New Pakistan Army chief seen as Nawaz Sharif’s best coup hedge

The Nawaz Sharif government reportedly selected general Qamar Javed Bajwa as Pakistan’s army chief because of his disinterest in meddling in politics


Pakistan’s outgoing army chief general Raheel Sharif (right) hands over a ceremonial baton to his successor general Qamar Javed Bajwa during the Change of Command ceremony in Rawalpindi on Tuesday.
Pakistan’s outgoing army chief general Raheel Sharif (right) hands over a ceremonial baton to his successor general Qamar Javed Bajwa during the Change of Command ceremony in Rawalpindi on Tuesday.

Islamabad/Karachi/New Delhi: Soft-spoken and widely regarded as apolitical, general Qamar Javed Bajwa’s selection as head of Pakistan’s most powerful institution is seen as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s best defence against another military coup.

Yet anyone expecting wider changes to the world’s sixth largest military force will likely be disappointed, with the new chief not expected to cool tensions with India or relax the army’s tight oversight on Chinese investment flowing into the country.

“While the government reportedly selected Bajwa because of his disinterest in meddling in politics, under Bajwa’s leadership the army is unlikely to reduce its entrenched dominance over security and foreign policy,” Sasha Riser-Kositsky, an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a research note.

Bajwa, 57, on Tuesday took control in a ceremonial hand-over with his predecessor, Raheel Sharif, no relation to the prime minister. It was a rare sight: a military chief stepping down after just one term in a nuclear-armed nation used to army-led dominance.

Historic distrust

The military has ruled Pakistan for much of its history since it gained independence from the UK in 1947. It controls large parts of the economy and dominates foreign relations. Raheel Sharif, 60, who is standing down after three years, garnered praise for a crackdown on militants on the Afghan border and gangsters in the business capital of Karachi, along with securing the country as China invests billions of dollars in projects in South Asia’s second-largest economy.

Historic distrust has always strained relations between the two branches of power. The armed forces are seen as one of Pakistan’s better-run institutions and often view politicians as corrupt and dysfunctional. To civilian leaders the military is largely unaccountable and has a history of removing democratically-elected leaders.

Nawaz Sharif, 66, who is up for re-election in 2018, was previously overthrown from power in 1999 by his chosen army chief, Pervez Musharraf.

But analysts say Bajwa is not interested in politics. He “is a straight guy, he is a solider, he has no political ambitions,” said Qaisar Nawaz Gandapur, a retired major who served with Bajwa in the 16 Baloch regiment.

Also Read: New Pakistan army chief General Bajwa faces tensions with Afghanistan, India

One of the factors that may have favoured Bajwa’s appointment is that he was the only commander who opposed military intervention when Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned opposition politician, staged a four-month long protest in Islamabad in 2014, said Mutahir Ahmed, a professor in the International Relations Department at the University of Karachi.

“That’s why Nawaz Sharif brought him up,” Ahmed said.

Kashmir ‘patience’

Bajwa will also have to navigate tensions with India, which have intensified in recent months after skirmishes along their shared borders in the disputed region of Kashmir. During a speech at the handover ceremony, Raheel Sharif sent a final barb to India, warning its neighbour not to misinterpret Pakistan’s “patience” over Kashmir as a sign for “weakness.”

The emphasis on the personalities of top generals is often misplaced, said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US.

“The army as an institution has what can best be described as ‘group think,’ and that has changed only marginally since 1958, when the army first took power in Pakistan,” said Haqqani, who is now the director for South and Central Asia at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. The new army chief is unlikely to alter Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and militants striking inside the Indian part of Kashmir, he said.

The mobile phone of Asim Bajwa, Pakistan’s main army spokesman and no relation to the general, was switched off when called for comment. Qamar Bajwa told reporters after the ceremony that the situation on the Kashmir border “will improve soon.”

Improved security

The army’s push against insurgents following a massacre at a military school two years ago allowed Nawaz Sharif to focus on accelerating economic growth after taking a $6.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to avert a payment crisis in 2013. The improved security situation contributed to Pakistan’s stock market outperforming the rest of Asia in that period.

Born in a village in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab, Bajwa has held key positions during his career. Just before his appointment he served as inspector general of training and evaluation -- the role Raheel Sharif held before he became army chief.

Also Read: Pakistan focus to remain on India border under new army chief

He commanded 10 Corps, the brigade responsible for security at the armed forces’ headquarters and policing of the Line of Control, the defacto border in Kashmir. He also served as commander of the Pakistan contingent of a United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a brigade under the control of an Indian general.

“He is relaxed, a man comfortable with himself and doesn’t get frustrated very quickly,” said former lieutenant general Ghulam Mustafa, who knew Bajwa when he was a captain. Mustafa said Bajwa was a key part of the military team that has tackled Pakistan’s recent counter-terrorism sweep.

‘Weak government’

The new appointment may also allow Nawaz Sharif’s government to push the military back from some of its handling of foreign affairs and security, said A.Z. Hilali, the former head of Islamabad’s National Defence University’s Peace and Conflict department.

However, the prime minister is under pressure over a court investigation following revelations leaked from a Panama law firm that his children had used offshore companies to make investments, which has weakened his hand against the armed forces.

“Sharif’s weak government, dogged by corruption allegations and increasingly focused on the 2018 general election, has little standing to assert his authority relative to the military,” said Eurasia’s Riser-Kositsky. “At the same time, tensions along the border with India will strengthen the military’s hand.” Bloomberg

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