecessor, Gen Raheel Sharif — whose image was systematically built by the military’s media machine as a ‘doer’ who ‘led from the front’ — was a challenge in itself for Gen Bajwa, who became the seventh army chief to have been picked by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif since 1990.

Gen Bajwa inherited two looming political and civil-military issues from his predecessor: the Panama Papers allegations against Mr Sharif and his family in the Supreme Court and the civil-military clash over the country’s counter-terrorism strategy that led to a public showdown in the aftermath of an exclusive story by Dawn; an episode that came to be known as ‘Dawn Leaks’.

Gen Bajwa took time to assert his persona in public. In the first few months, he focused on consolidating his command through promotions and transfers of key officers in both command and staff positions. A major reshuffle in December saw key corps commanders and staff officers including the DG-ISI, the DG-ISPR and the CGS from Gen Sharif’s era posted out.

The Maj-Gen to Lt-Gen rank promotions made by Gen Bajwa soon after assuming command brought in the army’s new leadership. Those promoted were given key positions. Meanwhile, at the two-star level, he brought in a new DG-MO (Maj Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza), DG-MI (Maj Gen Asim Munir), DG-ISPR (Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor) and the crucially important DG-C at ISI (Maj Gen Faiz Hamid). These officers would prove to be key advisers in the years to come.

When Gen Bajwa assumed command, Operation Zarb-i-Azb had entered its final stages. At the time, he had indicated that, on his watch, the focus would be on consolidating gains from anti-terror operations and also ‘anti-corruption’ campaigns in Karachi.

He transitioned the military from heavy-kinetic operations to intelligence-based operations targeting terrorist holdouts and sleeper cells. This campaign was named Operation Raddul Fasaad, with the goal to tackle both terrorism and extremism as well as breaking the crime-politics-corruption nexus. This influenced the course of politics in the country, as the military leadership believed that while its officers and men were laying down their lives combating terrorism, civilian governance was not improving and was being constrained by corruption.

The declining trend in terrorism, which started with Gen Sharif’s Zarb-i-Azb, continued till the end of 2020 and the very first signs of its reversal were witnessed in 2021. The next year (2022) was particularly regressive, with a 60 per cent spike in terrorist attacks over the previous year in eleven months so far. A total of 132 terrorist attacks have been reported in the past three months, including 50 alone in November.

The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been at the forefront of this wave. IS-KP, known colloquially as Daesh, and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) were the two other major perpetrators.

One of the most controversial steps taken over the past year, despite warnings from various quarters, was talks with the TTP. The militant group used the time afforded by the talks – brokered by their allies, the Afghan Taliban – and the subsequent ceasefire as a confidence-building measure to re-establish its footprint, eventually walking away from the accord on the pretext of a resumption of counter-terrorism operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Visible signs of the TTP collaborating with Baloch insurgent groups complicated the challenge of protecting Chinese personnel working in Pakistan. A budding nexus between Baloch and Sindhi nationalist insurgents was also reported in this time. Baloch insurgents not only diversified their tactics but also carried out attacks outside Balochistan. Intensification of attacks on Chinese workers put immense pressure on the ‘iron brotherhood’ between Islamabad and Beijing for months.

Enforced disappearances have been a major human rights issue of concern for decades. However, during the past six years the problem aggravated as activists, journalists and students (particularly from Balochistan) were specifically targeted in large numbers. In April 2022, a report quoting the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances claimed that 4,581 people were reported missing between 2017 and 2021.

On the external front, Gen Bajwa assumed command during heightened tensions with India, with exchanges of fire and shelling across the Line of Control and Working Boundary being a near-daily occurrence. But his experience in this theatre helped him successfully manage the situation at LoC.

In February 2019, both countries navigated a tricky crisis after an aerial dogfight, which led Pakistan to capture an Indian pilot – only to release him soon afterwards. Meanwhile, in August 2019, though India unilaterally changed the status of the chunk of Kashmir in its occupation, Pakistan exercised restraint in escalating militarily. In late 2020, a backchannel began at the top level, which led to the renewal of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. It has been upheld without any incident since then.

On Afghanistan, Gen Bajwa oversaw the construction of a border fence. On his watch, the army prioritised fencing to manage irritants in the difficult relationship with the former government in Afghanistan. From 2018 onwards, Gen Bajwa green-lit Pakistan’s facilitation of talks between the Taliban and the US in Doha. An agreement between the Taliban and the US, which eventually led to the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, was hammered out in Doha with Pakistan’s help.

In the process, Gen Bajwa leveraged that facilitation role to navigate Pakistan’s troubled relationship with Trump-led Washington. On this front, he saw then PM Imran Khan as a partner in resetting ties with the US. In the end, however, both Mr Khan and Gen Bajwa had a divergent view of engagement with the US.

During his six years, Gen also Bajwa oversaw the modernisation of the army’s Air Defence command, in particular, the acquisition of HQ-9/P air defence systems from China. The army also inducted Chinese made VT-4 tanks, which is said to be the most advanced tank in Pakistan Army’s inventory. The army has also commissioned Chinese origin SH-15 155mm truck mounted howitzer in 2021 to enhance its strike prowess. Besides military hardware from China, the army acquired T129 gunship helicopters from Turkey in 2018.

It was also during Gen Bajwa’s tenure that Russia delivered Russian-made Mi-35M attack helicopters as part of a deal concluded in August 2015 that actually marked the end of cold war-era Moscow’s embargo on military sales to Pakistan. Ties with Russia continued to grow afterwards, but no notable purchases were made from there.

As the curtain falls on Gen Bajwa’s tenure, it remains to be seen if his successor, Gen Asim Munir, would carry on with the oft-referenced ‘Bajwa Doctrine’, which guided much of what happened during the past six years, or would he come up with something new.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2022


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