• In a first, COAS briefs Senate Committee of the Whole
• Asks parliament to take the lead in framing foreign, security policies
• Says military ready to back political leadership on normalisation of ties with India
ISLAMABAD: Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on Tuesday reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and the rule of law and categorically denied the military’s role in destabilising the civilian government.
Speaking at an ‘in-camera session’ of the Senate Committee of the Whole, the army chief, who originally came to brief the legislators on national security issues, deliberated on a wide range of topics from politics and frayed civil-military ties to counterterrorism operations and foreign policy.
He was accompanied by Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, Director General of Military Operations Maj Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza and Military Intelligence Director General Maj Gen Asim Munir. The session continued for nearly four-and-a-half hours.
Responding to a question by a ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz legislator, the army chief defended the brokering of the deal between the government and the organisers of the 22-day sit-in at Faizabad interchange, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah.
He said the situation could have aggravated had the military not played its part.
Gen Bajwa, according to the senators who attended the committee’s session, said he firmly believed in democracy and supremacy of the Constitution. However, he did not deny mistakes in the past and, in a reference to generals Zia and Musharraf, reportedly said he could not be held responsible for others. He is reported to have even asked parliament to take the lead in framing foreign and security policies and vowed to implement them.
Gen Bajwa was invited by Senate Chairman Mian Rabbani to share military’s position on certain key foreign policy and security issues. The official agenda of the meeting was to have a “briefing by the Chief of Army Staff and Director General Military Operations on the emerging national security paradigm for Pakistan with respect to recent visits and developments”.
It was the first time that an army chief appeared before a Senate committee. The last time an army chief came to parliament for a briefing was in 2011 after the US raid on Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad when then army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI director general Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha were called to the joint sitting of parliament.
Gen Bajwa’s unprecedented appearance before a Senate committee follows a visit by Senate defence body’s members to the GHQ. The army chief had on that occasion expressed his desire for greater interaction with parliament and told the visiting legislators that he was ready to appear before the Senate Committee of the Whole to answer any question that the parliamentarians might have.
Senators, while speaking to Dawn on background, said the army chief was very forthcoming and candid in responding to the queries, even though some were very “tough and tricky”. The questioning was so wide-ranging and frank that senators did not even shy away from asking questions about Hafiz Saeed, who is on UN sanctions list but has managed to avoid national restrictions.
The lawmakers from both treasury and opposition benches found his responses to be useful. The senators, however, differed over whether or not the army chief’s participation helped narrow the civil-military trust deficit.
“Forget about civilian and military leaders being on one page. Civil-military issues are a reality,” Senator Mushahidullah told reporters after the session.
Senator Sherry Rehman said all parties were on one page as far as national security was concerned.
Minister for Ports and Shipping Senator Hasil Bizenjo said Gen Bajwa had underlined the division of work with governance being civilians’ domain and security being military’s responsibility.
As a note of clarification, a senator said, Gen Bajwa distanced himself and his institution from the views expressed by retired generals in their public appearances. He reportedly said that those were their personal views and had nothing to do with institutional view.
In a major gesture, the army chief reportedly said that the military was ready to back political leadership’s initiative for normalisation of relations with arch rival India.
Gen Bajwa, according to a couple of senators, said that relations with all neighbours had to be normalised and urged political leaders to try to improve relations with India. He assured that their efforts would be fully supported by the army.
The general’s offer was particularly significant because Indians allege that the army has been blocking peace efforts. Notwithstanding the army chief’s proposal, the prospects of progress towards normalisation remain dim because of Indian intransigence.
At the same time, Gen Bajwa reminded the legislators that a large part of Indian military deployments was mostly against Pakistan, even though it cited other threats. He also recalled that India was fomenting instability and terrorism in Pakistan and had in this regard developed a strong nexus with Afghan intelligence agency NDS.
On Iran, Gen Bajwa said Islamabad and Tehran could not have adversarial relations. He is reported to have also touched on Pakistan’s efforts for a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh and noted that the initiative received a lukewarm response from Saudi Arabia.
In reply to a question about the Saudi-led military alliance of which Pakistan is also a part, the army chief confirmed that the terms of reference governing the alliance had not been finalised as yet and promised to share them with parliament once they were decided. He, however, assured the lawmakers that the alliance would not be allowed to acquire sectarian colours.
Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2017