THE BAJWA OUTREACH PLAN
As Pakistan hurtles towards a third consecutive general election, the country’s most powerful man, the avowedly apolitical army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is the one making the headlines
ON A HOT SUMMER night in 2014 at General Headquarters in the cantonment town of Rawalpindi, a crowd of fans surrounded Raheel Sharif, the mustachioed poster-boy Chief of Army Staff, Pakistan’s 15th military commander. It was Defence Day. The army was just beginning to crawl out of the Musharraf-era shell of political awkwardness, and the Kayani-era restrictions of terror threats. After more than a decade of a blanket stoppage, public parades— where the chosen few could interact with the top brass—were being reintroduced.
A 40-minute drive away, in Islamabad, opposition leader Imran Khan was in the middle of an extended sit-in for electoral reforms, which he hoped would attract thousands, trigger a Tahrir Square-like situation, and cause the incumbent premier, Nawaz Sharif, to buckle and resign.
GHQ’s top generals were divided about whether to side with a government that abhorred the military or support the struggling opposition, which many had supported, but not voted in.
As the crowd around Raheel refused to thin out and the selfies continued, in the distance, a tall, broad-shouldered man, who had made it a habit over the years to hunch down to listen to the counsel of shorter soldiers, stood alone. With one hand folded behind his back, the other one thumping a command cane onto his leg, this was Lt General Qamar Javed Bajwa, then commander of Pakistan’s largest military formation, the X Corps.
The ‘Bajwa Doctrine’ has been the subject of a debate reflective of Pakistan’s civilian versus military rift. The debate comes at a time of clash between the activist judiciary and the incumbent Sharif dynasty
Unlike almost everyone else in the GHQ parade ground, Bajwa wasn’t watching the Raheel celebrity spectacle unfold. Instead, he was looking dead ahead, at the black granite memorial of the martyrs. Bajwa had reason to contemplate and be aloof that night, and for months to come. He was one of the few in GHQ who would advise the continuity of democracy and sustaining an elected government, keeping his legendary 111 Brigade’s weapons, and intentions, on safety, during the civil strife that was to follow in Islamabad. Even though he would be sidelined after the X Corps gig to an unassuming desk job evolving training doctrines, he would make his disapproval for the celebrity stardom attached to the chief’s secretariat be known to close friends and colleagues. Eventually, his pro-democracy reputation would help him earn his fourth star, key to the most powerful office in the land.
Now, more than a year since holding Pakistan’s most powerful office and carefully nurturing a reputation for being apolitical, the country’s top military commander has stumbled into the fray of political controversy.
As the country braces for a historic third general election without any martial or judicial disruption, even as ties with the US falter after freshly slammed sanctions, with more looming, General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his 600,000-strong army—widely perceived to be the country’s most powerful organisation—appear to be on the back foot, but are pivoting fast to recover.
The ‘Bajwa Doctrine’, a national security plan accredited to the 57-yearold infantryman from the Baluch Regiment, has been the subject of a vicious debate reflective of Pakistan’s civilian versus military rift.
The debate comes at a time of charged, partisan politics and a clash between the country’s increasingly activist judiciary and the incumbent—but anti-military—Sharif dynasty and its allies in the bureaucracy and media.
Last July’s ouster of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court was perceived as engi-
As Bajwa’s India strategy—resolving Kashmir not through terror—was debated
and appreciated, for the first time the military invited the Indian defence attaché to the Pakistan Day parade
neered by the military, a charge propagated by the Sharif camp, but one which the army—which has ruled Pakistan directly for three out of seven decades since independence—vehemently denies. But after 16 months of avoiding the glare of a rambunctious Pakistani media, Bajwa broke new ground by having a miscued ‘off-the-record’ discussion with journalists in March. Neither the exclusivity of the interaction, nor its not-to-be-quoted content, could be restrained. Soon, one columnist after another recounted in detail what the outspoken, and witty, four-star—whose public relations campaign has carved him out to be a politically disinterested soldier more at home on the frontlines of the tribal belt than the parlours of Islamabad—had talked about.
Normalising ties with India, not succumbing to US pressure about Afghanistan, mainstreaming jihadists into electoral politics, the state of the faltering economy, the gaps in the constitution, the plight of the Sharif family, nods of approvals for certain cabinet members, and the military’s hard-nosed support for the judiciary—all politically incendiary topics in a Pakistan where major institutions are at daggers drawn—were weighed upon in part and widely cited as the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’.
Then came the fallout; editorials screamed disapproval. Social media erupted. Army critics from Pakistan’s left jumped into action. Bajwa was framed as inappropriately partisan and slammed for stepping beyond his ambit. But in a country where the army is used to enjoying popular support (approval ratings for the military touched 79 percent, according to a 2017 Gallup poll) when Bajwa’s India strategy—resolving Kashmir, not through hate, terror or war—was debated and appreciated, almost on cue, the military invited the Indian defence attaché and other South Blockers to the Pakistan Day parade on March 23, a first for an army that has fought three wars with India.
“The chief has a deep understanding of realpolitik,” explains Major General Isfandiyar Pataudi, a retired director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, who has served with Bajwa for decades. “And he has applied it well in his focus on the importance of regional strategy and building bridges with neighbours rather than with partners that are extra-regional.”
Extraordinarily, soon after the unveiling of the ‘doctrine’, liberal elements in the media—leading among them the Jang Group, whose newspapers and television stations have been banned from circulation and distribution in military run-cantonments, a move Bajwa has defended— praised the general. Columnist Sohail Warraich thanked Bajwa for ditching “70 years of extreme chauvinism” and leading Pakistan into “the doctrine of realism which focuses on peaceful coexistence with the neighbouring countries”.
However, not everyone was convinced. Social media, led by the ancillary left, took a tough position about Bajwa’s ‘mainstreaming’ theory—bringing heavily-armed, well-trained extremist radical elements back from the edge, before they are forced to go underground, or at war with a state that is cracking down on them. “Mainstreaming of radicals is not to be misunderstood as allowing terrorists political space,” says Pataudi. “It’s necessary to allow political expression to those with radical views, which if stymied, might tip over to the violent side of expression of views.”
Given Pakistan’s track record for military rule, some had cause for concern about the army’s intentions. “It felt like we were meeting the new king,” says a TV anchor invited to the meet-andgreet event at General Headquarters. “From his body language and confidence, it felt like the king, who is very interested in important reforms, may stay a while, beyond his retirement date.”
However, Bajwa’s machine reiterates his reputation for being an apolitical soldier, and the army keeps giving reassurances that the general election, expected in the late summer, will be on time. Though he was one of the few lieutenant generals who held his ground and advised his predecessor against a military takeover during the extended spate of civil unrest in 2014, the fragility of the country’s democratic process, and the unveiling of the military chief’s doctrine at such a politically sensitive time, caused newspaper Dawn to be particularly critical in a recent editorial: “The transition to democracy is headed towards a third consecutive on-time election, but the democratic project is obviously in some kind of danger. In an environment of such uncertainty, it does not help for an army chief to have remarks attributed to him that can be perceived in democratic quarters as questioning the legitimacy and substance of democracy here.”
Since the controversy spilled over, the military has responded with disclaimers: That the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’ is security-related and not political at all. Pataudi is dismissive about the criticism coming Bajwa’s way. “He is mature in his conduct of advice to policy-makers, and doesn’t seek self-aggrandisement or personal projection,” says Pataudi. “Pakistan is beset with many problems, and someone needs to ask the difficult questions. General Bajwa is asking those questions.”
APOLITICAL GENERAL His pro-democracy reputation helped Bajwa earn his fourth star