External Affairs

“Threat from Militants, not from India”, Pakistan’s New Army Chief Once Said

Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa had once pointed out that the bigger threat was from militants, not India, but that view may not necessary hold.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) talks with Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's newly designated army chief, at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, Pakistan, November 26, 2016. Credit: PID/Handout via Reuters

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) talks with Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s newly designated army chief, at the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad, Pakistan, November 26, 2016. Credit: PID/Handout via Reuters

New Delhi: In January 2014, a senior army official addressed an event in an army-run college in Rawalpindi cantonment. The choice of the Rawalpindi Corps Commander as the chief guest was not surprising, but his words were certainly unusual enough to warrant a news report.

Threat from militants, not from India: commander,” was the headline of the lead article on the third page of The Nation’s Lahore edition of January 27, 2014 . The event was held on January 26, India’s Republic Day.

“Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa said on Sunday there was no threat from India and that ‘threat is from the extremists among us’,” said the first line of report. There was, however, no report about this function or Bajwa’s assessments in other major newspapers.

The News, Lahore edition, January 27, 2014

The News, Lahore edition, January 27, 2014

At that time, there was an on-going diplomatic ‘row’ between the two countries as cross-border passenger and cargo traffic had been stalled over the detention of Pakistani drivers by Indian police for drug-running. However, when Bajwa said this, the Pakistani establishment’s mind space was mainly occupied with the looming threat of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the impending military operations.

The front-page lead of The Nation on the same day on which it carried the report on Bajwa’s speech was about the military’s plans to flush out foreign militants in FATA.

More than two years later, Bajwa has now been chosen as Pakistan’s next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It is a critical position for the country, where the Pakistani military has an overwhelming role not just in security policy, but in shaping domestic policy and relations with neighbouring countries, especially India.

Indian officials were aware of the new Pak army chief’s 2014 statements, which mark him out in an India-centric establishment. But at the same time, officials do not put too much credence that he will immediately steer the Pakistan army from its policies that pivot around finding parity with India. “Ultimately the institution is bigger than the individual,” cautioned an Indian government official, after he mentioned Bajwa’s line on fighting extremism.

Indian sources note that Bajwa was apparently the last name in the outgoing Army chief Raheel Sharif’s shortlist of favourites to succeed him. He was also not part of Raheel Sharif’s close circle.

Thus, Nawaz Sharif’s decision to choose Bajwa, despite Raheel Sharif’s recommendation, is significant – especially in the context of a strained civil-military relationship recently which led to a civilian backlash as per a newspaper report, which in turn triggered a crisis leading to the resignation of the Information minister.

Bajwa’s experience in all the sensitive security areas – with supervisory roles in Kashmir and handling tough political situations like the 2014 Azadi March – may have got him Sharif’s green light. The General’s term as Force Commander, Gilgit-Baltistan was the period when the region was granted limited autonomy by the Asif Ali Zardari government, with the creation of a state Assembly and state Council. India has claims on Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the larger Kashmir region.

Even as he had to work with a newly elected civilian administration, Bajwa had to keep a lid on sectarian conflict, which kept erupting in the Shia-majority region.

In August 2010, there was an outbreak of violence over the killing of a ‘Hafiz-e-Quran’, which led to the torching of houses. The Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah transferred over 68 policemen, even as he admitted that police were involved in sectarian murders of civilians.

“The force commander Gilgit-Baltistan Major-Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has been regularly monitoring the situation and has taken strong exception to the complaints against police and the deteriorating law and order situation in the Gilgit, credible sources said adding that he has asked the authorities not to show any leniency towards perpetrators,” reported The News in its Aug 29, 2010 edition.

In 2010, Gilgit-Baltistan suffered several environmental disasters, beginning with a massive landslide on Hunza river which led to the closure of the Karakoram highway, the only road link between China and Pakistan. According to some experts, the landslide was caused by an earthquake which was apparently triggered due to blasting during upgradation works by Chinese firms.

With the civilian government being ill-equipped to deal with disaster management, the army had to take a lead in with keeping an eye on artificial Attabad lake.

