By Brig Anil Gupta (Retd)
A new chapter was heralded in Pakistan's history on November 29 when, for the first time in two decades, the incumbent Chief of Army Staff relinquished office on the appointed date. Despite best efforts by ousted dictator Pervez Musharraf and an appeal by the Pakistan Supreme Court, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif refused to succumb to pressure and exercised his constitutional power to appoint a new Chief of Army Staff.
It would have been a very difficult decision to make for Nawaz Sharif because he has not been very lucky in his earlier choices for the same post. While Musharraf overthrew him in a military coup and exiled him, the civil-military balance remained tilted in favour of the latter during the tenure of outgoing COAS, Gen Raheel Sharif.
Raheel Sharif almost made Nawaz Sharif a lame duck Prime Minister as far as foreign relations and matters military were concerned. Nawaz Sharif's authority was confined to routine domestic affairs and social development projects. While Nawaz must be heaving a temporary sigh of relief and keeping his fingers crossed, the exit of Raheel Sharif and appointment of Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as his successor has aroused keen interest in India at a time when relations between the two countries are in their worst phase.
Though in Pakistan the constitutional executive head is the Prime Minister, de-facto control of the nation's defence and security policies, domestic security, strategic assets and the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rests with the army -- meaning the COAS.
Raheel Sharif not only exercised all these powers but also remained in a state of constant conflict with the Nawaz Sharif government leading some to believe that he harboured post-retirement political ambitions. This only time will tell.
Despite Nawaz Sharif's attempts to improve relations with India, Raheel Sharif maintained a strong anti-India posture and scuttled all his efforts. After the Panama Gate leaks, Nawaz was forced to toe the army line and give up any hopes he had of improved subcontinental relations. While Raheel Sharif launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb for eliminating terrorism within Pakistan, he continued to support "terrorism" as a low-cost war-fighting doctrine against India.
Most of the terror attacks during the tenure of Raheel Sharif were aimed at the Indian Armed Forces or the police, thereby signalling the Pakistan Army's intent to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered by it during 1971. Will Gen Bajwa be able to backtrack from this?
After the surgical strikes by the Indian Army, Raheel Sharif's professional reputation was badly hit and in order to restore his self-pride he brought India-Pakistan relations under severe stress through repeated ceasefire violations amounting to nearly 200 and barbaric acts of their Border Action Teams (BAT). He earned the distinction of being India's bete noire. Gen Bajwa will inherit this legacy of his predecessor. Will he alter it?
It is believed that Gen Bajwa is a thorough professional with an image of being apolitical and one who believes in not interfering much in matters of the civilian government. He has been appointed by Nawaz Sharif superseding three other contenders.
It is believed that Nawaz rejected the candidature of Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, Multan Corps Commander and a favourite for the job, for being overbearing. The reputation of being humble and rooted to the ground has tilted the balance in favour of Bajwa.
By appointing Gen Bajwa as COAS, Nawaz Sharif is trying to restore the delicate civil-military balance in Pakistan. We, in India, hope that he succeeds this time around because it is near-mandatory for restoring peace and normalcy in the subcontinent. This is the reason the appointment of the new COAS has evoked lot of interest and debate in India.
Gen Bajwa is reported to believe that internal extremism is more dangerous for Pakistan than India. Therefore, it is certain that he will go hammer and tongs after the extremist elements at home. He will also need to address the menace of growing radicalism within the army that is affecting its professional élan.
He will definitely carry forward his predecessor's fight against domestic extremism and terrorism forcefully. One hopes that he would no longer consider the India-specific terror groups as "strategic assets" and "force multipliers" but treat them as "liabilities" Pakistan can ill-afford to support.
Given India's firm stance and denouncement of the policy of "strategic restraint", Pakistan will not be able to bear the consequences of another attempt like 26/11 or Uri. Gen Bajwa will, therefore, not only have to cut the wings of Hafiz Sayeed or Azhar Masood and their terrorist groups but also rein in the ISI. Indian policymakers will keenly watch this critical issue.
Given his vast experience of serving as Commander FCNA (Force Command Northern Areas) of Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chief of Staff as well as GOC 10 Corps (the Pakistani Corps responsible for operations along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir), he would be well versed with Kashmir affairs and the nuances of the management of the LOC.
It is hoped that he would bat for a fresh ceasefire agreement between the two neighbours to bring an end to cross-border/LOC firing which has continued unabated since September this year. But true to his professional reputation, he will fight back with full force in case he feels that India is unrelenting and is threatening to dismember Pakistan.
As far as Kashmir is concerned, it appears that there will be no change in the policy of the Pakistan Army under Gen Bajwa. But he is likely to permit the civil government to put the issue on the back-burner so that talks with India can be resumed.
India seized the initiative from Pakistan after the successful surgical strikes on the terror launch pads and put the latter on the back foot. India rightly feels that the onus now lies with Pakistan to stop using terror as an instrument of state policy.
Pakistan's offer of Army DGMO-level talks should be welcomed and used to turn the tide. The proposed visit of Foreign Advisor Sartaj Aziz to attend the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar on December 3-4, may also be utilised provided it is backed by certain assurances from Pakistan.
The intent of Pakistan has always been in doubt and now is an opportunity for Nawaz Sharif to change the narrative if he is really interested in development and prosperity of his country, which is well-nigh impossible without peace and stability in the region.
(Brig Anil Gupta (Retd) is a Jammu-based political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst. These are the personal views of the author. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor.)