Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa has two big challenges now. Kashmir is just one of them

Pressure on Bajwa to not appear a weakling like his predecessor General Kayani could grow depending on the situation in Kashmir.

Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent extension in tenure is not an anomaly for his country, but it will have long-term consequences for his institution and the geopolitics of the region.

Many in the country, including the officer cadre in general, will also watch what Bajwa will do next to counter Narendra Modi’s move on Kashmir to manage domestic expectations.

Historically, Pakistan Army has comprised four types of service chiefs. Those like Generals Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf who extended their own tenures because having sacked civilian regimes they were in charge of both the state and the government. Those who were ambitious but did not get an opportunity, such as Generals Aslam Baig and Raheel Sharif. Then there were those who opted against it, like Generals Waheed Kakar and Jehangir Karamat, and finally those who negotiated an extension from weak political governments as guarantee for the latter completing their tenure.

While General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani seeking prolongation of tenure from a civilian government was an anomaly that earned him a lot of criticism within his service, General Bajwa doing the same has turned it almost into a norm. This means it will be repeated. The business of extending tenure won’t end here as the current ISI chief, Lt General Faiz Hameed, is a hopeful for the position when the incumbent retires in 2022. Unless something dramatic happens, there is no reason why Hameed or anyone else who gets the position would not want an extended tenure.

Senior officers won’t be happy

The decision will run into complexities at two levels. First, it will make the army echelons nervous. A six-year term for the chief becoming a norm would have to be negotiated between Islamabad and Rawalpindi on the one hand, and within the GHQ on the other. Already, the careers of 23 three and two-star generals have been negatively impacted.

Politically, this means that the current military leadership has placed its eggs in Imran Khan’s basket to ensure he is around to make the decision when the time comes for Bajwa to retire and Hameed to succeed.

Institutionally, this can be reckless as it will impact the overall professionalisation of the upper cadres. Why work harder when there is no hope to reach the top. Also, their decision-making will naturally gravitate towards keeping the top boss and the man in the primary intelligence agency happy. The decision will make the army’s patronage system more intense and personalised than what it is today. The Bajwa-Hameed combine would have to watch over their colleagues microscopically, and use a combination of stick and carrot to ensure harmony in the echelons. Bajwa already has a reputation of giving exemplary punishments to army officers and publicizing them. The other known method is to grant greater perks and privileges.

General Qamar Bajwa could opt for a better solution as suggested by Shuja Nawaz, the author of Crossed Swords. The Pakistan Army chief, he says, can go for the much-needed higher defence reorganisation at the top through a power-sharing formula. The three regional commanders could be made four-star generals reporting to the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC). In this case, the army chief would manage the affairs at the GHQ.

Politically, this would reduce the pressure on the army chief or his successor while keeping the organisation intact. Unfortunately, this may not happen because the biggest attraction of being an army chief is the concentration of power, not its devolution.

The challenge to not appear weak

Second, and no less important, issue pertains to how junior and mid-ranking officers look at General Bajwa’s extension. They may not be concerned with what boys at the top do to each other, but what the extension means for the institution.

They may look at, for example, what General Bajwa would contribute to the Kashmir issue. As it is, many fingers in the civil society are being pointed jointly at Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army chief for letting down Kashmiris.

There is also a sense of hurt among many ordinary Pakistanis, if not the ruling elite, at how the Arab world has reacted to the Kashmir issue. While the Palestinian ambivalence over Kashmir is frowned upon by Pakistan’s ruling elite, the UAE and Bahrain giving awards to Narendra Modi is too much of a blow.

The pressure on the army chief to not appear a weakling like his predecessor General Kayani could grow depending on the situation in the Kashmir valley. He will have less space to go aggressively against the jihadis, something that he seems to have promised to his British and American interlocutors.

While the Pakistan Army’s public relations wing would try to put the blame on the dissidents in the diaspora for challenging the military by questioning the official narrative, Bajwa would like to use the civilian government and the bureaucracy to convince the world that India is equally responsible for continued existence of militants as New Delhi raised the bilateral tension without advance notice.

Khan-Bajwa need breathing space

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent speech that drew all kinds of reaction from Pakistan and was viewed by many as providing a comic relief appears to indicate two extreme paths that the military could take.

At one end, the army and the political government can hold each other’s hands to avoid further embarrassment at home by adopting propaganda as a tool for national appeasement. Standing up for Kashmir for half an hour or blaring sirens and playing nationalist songs is meant to create the impression that the government is committed to the larger Kashmir cause.

The other part of the PM’s speech was about intense signaling to India and the world that General Bajwa could use the military option. Pakistan’s army chief is not in a hurry to use conflict as a tool but he would like the world to think about an eventuality where violence may erupt in India that could engulf South Asia. It is like rolling the dice knowing that you may not hit the jackpot but then any number would be a gain.

Surely, a militant strike would bring the world down on Pakistan like a tonne of bricks (depending on how credible is India’s claim), but the impact may not leave New Delhi unscathed. A number of scenarios could be imagined including an event that may unleash communal violence in India. The economic consequences for Pakistan would be phenomenal but it would equally damage India’s economy, and its image as a peaceful place.

Not that Pakistan is close to testing the limits of its nuclear deterrence like India did in 2016 and 2019, but the Bajwa-Khan combine needs some breathing space. Although the country’s economic condition is a good cover, it may not cushion the army chief from internal pressure forever, especially if atrocities in the Kashmir valley become visible and audible.

In that case, a limited war emerges as a possibility. Any dialogue and that too with a military-hybrid government is not New Delhi’s preferred choice, but a better strategy is always to correctly estimate the optimal point for a particular policy option.

New Delhi starting a conversation with the Kashmiri leadership, providing relief to the helpless and battered people in the Valley, not resorting to violence against Kashmiris, and perhaps initiating some form of bilateral engagement will certainly provide the necessary relief to the Pakistan army chief and protect him against additional pressure from his own army to act harshly.

Ayesha Siddiqa is the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy and Research Associate at SOAS, London. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

Note: This article originally published here.