What Pakistan’s New Army Chief Means for India

What the appointment of a new army chief mean for Pakistan’s relations with India.

What Pakistan’s New Army Chief Means for India

A salesman watches incoming Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa during the handover ceremony broadcasted on a television while waiting for customers at an electronics shop in Karachi, Pakistan, November 29, 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The Pakistan government announced Saturday that Lt. Gen. Qamar Bajwa had been appointed Pakistan’s 16th Chief of Army Staff (COAS), ending months of speculation and public posturing.

Gen. Bajwa was commissioned in the Baloch regiment in October 1980 and has commanded the army’s prestigious X Corps (Rawalpindi), like former COAS Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Gen. Bajwa has held the position of General Officer Commanding of the army’s Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA), based in Gilgit, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He has also commanded a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo and has most recently served as the Inspector General of Training & Evaluation of the army.

Gen. Bajwa takes over command of the Pakistan army at a time when his country contends with significant internal and external challenges. Relations between Pakistan and its eastern neighbor India, tense in the best of times, have deteriorated, with both sides trading fire across the Line of Control (LoC), resulting in military and civilian casualties.

Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbor Afghanistan are no better, and events of the past many months have effectively brought an end to Pakistan’s coveted role as the primary agent of peace negotiations between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban.

Relations with the United States have also worsened during President Obama’s final year in office. In signaling their displeasure at Pakistan, Congressional Republicans earlier this year put paid to the Obama administration’s attempts to finance the supply of eight Block-52 F-16s to Pakistan.

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Then in May, a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province took out Taliban chief Mullah Mansour, who had strong ties with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. The deteriorating relationship with the U.S. comes at a time when Pakistan’s relations with China have grown significantly, even as ties between Cold War rivals Russia and Pakistan appear to be blossoming.

Internally, relations between the civilian government and the army remained strained during the tenure of Gen. Sharif. Under Raheel Sharif’s leadership, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, ostensibly to target the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Over time, however, the counter-insurgency operation morphed into an anti-corruption exercise, which targeted the leadership of opposition parties, particularly in the province of Sindh and its capital, Karachi.

Meanwhile, the TTP, though a diminished force, continues to demonstrate an ability to target government, military and civilian targets in Pakistan. Whether the newly-appointed chief favors continuity in the nature of these operations or intends to alter course remains to be seen.

Much has been made of the Dawn report that indicated that the new army chief considered “extremism a bigger threat for the country than India.” This has led to speculation that Gen. Bajwa’s appointment could help improve Pakistan-India ties and allow Sharif the space to at last build on his electoral promises which included nurturing better trade relations with India.

These assessments are, however, unduly personality-focused and do not account for historical realities or the challenges inherent in affecting cultural change in large and complex institutions such as the Pakistan army.  The Pakistan army has long since institutionalized hostility towards India and sees itself as contesting with India not only territorial space, but also “ideological frontiers” as articulated in Pakistan Army’s 1994 Green Book.

While Gen. Bajwa is the leader of this institution, there is more to the Pakistan Army than merely the COAS.  Pakistan’s Corps Commanders wield considerable influence in matters of policy pertaining to military and indeed, non-military issues.  Corps Commanders’ conferences, which are presided by the COAS, form a vital cog in the evolution of consensus on military issues as well as sensitive domestic and international issues, as former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani notes in his book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.

It is unlikely therefore that no matter what his own reported views on India may be, Gen. Bajwa is unlikely to be able to dramatically alter course without the consensus of his army’s top brass.  He will also be loathe to unilaterally affect sweeping changes that could divide army leadership and ultimately undermine his own authority.

Insofar as the new COAS’s internal focus is concerned, it bears reminding that news reports at the time of the appointment of Gen. Bajwa’s predecessors echoed similar sentiments.

Of Gen. Kayani, then chief of U.S. Central Command Adm. William Fallon is reported to have said in 2008 that the Pakistani army chief “will try to reorient the army from its focus on the external threat posed by India to greater recognition of the internal danger posed by Muslim extremists…”  Kayani, as it turned out, presided over a significantly tense period with India that included the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, orchestrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba under the direction of an official of Pakistan’s ISI.

Kayani’s successor, Raheel Sharif was also similarly described as considering the threat of militancy inside Pakistan as being an important security issue. Gen. Sharif’s tenure saw increased hostilities across the LoC, and terror attacks against Indian military targets – an army brigade headquarters in Uri and an air force base in Pathankot being the most recent – reportedly by groups who operate with the support and sponsorship of the Pakistani state.

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Evidently, a new Pakistan army chief prioritizing action against domestic militancy means neither targeting those militant groups in Pakistan that largely or exclusively target India, nor seeking to lower tensions with the country’s eastern neighbor.

The best that can be hoped for under the circumstances is a modus vivendi aimed at breaking the action-reaction cycle that currently plagues India and Pakistan. The change in leadership in the Pakistan Army may allow Nawaz Sharif such an opportunity, should he choose to exercise it. Sharif’s de facto foreign minister and confidante Sartaj Aziz is scheduled to travel to India to attend the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan on December 4.

The Indian government for its part remained non-committal, but longtime observers of relations between India and Pakistan know that there is much that happens away from the glare of media spotlight, and with good reason.

Ultimately, the nature of the India-Pakistan relationship is decidedly confrontational and one that witnesses cycles of relative peace followed by cycles of acrimony.  A significant application of political and military will on both sides can help transition the relationship from the current cycle of hostility to relative calm in the short term.

The Jean-Baptiste Karr epigram — plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same) – seems appropriate here.  A transition in leadership in the Pakistan Army can bring about short-term change, but will not alter the nature of Pakistan’s relationship with India.