By Samuel Baid
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must be feeling relaxed after the retirement of country’s Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif and the appointment of his successor Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who pledged he would always support the civilian government. This pledge must be very reassuring to Sharif who smarted under powerlessness and constant threat to his government during the three-year tenure of Gen Sharif.
Gen Bajwa has made a correct assessment of the causes of his country’s ailment and if he can show bold leadership of the Army, he will have to start cleaning the mess his predecessor created at home and in relations with India and Afghanistan. Every school child in Pakistan knows the importance of good relations with these two next-door neighbours for peace and prosperity in his/her own country. But the Pak Army’s philosophy is that without hostility with these two neighbours its own supremacy in Pakistan will suffer. In case Gen Bajwa is true to his pledge he will have to urgently attend to domestic and external issues.
Domestic issues first. Soon after taking over as the Army Chief on November 29, 2013 Gen Sharif began betraying his pre-disposed opposition to Prime Minister Sharif’s policies about the Taliban, trial of the former Army Chief and President Gen Pervez Musharraf for treason and on improving relations with India. Within 8 months of taking the charge of the Army Chief he sabotaged the Sharif government’s peace talks with the Taliban by launching a massive military operation called Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan on June 15, 2014. He claimed the operation was against all terrorists. But it turned out to be targeted only the Taliban and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (on China’s behest) which had been fighting for the liberation of Muslim majority province of Xinjiang from China. As a result of this operation, the Taliban leadership slipped to Afghanistan from where they continued attack on Pakistan. Their most tragic attack was on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar on December 16, 2014.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) led a six-month long dharna (August-December) in Islamabad was to topple the Sharif government on the charge that he (Sharif) massively rigged the 2013 elections cheating the PTI of victory. It was the general conviction in Pakistan that the Army was behind the dharna. Again this year, the former Pak cricket skipper collected huge crowds to threaten a lockdown of Islamabad from November 2 onwards for the ouster of Prime Minister Sharif on the basis of the April Panama leaks which said Sharif’s children were running off-shore companies. Besides causing massive human misery in North Waziristan by the Zarb-e-Azb, the Pak Army under Gen Sharif cast a pall of fear and gloom over the political leadership, judiciary, media and the human rights activists. There has been a widespread atmosphere of intimidation which hampers the day-to-day functioning a duly elected government. Added to this was a virulent campaign of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR, the armed forces’ media wing, to brainwash the common people that Gen Sharif was the only hope for the country – not the political leaders. Things began to ease for Prime Minister Sharif after the appointment of Gen Bajwa as the Army Chief. The Pak Supreme Court, which had been so far showing an unfavourable tilt against the Prime Minister in petitions against him in the Panama leaks case, suddenly took a U-turn on December 9 and left the case to the new Chief Justice next year. This was considered to be a serious blow to petitioner Imran Khan who ended his boycott of the National Assembly.
Relaxed Sharif has decided to start the National Census on March 15 with the help of the Army. The last census was held in 1998. Showing its freedom to handle foreign affairs, the Sharif government wants to remove one irritant in relations with the United States relating to Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who had helped US Marines to get Al-Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden. The Pakistan Army had been pretending to be helping the US find Osama while in fact sheltering him when the US Marines eventually found him. The Pakistani government punished and jailed Dr. Afridi and ignored the US pleas for his release. There is also a slight hint that the anti-India frenzy generated in the past three years was organised by ISPR (fanned by religious parties) and aimed at the owners of cinema houses in Pakistan, who had stopped showing Indian films. Now they have decided to show them again, after having incurred huge losses.
The above signs of relaxation can be credited to the appointment of Gen Bajwa. One wishes he contributes to relaxation in relations with India and Afghanistan by not pursuing the policies of Gen Sharif, his coterie and the terrorist minions continuing cross-border attacks. As regards India and Afghanistan, it is to be seen if Gen Bajwa can break the Army’s clamp on civilian government’s freedom to have its own policies vis-a-vis these two countries. He must allow the elected civilian government to conduct the domestic and external affairs on its own.
For the past four decades the Army has used jihad overtly or covertly to dominate the country’s domestic and external scenes through its minions like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. That is a policy of terrorism inside and outside the country’s borders, Examples of domestic terrorism we have seen in Baluchistan, in Karachi and in the killing of journalists and rights activists like Sabeen Mahmud last year. Examples of terrorism against India and Afghanistan are innumerable.
At his meeting with his cabinet members and officials including ISI Chief Rizwan Akhtar on October 3, Prime Minister Sharif showed rare boldness when he told the Army and intelligence agencies to stop; called for the trial of those involved in the 2008 Mumbai carnage and the attack on the Air Force Base in Pathankot in January this year. When this meeting was reported by the No.1 Pak daily, DAWN on October 6 all hell broke loose. Gen Sharif rushed to the Prime Minister to remonstrate with him. As a result there was no following up of what Sharif said. But Gen Bajwa would do a good turn by his country (and of course by its neighbours) if he attempts acting on Sharif’s instruction to the Army and intelligence agencies not to patronise non-state actors.
This instruction unless ignored as was done by Gen Sharif will pose a question of life and death to Gen Bajwa, because in the last 40 years the Pak Army has made domestic and cross-border terrorism its self survival policy. Perhaps Gen Bajwa is already convinced that this policy is dragging Pakistan into ignominious isolation. It would be really dangerous for Pakistan if it still believes that through cross-border terrorism it can force Afghanistan to join Pakistan as a federating unit. And also through terrorism they can snatch away Kashmir from India. For this reason Pakistan hosts Afghan terrorists who commit terrorist activities in India.
Gen Bajwa has pledged support to the civilian government, but can he take the Army alongwith him while supporting its (civilian government’s) original commitments on relations with Afghanistan and India? That would be the real challenge for Gen Bajwa in the months to come.
By Samuel Baid