Prime Minister Imran Khan has extended the tenure of Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for three years from the date he completes his current tenure “in view of the regional security environment”. Gen Bajwa, who turns 59 in November, was appointed to his current three-year term by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on November 29, 2016.
This is the second time in the past decade that a Pakistan Army Chief has got an extension. Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who succeeded Gen Pervez Musharraf as Chief in 2007, was given an extension by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in 2010.
Gen Kayani’s successor, Gen Raheel Sharif, was appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but served only for the traditional three-year term.
Army Chief and PM in Pakistan
Pakistan has been ruled by the Army for about half its life, and the office of the Army Chief has been the country’s most powerful for even longer.
In theory, the Army Chief is chosen at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister, who may choose to consult with the sitting Chief and the Defence Minister, but is not bound to accept their advice.
In practice, things are more complicated. Civilian governments have often had tense relationships with the military, and Prime Ministers attempt to seek loyalty and obedience from their chosen Army Chief.
Nawaz Sharif, who has been Prime Minister thrice, has had an especially fraught relationship with the Army. He has appointed as many as six Chiefs in his career — besides Bajwa and Raheel Sharif, he appointed Musharraf in 1998 and, earlier, Gens Asif Nawaz, Abdul Waheed Kakar, and Jehangir Karamat.
Nawaz did not allow himself to be constrained by considerations of seniority, and was known to have looked, above all, for “his man”. He is seen to have largely got his way with the Army, barring the spectacular mistake with Musharraf, who overthrew him in a military coup in 1999, and kept him out of Pakistan for several years.
Imran, by contrast, is seen as being the Army’s man who in many ways owes his chair to the generals and, in particular, to Gen Bajwa.
His first year in office has been characterised by great harmony between Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships, and Bajwa’s recent defence of the tough economic decisions taken by his government was an important endorsement by the country’s most important and powerful institution.
Bajwa’s continuation, therefore, is unlikely to have been a decision that Imran alone made, or one that he might have had much choice in.
A tense time in Pakistan
Relations with India have been continuously tense since the terrorist bombing in Pulwama in February and the Indian retaliation in Balakot.
Imran’s intemperate attacks on India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status have indicated frustration and helplessness in Islamabad.
The Pakistani Establishment is likely to be plotting its next steps in Jammu and Kashmir, which might include pushing in more jihadi terrorists from Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and possible ISI-directed terror attacks elsewhere in India.
Pakistan’s hands would be tied by the glare of the FATF, which takes a call on its blacklisting in October. Its financial situation is dire, with American aid drying up and the economy on the verge of collapse. With the deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan close, the United States would also demand that Pakistan behave responsibly to keep its side of the bargain.
In this situation, it is likely that the Pakistani Establishment thought it best to continue with the existing arrangement, rather than bring in a new Chief at this stage.
Not much difference to India
The decision to continue with Bajwa essentially reflects the internal power dynamic within Pakistan, and the assessment of its Establishment regarding its situation and priorities.
Pakistan’s choice does not matter for India beyond a point. The core project of the Pakistan Army in India and Kashmir is unlikely to change easily, and India’s response would be calibrated accordingly.
Gen Bajwa is a known commodity for India, not just as Chief, but also during the time he was commander of the Pak Army’s 10 Corps, which is responsible for the area along the Line of Control.