Indo-Pak Relations: Two New Army Chiefs — One New Ray of Hope

Compared to his predecessor, Gen Bajwa, who is from the Baloch Regiment which has very few Balochis, is a relative dove and will try and create conditions to normalise relations with India as the civilian regime wants

by Ashok K Mehta

( December 21, 2016, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The appointment of Lt General Bipin Rawat, superseding two Army Commanders, as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) took most by surprise, even as the announcement went down to the wire only two weeks in advance of Gen Suhag’s retirement, compared to 24 hours in naming Gen Qamar Bajwa, who also superseded two Lieutenant Generals as the Pakistan Army chief, replacing Gen Raheel Sharif. In India according to convention, the appointment of Service chiefs is made six weeks prior to their resuming office so that they are familiarised as Chief Designate about the operational and diplomatic environment beyond the need-to-know principle.

The Government has done splendid by breaking the tyranny of seniority letting merit trump, in at least for the ultimate appointment in the Army. Gen Rawat will undoubtedly have an eventful innings, but this article is not about him but his counterpart, and the new Bajwa team — what it means for peace and stability between India and Pakistan.

Lt General Bipin Rawat

In Pakistan, supersession is common. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto overlooked 10 Generals to appoint Zia- ul-Haq, who proved his nemesis as the Army chief. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has selected the maximum number of chiefs, is notorious for picking errant Generals who sacked him or had a brush with him. Gen Wahid Kakar gave Nawaz Sharif his marching orders in his first term. In reverse and only one time, Gen Jahangir Karamat, the gentleman soldier, was asked by Prime Minister Sharif in his second term to put in his papers four months before he was due to retire, for advocating a National Security Council. Nawaz later chose Pervez Musharraf, superseding six Generals as the Army chief — and the rest is folklore.

Gen Raheel Sharif gave his namesake many heartaches but hung up his boots with fanfare, accompanied by pyrotechnics on the India-Pakistan border to become the first chief in nearly three decades to retire on completion of his term. Gen Bajwa, who took over on November 30, is Sharif’s choice, overlooking his two seniors. His term will expire end-November 2019. Prime Minister Sharif, likely to return to office in his fourth term in 2018, may have to select Gen Bajwa’s successor. Elected Governments finishing their full term and Army chiefs quietly turning into veterans on completion of their tenure, are two welcome trends for stabilisation of democracy in Pakistan.

In my column on this page (October 26) I had said that Prime Minister Sharif wished to replace both the Army chief and DG ISI in order to restore civil military equation, which was weighted in favour of the Army. Gen Bajwa has obliged. For Prime Minister Sharif, the symbolism of the change of guard is very important. According to Pakistan’s media, the seating plan for civil military interaction at the Prime Minister’s residence has changed — from the Prime Minister and the COAS sitting alongside as equals to an across-the-table configuration. Photographs of Gen Bajwa saluting Prime Minister Sharif and going through a metal detector, were shown on social media and TV. But all this could change. Remember, when Prime Minister Sharif was in hospital in London, his Ministers would troop into GHQ Rawalpindi to be briefed by Gen Sharif.

Gen Bajwa took two weeks to reshuffle his pack of Corps Commanders and appoint his own team. Among the Corps he placed his Generals are 31 Corps (Bahawalpur), 5 Corps (Karachi), 11 Corps (Peshawar) and 2 Corps (Multan). Next to the Army chief, the most important General Officer in Pakistan is DG ISI. Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar was made famous for popularising Gen Raheel Sharif as the saviour of Pakistan following Operation Zarb e Azb. His last brush with the civil establishment was when he rebuffed Foreign Secretary Aijaz Choudhary at a civil-military meeting. When the latter asked the Army to rein in the militants or act against them, Lt Gen Akhtar said: “So what is the difference between you and India?” This story, leaked to Cyril Almeida, was published in Dawn (October 6) and the Army forced the resignation of Information Minister Purvaiz Rashid.

Gen Qamar Bajwa

The new DG ISI is Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, former Karachi 5 Corps Commander, reputed to be an Afghanistan expert favouring the ‘moderate’ Taliban (an oxymoron) joining the Kabul Government. With Islamabad openly accusing India of launching destabilising operations against Pakistan from Afghanistan, especially in Balochistan aimed at undermining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the ISI’s focus could shift from the LoC towards the Durand Line to counter New Delhi’s alleged proxy war. On assuming command, Gen Bajwa told reporters that “the situation on LoC will improve soon”. Prime Minister Sharif would certainly want to cool in on the eastern front after the exit of the formidable Raheel Sharif who ensured the LoC was on fire till the last day of his leaving, and then Nagrota happened.

After the beheading of a soldier in Machil sector on November 22, and the retaliatory fire assaults in Neelum Valley, the Pakistan DGMO sought a ceasefire, which has mostly prevailed except for the exchange of sniper fire. The Army has not responded to the Nagrota attack and will probably let it pass, but it will enhance deterrence by denial along LoC and the International Border. With winter snows undermining infiltration in the Srinagar valley, encounters will occur mainly in the depth areas, like the Pampore ambush last week. The Army’s attrition rate, which was roughly the loss of one soldier to taking out 10 terrorists, has fallen to 1:6.5 terrorists killed. In this winter of discontent in the valley security forces will have to deal with 300 terrorists who are on our side of the LoC. This figure needs to be drastically reduced through selective cordon and search operations.

Compared to his predecessor, Gen Bajwa, who is from the Baloch Regiment which has very few Balochis, is a relative dove and will try and create conditions to normalise relations with India as the civilian Government wants. Before any structured dialogue can resume, probably sometime mid-next year, restoring and institutionalising of the ceasefire agreement is necessary. An early meeting of DGMOs can facilitate this vital step for maintaining calm on the LoC. The 1971 revenge era generation of Pakistani officers is fading away. Both Generals Qamar Bajwa and Bipin Rawat can start with a clean slate to try to tamp down the enemy country’s image of each other. Meanwhile, even a semblance of civilian control over the military in Islamabad and more Cyril Almeida stories in Dawn will help to reduce border tensions.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)


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