Being the top regional military officer, Bajwa had to be the public face for the military to explain that debris on Hunza river could not have been blasted in January, as it would have led to more landslide. He announced that the close circuit cameras around the lake’s periphery were directly linked to the FCNA, Gilgit and Army headquarters, with no links to the civilian government.

As the lake swelled and threatened to spill over by its walls, Bajwa had to negotiate with the agitated people of Gojal valley who had given a deadline to widen the spillway. Worried about their settlements being flooded, the people had threatened to commit suicide by wearing shrouds and jumping into the lake, at a rate of five per day.

In the end, over 20,000 people had to be moved into temporary camps. “We need to ask why our civilian authorities remain so woefully under-equipped to deal with disasters, and why an already over-stretched military is the key decision-making and implementing authority in the context of a disaster,” wrote social anthropologist Nosheen Ali in Oct 2010 in the wake of the Hunza disaster.

Bajwa’s name again came in headlines when he was promoted as Commander of 10-Corps Rawalpindi by then Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kiyani in August 2013. The 10-corps oversees the entire Line of Control and therefore, is the gatekeeper to the flow of militants into Kashmir valley.

The News report on Aug 13, 2013 stated that his experience in Gilgit Baltistan was useful in his new role as he “knows the area, terrain and the enemy or his tactics very well”. His appointment “added value because of the increased tension on the LOC with Indians creating a situation and firing intermittently without any provocation,” the paper said, quoting “military sources”. The report was perhaps the first time that it was mentioned that Bajwa had worked under the then Indian army chief Bikram Singh during their UN peacekeeping deployment in Congo.

Even far from remote Gilgit-Baltistan, Bajwa had to continue to monitor the activities of extremist groups in the Punjabi heartland.

A Dawn report on Jan 20, 2014 notes that he gave an order for removal of sectarian graffiti from walls around Rawalpindi cantonment. Anti-Shia groups were apparently “flexing muscles” a month after clashes during Ashura.

His name was also mentioned again when the Pakistani government became alarmed that TTP could target Islamabad city, ahead of imminent military operations in North Waziristan. The Rawalpindi Corp Commander was asked in May 2014 to provide two companies of soldiers from his 111th infantry brigade to man checkpoints and protect the high security zone.

The proposal was immediately greeted to statements of concern from opposition parties, with 111th infantry brigade being notorious for its involvement in past military coups. The Pakistan People’s Party termed the move as a reflection of “breakdown of civil administration in the capital”.

In June, 111th Brigade soldiers moved into Islamabad. But, they didn’t only have to keep an eye out for terrorists, for too long. Within two months, they were main buffer between Nawaz Sharif government and the siege by thousands of protestors led by Imran Khan and Tahrirul Qadri. “Fearing any untoward incident taking place if the PTI or PAT enter the Red Zone, Lieutenant General Qamar Bajwa, Commander 10 Corps, contacted top officials of the Islamabad Police for coordination to ensure security of key government installations located on Constitution Avenue,” said the Dawn report of Aug 19.

The ‘Azadi March’ was officially called off in December 2014 after the terrorist attack on Peshawar army school, leaving behind a lingering legacy of Pakistan army’s renewed visibility in domestic politics and hampering the Sharif Government’s initiatives in key areas, especially in improving relations with India.

Over 2014-2015, Bajwa was largely mentioned in news reports which quoted ISPR handouts on visits to the Line of Control or participation in public events in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where he saluted ‘Kashmiri martyrs’.

His tenure as Rawalpindi Corps Commander from August 2013 to September 2015 encompassed two years which saw the heaviest bout of cross-border firing.

As per South Asian Terrorism Portal, 2015 saw the highest number of ceasefire violations along the Line of Control at 98, since the signing of the ceasefire agreement. The previous high was in 2013, which came close with 92 ceasefire violations. In between, 2014 was relatively peaceful with only 51 ceasefire violations.

In September 2015, Lieutenant General Bajwa became the Inspector General of Training and Evaluation, which saw him occasionally feature in news pages when Army chief Raheel Sharif visited passing-out parades.