When Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa sits down to chair what is known as the Corps Commanders conference (although some of his principal staff officers will also be in attendance), there will be several new faces around the table in place of many of those present at the last such meeting chaired by the former army chief, retired Gen Raheel Sharif.
The new chief was facilitated in his fairly large-scale reshuffle by the outgoing chief who deferred promoting and posting a number of senior officers in October/November.
It isn’t clear why Gen Sharif didn’t exercise that option. The two chiefs before him, retired generals Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Pervez Musharraf, had done so in their final weeks in office.
It may have been a courtesy to his successor or it happened merely because in his final weeks there were other things on his mind, for example speculation of an extension in his tenure and a public row with the government over a report speaking of civil-military tensions over how to handle Jihadis in Punjab.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that the decision enabled the new chief to have his desired team in place from the word go, although Gen Bajwa did seem to take a week or 10 days to think through all the changes he wanted to make.
Now when he chairs the Corps Commanders conference, among the new faces he himself appointed to the powerful and elite army grouping will be the Chief of the General Staff, the Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence, and five new corps commanders with their headquarters in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Multan, Bahawalpur and Karachi.
Those appointed earlier, and retained, will be the corps commanders of Mangla, Gujranwala, Lahore and Quetta, with the last-mentioned designated as Commander Southern Command. The incumbent in Quetta was seen as a front-runner for the CGS position, but it isn’t clear whether his reported illness about a year ago meant that the additional stress was inadvisable.
As with each change in command of the country’s powerful army, the obvious question being asked is how and whether the new chief’s appointment and his radically different looking team will translate into policy changes in different areas.
With a couple of corps commanders who were seen as relative hardliners now opting for retirement after being superseded by Gen Bajwa and some others who sat at the long table now moved to staff appointments, the new chief can effect policy changes at will.
Frankly, all discussions with knowledgeable sources suggest no change or, in fact, a toughening of the internal security operations initiated in the country during Gen Kayani’s tenure and carried out with gusto under his successor.
The posting of officers with a track record in internal security and counterterrorism as the CGS and the ISI DG respectively also reinforces this impression. That the prestigious CGS position has gone to one of
the most junior lieutenant generals suggests that the chief will take keen interest in these operations and provide proactive guidance and oversight.
It is early to say whether any policy change regarding India will come about apart from perhaps a tighter watch over solo flights by militants, but no army chief can afford to be lax. It is pertinent to quote Gen Kayani here. Commenting on India’s peace overtures to the then civilian government, he said: “I have to respond and prepare keeping in mind their capability, not their intentions. Intentions can change.”
With the Modi-Doval duo opting for upping the ante for the moment, there can be no softening of the stance on Pakistan’s side. However, more room might be available to the civilian government and the prime minister to tweak policy and rethink its execution.
The coming weeks will make it clear whether he now has more of a say in such areas. One indication may come in the shape of better trade ties.
The civilian government and the military both seem keen to try and move forward to some sort of a solution to the Afghan conundrum. But given that the outgoing ISI DG was said to have made some earnest efforts to bring the recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table again, it is anybody’s guess what new initiatives will likely be seen. Some movement will have to be witnessed as apart from the Afghan Taliban, the militant Islamic State (IS) is said to be gathering strength in parts of Afghanistan where the government’s writ is weak and some of the groups involved in terrorist attacks in Pakistan are now aligning themselves with the IS.
Among these are Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Alami and a couple of splinter groups of the TTP as well.
One earnestly hopes that with the civilian government getting more space to formulate and roll out policy, a healing touch is applied to Balochistan as repressive measures may have restored a semblance of relative peace, but the simmering resentment can blow over any time.
Equally, there is a hope that Nawaz Sharif utilises his new-found space to do good for the country and address terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and gross inequalities rather than succumb to the temptation of once again drifting towards authoritarianism in a replay of the 1990s.
Published in Dawn December 14th, 2016