HE arrived to the usual frenzy of curiosity, though some of it was unusual. Most powerful man in Pakistan — the very job description attracts it.

But Bajwa was more. Victim of an ugly hit job while still candidate. Lampooned as Nawaz’s man when he got the nod. Architect of a soft purge as soon as Raheel was out the door.

And then silence.

It made sense. Raheel’s hyper visibility had caused unease among the senior lot and an adjustment was necessary by the successor.

Plus, for bureaucratic reasons, a new chief takes a while to figure out the job and what he wants to do — or even all that he can do. Total power takes some time adjusting to.

Like it or not, advertently or inadvertently, Bajwa has got his political toes wet.

Four months in, though, a more assured, more visible chief is increasingly speaking for himself and allowing surrogates to speak on his behalf.

And it’s beginning to look and sound awfully familiar.

Take this business of meeting Imran. Better to reveal it than not because if word got out later, a secret meeting would look much, much worse.

Since they’re sticking to banalities, we can guess what it was about. Bajwa surrogates have been insisting that a resetting of frayed ties with Saudi and the UAE has been down to the new boss.

They’ve been coy about what the problem was in the first place, especially with the UAE, but it doesn’t take much to figure out that Imran’s mercurial bent necessitated the chief’s intervention.

There’s only one thing Imran has talked about recently other than Nawaz: Raheel — and Pakistan tacking closer to Saudi.

With Nawaz and Imran at war, Bajwa couldn’t very well rely on civilian persuading civilian. So, to the extent that the policy is set and persuasion necessary, the Imran meeting makes an institutional kind of sense.

But let’s not kid ourselves: the chief has blithely crossed a political line.

A meeting at this time and in this way — with Panama looming, and held in secret and revealed only after the fact — suggests two things.

Bajwa knew what it would look like. And Bajwa didn’t care what it would look like because what the chief needs of Imran is more important.

You can bet — and bet every last rupee you have — that Imran will have used the meeting to say a thing or two about Panama and corruption.

He’d have been crazy not to. The meeting itself has put Imran on an equal political footing of sorts with Nawaz — hey, look, the chief wants to talk to me!

And from there, there’s no one in the history of politics, anywhere and at any time, who wouldn’t grab the chance to aim a kick at his greatest rival.

Imran’s no fool. And the PTI will know a gift when they see it.

Like it or not, advertently or inadvertently, Bajwa has got his political toes wet. Different maybe to Kayani during the long march and Raheel during the dharna, but a familiar line has been crossed.

Intervention, though, is unlikely to become the norm.

Like his immediate predecessors, Bajwa will know that intervention-as-the-norm is unnecessary and undesirable — do it too often and the civilians may start to get funny ideas about being a chief’s equal.

What we must wait and see is how it’ll affect him.

We know how it turned out with the predecessors. Kayani discovered he wanted to hang on and found a way to. Raheel discovered the same thing, but couldn’t find a way to.

Four months in, has the countdown to 2018 begun?

To the familiar hypotheticals, a bunch of real stuff can be added. As words and deeds reveal the Bajwa approach, the difference becoming evident is of style, not substance.

Kayani was a self-styled thinker. Raheel was a do-er, to the point of exhaustingly so; there being few days where he wasn’t travelling somewhere or the other.

But in the big-picture, policy sense, Kayani and Raheel ended up the same. Afghanistan was a problem; India the enemy; and the anti-state side of the militant apparatus had to be progressively dismantled.

Domestically — politically — the civilians were allowed some space to govern, but were occasionally and spectacularly reminded of their incompetence and corruption.

Kayani and Raheel: different but same. Four months in, Bajwa is showing that he, too, may be different but same. The evidence is accumulating.

In style, Bajwa tried to be the anti-Raheel — to the point of folk wondering whether he understood the institutional and PR aspects of the job.

But as we hear more from him, as his ISPR clicks into gear and as more surrogates bubble up behind the scenes to dilate on the chief’s approach, the Bajwa camp’s talking points and actions are beginning to sound and look awfully familiar.

On Afghanistan, on India, on militancy, on Balochistan, on politics and, yes, on civilian incompetence and corruption in the guise of Panama and Sindh.

There is, though, the other side. If Nawaz is disappointed, he isn’t showing it. Nor is he showing any sign of changing his own approach.

The approach: don’t retaliate and don’t react, but don’t cave in either.

Because the flip side of the boys not needing to take over is the civilians knowing that mere inaction — not retaliating, not reacting, but not caving in either — can ensure their survival.

So, four months in, if the chimera of true civ-mil cooperation is disappearing again, at least the familiar is asserting itself.

Different, but same.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2017


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