Pakistan Army chief Gen Bajwa's remarks on India, Hafiz Saeed shows who holds power in a country led by weak PM

It was not surprising that the Pakistan Parliament was all agog a few days ago. The Chairman of the Senate, the veteran politician Raza Rabbani had informed the House that Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was to provide the first-ever briefing by an Army Chief to a Senate Committee. Bajwa arrived in a helicopter, attended by a veritable phalanx of his officers, which included the heads of the ISI, Military Intelligence, and the Director of Military Operations, among others. As an in-camera session, details of the meeting are not entirely available. But enough has been leaked, deliberately or otherwise, to make an assessment possible.

The ‘briefing’ appears was agreed upon when members of Parliamentary Defense Committees visited Army Headquarters in mid September for a short briefing ostensibly on military operations. That briefing went on for three hours. Occurring as it did in the aftermath of elections, and the brouhaha of Nawaz Sharif’s ouster, the army naturally declared that it had nothing to do with the whole, and supported any prime minister at the helm. The newly-elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was then in London, and had been quoted as saying that conspiracies against the party was continuing, though he did not specify by whom. It was at that meeting that Bajwa offered to provide the Senate with a briefing himself.

A file image of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reuters

A file image of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reuters

The occasion chosen was based on a motion for a policy review moved much earlier, by Senate leader Raja Zafarul Haq, a long time ‘supporter’ of the Army. According to Senate records, the purpose was “to prepare policy guidelines in the light of emerging regional realities and the role of the United States”. The Senate then converted itself into a “Committee of the Whole house’, sanctioned by a 2012 change in rules of business, which allows it to call a meeting to summon any official of the Pakistan government or almost anyone on issues of national importance. The final agenda was redone to call for a briefing on the “emerging national security paradigm and recent visits and developments”, a title which gave the Chief the leeway to speak on almost anything.

According to available media coverage, that is precisely what he did. Though the Senate Chairman has since berated the legislators for talking to the press, it is highly likely that the Army was well aware that some of its comments was bound to be leaked out. A part of the briefing by senior officers referred to operations in the tribal areas, counter-terrorism, and the ‘successful’ use of military courts. Bajwa's comments however seems to have dealt with foreign policy, which as he rather rightly pointed out, had suffered due to the lack of a minister in charge. Questions on Pakistan and the Saudi led coalition were parried blandly, with the chief stating that his predecessor was heading it in his personal capacity. Needless to add, no former army chief will take such a step without explicit approval, particularly in Pakistan.

Then came the equally bland statement that the Army was ‘subservient’ to Parliament – a term that was later hotly denied – and that it would follow its lead in foreign policy. This would have been a supremely superfluous statement in any democracy. In Pakistan it was a cause for celebration. Then came the surprise. The chief reportedly then stated that the Army was ready to follow Parliament if it sought to normalise relations with India. Since this was immediately followed by allegations of Indian support to terrorists, apparently in collusion with Afghan intelligence, as well as a warning that much of Indian army deployments were against India, it is assumed that this was a challenge to the legislators present to find a way through the maze if they could.

Senators also reportedly queried the chief on the role of Hafiz Saeed, to which he seems to have said that he was free to take up the Kashmir cause, just like any other Pakistani. The terrorist chief was released from ‘house arrest’ only a month ago. Earlier in February, the Army public relations unit had said that Saeed’s detention was a policy decision taken in national interest. Presumably therefore, the release of a declared terrorist is also based on the same grounds.

The fact is that the Lashkar is already in politics is obvious after the recent Lahore elections. Though Yaqoob Shaikh is registered as an independent, his party the Milli Muslim League is clearly a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. His party, together with Sheikh Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek Labbaik ya Rasulallah took more than eleven percent of the votes, eating into Sharif's traditional vote bank. Thereafter, the two have been cooperating in the sit in Islamabad, which ended after open Army mediation. Bajwa had no qualms about defending the Rangers’ action in virtually paying off the protestors, on the grounds that the situation would have aggravated without its intervention. It only remained for General (retd) Musharraf to claim Saeed as a virtual patriot. While his offer to make up a political party with the Lashkar may not have been in consultation with the present army leadership, it certainly plays a part in mainstreaming a declared terrorist.

The briefing showed in no uncertain terms who is in charge, at a time when the country is led by a weak Prime Minister, virtually hand held by a deposed former Prime Minister. The Chief’s briefing was aimed at demonstrating the Army’s democratic credentials. What it did was to demonstrate that the army holds the cards in both internal and external policy. It also puts the ball neatly into the court of the legislators, the message being that if Parliament wants to have a go at improving foreign policy, it is welcome to try. As a method of cementing civil-military relations, it seems to have succeeded admirably, given the heaping of praise on the Army Chief for his frankness and openness by Senators. One thing it is clearly not, is a extension of a hand of friendship to India. If anything, it is the reverse. General elections are likely around the corner, and it looks like mainstream political parties will have an uphill battle, as another army sponsored extremist coalition is on the horizon.

Updated Date: Dec 22, 2017 15:48 PM

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