All through the outgoing year Pakistan remained gripped in high-voltage politics of confrontation, and the resultant instability affected almost each and every sector of the country. In the aftermath of the Panama Scandal, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government remained solely focused on defending the corruption cases against Sharif and family, ignoring its core responsibilities – from basic governance to economic management.
Under these chaotic and troubled times, the Pakistan Armed Forces remained the only institution focused on safeguarding the country’s internal and external interests, though the PMLN government — as per its tradition — made every effort to undermine it, both overtly and covertly.
Among the three wings of the armed forces, Pakistan Army was and still is the prime target of the disqualified premier, his clan and band of loyalists in the federal and Punjab provincial governments. Reason; they see strong and independent institutions as an obstacle to their designs of furthering their narrow personal and political interests, which are tied to foreign hostile powers.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is perhaps the world’s only country where a sitting government conspires against the armed forces on domestic and external fronts, creating a dangerous situation for the system as well as the state.
Against this backdrop, General Qamar Javed Bajwa took over command as the 16th chief of the army staff (COAS) on November 29, 2016 from General Raheel Sharif — the most popular personality of his time.
Unfortunately, there was no honeymoon period for the new COAS to adjust to his new assignment. He and his institution were supposed to live up to an extremely diverse and challenging set of expectations without upsetting the applecart.
No wonder, every step, statement and even the body language of General Bajwa, like his predecessors, is closely being observed and widely interpreted by friends and foes alike. They all realise that it is the army chief, who serves as an anchor for Pakistan rather than the corruption-tainted herd of politicians.
Rightly or wrongly, for a vast majority of Pakistanis, the army and its leadership is the answer to every problem. From safeguarding the country’s frontiers from external enemies to taking on the domestic challenge of extremism and terrorism, and helping victims of natural disasters or weeding out corruption – public perception remains that the only institution which can deliver in every crisis is the army.
In the ever-expanding list of public expectations, the army now also has to raise red-flags on issues from which it conventionally used to stay away and are not under its domain, such as economy and foreign relations.
The army shared its concern on the economic mismanagement in a joint seminar organised by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) in Karachi in October. General Bajwa, while speaking as the keynote speaker, underlined the need for a viable balance between economy and security for Pakistan’s prosperity and said that these factors remain interlinked in today’s world.
But why was General Bajwa forced to speak on the economy? Simply because the government’s gross mismanagement, flawed policies and corruption threatens Pakistan’s economic security which has direct consequences for the state. And as expected, some government ministers reacted strongly against the military leadership over the issue rather than taking corrective measures.
The army leadership also has to routinely involve itself in active diplomacy as Sharif even failed to appoint a foreign minister when he was in power.
Because of the deliberate attempts by Nawaz Sharif to personalise foreign relations at the cost of Pakistan, General Bajwa and his team has to protect national interests on the external front in a hands on manner.
General Bajwa aggressively presented Pakistan’s case abroad and in front of visiting foreign dignitaries. He attempted to improve relations with Afghanistan, where Pakistan sees peace and stability in its own interest, and at the same time the army focused on introducing border management along the Durand Line to check the free flow of terrorists and extremists.
General Bajwa also paid a rare visit to the estranged western neighbour Iran – the first by a Pakistan army chief in more than two decades – as a confidence-building measure and to enhance defence, economic and political cooperation, according to reports in the Iranian media.
General Bajwa, like his predecessors, focused on maintaining and expanding relations with the Middle Eastern Islamic countries, especially Pakistan’s trusted friend and ally, Saudi Arbaia. Pakistan’s participation in the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition is a step in this direction.
He also gave confidence to Pakistanis by saying “no more” to the United States and forcefully presenting Pakistan’s case when the US President Donald Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan, blaming Pakistan for the his own country’s failure in the Afghan war.
That’s the reason that not just the man on the street, but a vast majority of professionals, businesspeople, industrialists, and educated Pakistanis representing the middle and upper middle classes want the army to play its role in reforming this dysfunctional anti-people system, though this is not the constitutional responsibility of the men in uniform.
Coping up with these enormous expectations is not for the faint-hearted, especially when an overwhelmingly corrupt and non-performing government and external powers have aggressively been trying to weaken the army and damage its reputation.
General Bajwa indeed performed a high-wire act as he managed this complex game in a low-key, but resolute and firm manner.
He also worked to defuse tensions between the military and civil leadership as he took, what he himself called the “unpopular decision”, of giving a way out to the government on issue of an anti-army news report in daily Dawn.
Despite demands from many political forces and ordinary Pakistanis to act against the corrupt politicians and rulers directly, he stuck to the institutional position of non-interference, allowing space to the civilian institutions to take on this challenge.
As a result Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court in a due and natural course, setting a new plausible precedent in Pakistani politics in which top government guns can be held answerable before the law.
At the same time, Bajwa not just ensured continuity in his institution’s policy regarding fighting extremism and terrorism, but expanded its scope and impact by launching Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad.
Nawaz Sharif, as the prime minister, had stalled the implementation on the National Action Plan (NAP) – vital in winning the war against terrorism. The military leadership, under General Bajwa, has now been coaxing Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government to play its role in fulfilling this national responsibility.
At the same time, the Pakistan Armed Forces are single handedly confronting the twin ghost of terrorism and extremism, laying down huge sacrifices, as Pakistan emerges as the world’s only country that successfully revered this tide of terrorism, with successive operations in some of the most difficult, high altitude and desolate terrains.
In a nutshell General Bajwa and his team contained and managed a highly polarised and explosive situation, which is no ordinary feat. Therefore, General Bajwa, indeed, emerges as a personality representing the ethos and collective will of his institution.
However, the main handicap for Pakistan is its corrupt and inefficient civilian government, which even after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, continues to hurt the core national interests and a section of it continues to conspire against the army.
This must be understood that no country can achieve its geo-strategic goals and protect national interests if its institutions are not on the same page and pushing in one direction. For this, the military and civilian leadership have to work hand-in-hand.
In developing countries, often soldiers have to act as reformers for the development of the state and nation-building. Public expectations from the army for a larger role may be politically incorrect if seen from the narrow prism of the West and its handful of local allies, but they are right from Pakistan’s point-of-view.
Going forward, General Bajwa’s role is fundamental if Pakistan has to emerge out of the quagmire of its seemingly never-ending political instability and polarisation. Pakistan needs a clean, efficient pro-people government.
This cannot be done without purging the corrupt from the system once and for all, drawing a curtain on dynastic politics and introducing a democracy which is institutional, accountable and inclusive.
And the army’s role is key in achieving this goal. People of Pakistan expect General Bajwa and the army to help judiciary and other institutions and forces in giving a clean system to the country on war footings. The next two years of General Bajwa as army chief are crucial in realising and achieving this dream.