When General Raheel Sharif hung up his uniform on November 29, 2016, it was after a long time that a Pakistan Army Chief retired on the due date, without seeking an extension. The changeover to the new Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa — appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just 5 days before Gen Raheel Sharif’s retirement — was smooth. In a country where only 7 out of 15 Chiefs have left office on the appointed date, this was a significant milestone for civil-military relations.
Gen Raheel Sharif had taken a strong line on internal security, seen in the crackdown in Karachi and in Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the tribal areas of North Waziristan. Helped in no small measure by a concerted media campaign, he became an extremely popular public figure, restricting the room for action by the civilian government.
Watch What Else Is making News
Gen Bajwa’s style is different: he has so far maintained a non-controversial, low profile. This has given Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif elbow room to act against the terrorist Hafiz Saeed and other Jamaat-ud Dawa leaders in his home province of Punjab. Unconfirmed reports suggest Gen Bajwa believes in shackling jihadist groups who have so far been supported by the military establishment. At the same time, however, he isn’t keen on any drastic action.
Having served for many years on the Line of Control, Gen Bajwa is seen as someone who understands the dynamics of the security situation there well. New Delhi has noted that the situation on the LoC, which had conflagrated in the middle of last year, calmed down immediately after Gen Bajwa took over. If this situation continues, it would fit in well with Nawaz Sharif’s inclination for improved India-Pak relations.
It must not be forgotten, however, that Gen Bajwa also represents the institutional interests of the Pak Army, and that he will undoubtedly emerge as his own man on major issues of security and foreign policy — traditionally considered sacrosanct by the Army — and notably policy on India, Afghanistan and nuclear issues. The balance of civil-military relations will be tested as and when there is a divergence of views on these issues, going forward.
The early signs are nevertheless promising. After taking over as Chief, Gen Bajwa first spoke to officers of Rawalpindi cantonment at the General Headquarters auditorium on December 28. In response to a question from the audience after his address, he asked the officers to stop thinking about the country’s politics and instead focus on improvements within the Army.
The Indian Express spoke to the author of that book, Steven I Wilkinson
What do you make of reports that Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told his officers in December to read your book Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence?
I am of course pleased that he finds it useful, even more so that he thinks others might learn from it. That’s all any author wants. I also wrote this book not just to be read by other academics, but also by practitioners, policymakers and other with an interest in civil-military relations.
Why do you think Gen Bajwa recommended your book to officers? What will they pick up from it?
I don’t know exactly what he had in mind of course, or why this story was leaked. But one possibility is that, if he wants to nudge the Pakistani Army to play a more restrained role in the future, officers might learn directly from the Indian experience, for instance how India has balanced risk from different groups within the Army, or how large paramilitary forces have acted successfully as an indirect hedge, insulating the Army from direct involvement in a lot of domestic policing activities and political controversies. Gen Bajwa’s highlighting a book on the Indian experience may also be a tactful way for him to raise the issue of healthier civil-military relations in Pakistan without immediately touching any raw nerves.
What can be done to bring the state of civil-military relations in Pakistan on a par with other liberal democracies?
The goal has to be to gradually reduce the scale of the Army’s role in politics, intelligence, foreign policy and the economy. That is a very tall and long-term order, especially when other institutions in society are relatively weak. But other countries have done it, even China, for instance, has reined in the role of the PLA over the years because it poses a potential threat to unitary party control.
Can the Pakistan Army change its attitude, approach and norms?
Yes. I think one positive lesson of the book is that an army’s attitude and norms can be successfully changed. India’s own colonial army changed a lot after Independence, despite the fact that many of its officers had been recruited by the Raj precisely because of their political conservatism. New Ministry of Defence structures with multiple Service Chiefs, strong discouragement of Army interference, and even the symbolism of Prime Minister Nehru’s moving into the Army Chief’s former residence at Teen Murti and the downgrading of the military compared to civilians in the official order of precedence, sent the message that Army’s privileges and role had changed.
The challenge that Pakistan faces though, is greater than the one India faced in the 1950s. For one thing, the Pakistan Army is much more enmeshed in the country’s politics, foreign policy and economy — for example through the Fauji foundations, and largescale land grants to senior officers on retirement — than the Indian Army ever was. So, reducing its role is really a long-term project. India also had a strong political party and national leader who acted quickly to change the civil-military balance in the 1950s, for instance by breaking up the unitary military structure and creating separate Chiefs for each of the Services. There’s no equivalent to that in Pakistan today.
Can Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif help bring about that change?
I hope so, but he needs cooperation not just from the Army but also from other political parties and institutions in civil society, like the courts and media. Relations with India also need to be improved, as it is hard to reform civil-military relations in the face of what Pakistan perceives as real security threats.
How do you see the situation in Pakistan changing with the change of guard from Gen Raheel Sharif to Gen Bajwa?
It’s probably too early to say, but I think there are some positive signs. For instance, the LoC with India has been relatively quiet so far, and Gen Bajwa also seems to be less intent on playing a public foreign policy role than his predecessor, Raheel Sharif, who very clearly saw the Army as having a major role in direct negotiations with important regional powers such as China and Russia.