BY WASEEM ABBASI
WASHINGTON: The appointment of General Qamar Javed Bajwa as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) may improve civil military relations in Pakistan but the country’s war against terrorism and India policy is expected to remain unchanged, top US defence experts said.
Talking to The News, the experts from three major US think tanks hoped the head of powerful army would accelerate the momentum of Pakistan’s anti-terror drive. “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has not had the best luck in picking army chiefs in the past. But for anyone in his position and his past experiences, it is only natural that he would want to opt for someone with the reputation of being liberal on civil-military relations. In that sense, I am not surprised at the pick” said Moeed Yusuf who is the Associate Vice President of the Asia Center at the US Institute of Peace (USIP).
He is of the view that on the terrorism and India fronts army chief’s pick was not as significant as most thought. “All four candidates in the running were equally professional and none of them would have looked to slow down the momentum of anti-terrorism efforts generated during General Raheel Sharif’s tenure,” Moeed said. He expects that Raheel Sharif’s policy on terrorism will continue, “Perhaps with less fanfare and publicity under General Bajwa.”
He said the army’s view on India remained entrenched. “Again, under the current circumstances, I wouldn’t have expected any army chief to be able to ignore India’s current posturing. A tit-for-tat game will continue on the LoC for the foreseeable future but it remains crucial for Pakistan not to get provoked into upping the ante.”
Shuja Nawaz, Distinguished Fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of a “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within” said there would be continuity in the war against terrorism and militancy. “According to persons familiar with the new chief’s thinking, he considers the domestic threat more immediate and urgent than the external challenge. He will need to win back the Afghan trust and regain equilibrium in the Indo-Pakistan situation,” Nawaz said.
He said General Bajwa has wide experience, including service with the Northern Light Infantry on the Kashmir frontier, two years in the Pakistani brigade at Tabuk in Saudi Arabia, and with the UN peace keepers in the Congo. He has held important training and command assignments at home and also attended the staff college in Canada.
Nawaz is also brother of Pakistan’s former army chief late General Asif Nawaz and occasionally advises Pentagon on Pakistan and Afghanistan. “He has a heavy agenda facing him now. The war on terrorism and militancy requires a longer campaign and demands closer collaboration with the civilian establishment. How he leads the way will determine that relationship,” Shuja Nawaz told The News in an interview.
He said new chief also need to fill about eight vacancies of lieutenant generals in the next twelve months. This will allow him to put his imprimatur on the top echelon of the Pakistan army. He will also preside over a number of key promotion boards and select the group of three star generals from whom his own successor will emerge in three years-time.
“Of the current three stars, the senior most in November 2019 will be the recently promoted Lt. Gen. Sarfraz Sattar, former DG Military Intelligence and commander of 8 division in Sialkot. The last group of three stars promoted in 2015 will retire in September 2019. So, a new leadership cohort will emerge on General Bajwa’s watch. This will allow him to shape the army for years to come. His experience and knowledge from his habit of reading voraciously will stand him in good stead.” Nawaz said.
Senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center Michael Kugelman said under President Donald Trump, US-Pakistan ties are not likely to improve regardless of any change in Pakistan’s military command. “The trajectory of US-Pakistan ties appears to be on the downswing. There’s a good chance that bilateral relations will be downgraded. This means that whoever is in charge of the Pakistani army, the US-Pakistan relationship is destined to face trouble — and especially with incoming US President Donald Trump, who has given little indication that he wants a warm relationship with Pakistan” Kugelman told The News.
“We know relatively little about Bajwa, but much like his predecessor General Sharif, he appears to enjoy a very good reputation within the military ranks and within Pakistan on the whole,” he added. It was too early to tell how the new army chief will affect Pakistan’s war on terrorism and relations with Washington. “My sense is there will be a fair amount of continuity with recent years. When it comes to Pakistan’s military, the institution is stronger than any of its leaders. So the military’s underlying attitudes and policies likely won’t change,” he added.
“This means that the military will continue to undertake efforts to combat anti-state militancy, but likely not the types of terrorists that attack Pakistan’s neighbours. This has long been a point of tension between Pakistan and the United States, because groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network target Americans in Afghanistan,” he said.