By Nirupama Subramanian
Pakistan Army chief has spoken of peace with India and ‘de-weaponisation’ in his country. Is it an old trope or a nod to a new geopolitics?
Last week, Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa set off on a three-nation tour, beginning with Brunei, and then visiting Malaysia. It was his last stop though that India was watching with jangled nerves. On Friday, Gen Bajwa landed in Malé, becoming the first high-ranking foreign dignitary to visit the Maldives since the imposition (and subsequent lifting on March 22) of the Emergency in that country.
Gen Bajwa met with President Abdulla Yameen, Foreign Minister Dr Mohamed Asim, and other top officials, after which Yameen’s office issued a boilerplate statement — expressing a desire to “continue working together on issues of common concern”, while the General referred to their “brotherly Muslim nations… further cultivating existing ties of friendship, understanding, co-operation in all fields”.
But it was the signalling that was important.
For Yameen, hosting Gen Bajwa was a satisfying poke in India’s eye. For the General, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan, the stopover in South Asia’s currently most watched country was strategic move at a time that Pakistan is debating the controversial “Bajwa Doctrine”.
In early March, Gen Bajwa briefed about 30 top Pakistani journalists for a record four hours, a first since Gen Pervez Musharraf.
ARY TV reported there was no topic that he spared and no question that he did not answer. The briefing, whose contents were summed up as the Bajwa Doctrine, set off a storm of reactions — and as its intention and meaning were debated, ISPR, the media wing of the Pakistan armed forces, was forced to clarify and deny some parts.
Although Gen Bajwa was not directly quoted anywhere, a report in The News on March 18 suggested he had said that while the Army did not wish to derail Pakistan’s civilian democracy, it would not stand by and watch if politicians were unequal to the task. He had claimed credit for defusing the crisis that had arisen out of the Barelvi extremist siege on Islamabad, and had said that if martial law were to be imposed on Pakistan, politicians alone would be responsible.
The General seems to have also come out backing the judiciary, which has recently been accused by the PML(N) and others of carrying out a campaign against a democratically-elected government — unseating Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, keeping alive the possibility of sending him and his family members to jail. Somewhat contradictorily, Gen Bajwa also praised the farewell speeches by two PPP stalwarts who had warned against the military, and the “judicialisation of politics and politicisation of the judiciary”.
He had also spoken about the poor shape of the economy, criticised Pakistan’s massive social security scheme, and said civilian institutions such as the police must shape up.
But the remark that ruffled the most feathers in Pakistan was one criticising the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, seen as one of the biggest achievements of the country’s fragile democracy. Adopted unanimously by Parliament in 2010, the amendment increased devolution to the four provinces and reversed many Musharraf-era changes to the Constitution. Gen Bajwa seemed to have suggested that the amendment was “more dangerous” than Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s 1966 “Six Points” for autonomy to what was then East Pakistan.
Coming in an election year, Gen Bajwa’s meeting with the media was seen as an assertion of the Army’s predominant position in Pakistan; there was also speculation over his likely personal motivations. ISPR last week denied the reported statements on the 18th Amendment, and underlined that the so-called Bajwa Doctrine pertained only to security issues. “If there exists any doctrine… it is only related to the security of Pakistan,” DG, ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said.
What then is Bajwa’s vision for Pakistan’s peace and security? According to the reports that emerged from the briefing, the Pakistan Army chief does not see his country in the “role of a hateful neighbour trying to destabilise others but establishing Pakistan as a proud, peaceloving country which wants peaceful coexistence with the world. But if provoked, threatened or pressurised, it will show its full muscle power to the enemy to prove its strong commitment to the motherland”.
Bajwa conveyed that while there would be no compromise on Kashmir, there could be no war between nuclear-armed neighbours. He is reported to have said that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was stubborn about not talking, “but within two to three years due to its growing economy [India] will realise the need of a peace dialogue with Pakistan”.
He said that he wanted trade with India on the US-Canada model, and that Pakistan had no designs on Afghanistan on account of ‘strategic depth’, if at all such a concept existed. He is reported to have said he wants peace with both Afghanistan and Iran.
The General is also reported to have favoured non-confrontation and dialogue with the US to resolve thorny issues, but stressed that Pakistan would not be intimidated by Washington, and would instead reach out to allies such as China and Saudi Arabia. He apparently expressed a desire for a “de-weaponised” Pakistan based on
the Ireland model, in which all terrorist groups — without differentiating between good and bad — would be disarmed and mainstreamed.
The dominant view in India sees the Bajwa Doctrine as a reiteration of the pre-eminence of the military in Pakistan. “It is déjà vu,” said Rana Banerji, a top Pakistan hand who retired as a Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. “This kind of messaging has happened in the past, and has been used by the military to destabilise the civilian leadership.” Gen Bajwa’s reported views on making peace with India are a “reiteration of Pakistan’s traditional position”, Banerji said. India, he said, would continue to be sceptical until Pakistan did something about the Lashkar-e-Toiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which remained active in Kashmir.
However, Bajwa’s views on the US, his advocacy of CPEC and frontloading of the relationship with China, and the stated desire for stability with both India and Afghanistan, are also being seen as driven by the emerging big picture in the region and the world.
“This is a confluence of several geo-political factors in which many actors are involved. It is predominantly driven by China which is re-positioning itself not just in the region but in the world,” said Happymon Jacob, who teaches Indian foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “And the Bajwa Doctrine is aligned to this big picture.” Bajwa’s visit to the Maldives, where China’s huge footprint has worried India, may anger New Delhi, “but it is part of the emerging big picture, in which India is only collateral because it has no response yet to this big picture”, Jacob said.
Gen Bajwa visited Malé a week after Yameen lifted the 45-day Emergency. In February, Yameen had sent his foreign minister to Pakistan to explain the reasons for imposing the Emergency. The envoy had invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to visit, but Abbasi had reportedly refused, citing the similarities of Yameen’s action with those of Musharraf’s in November 2007. While the Prime Minister may remain constrained by the fact that judges and political leaders continue to be imprisoned in the Maldives, the Bajwa Doctrine clearly has different preoccupations, and is not fettered by civilian sensibilities.