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Pakistan’s new army chief Bajwa ‘knows a lot about what India thinks’

qamar-bawjawaFrom an Indian context, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s assumption of the post of Pakistan Army chief ominously coincided with a brazen attack on an Indian Army camp at Nagrota in Jammu and Kashmir that left seven soldiers dead.

There was even speculation the assault was a parting shot from the outgoing army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, who had warned that his country’s restraint and patience on Kashmir should not be mistaken for weakness.

The developments in Nagrota and Chamliyal, where three infiltrators were killed, were in marked contrast to Bajwa’s remark at the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi that the situation on the Line of Control (LoC) “will be alright” soon.

The throwaway comment suggested Bajwa, who has served on the LoC and once commanded the Rawalpindi-based X Corps that is responsible for operations along the ceasefire line, could adopt an approach different from that of Sharif.

According to former colleagues, Bajwa’s keen interest in India goes back to his days as a young major serving on the LoC in 1992. That was when, they say, he began reading about India and discussing developments in the neighbouring country and the region with other officers.

And the buzz in Islamabad is that Bajwa was a beneficiary of a debate on whether the new army chief should be a general who focussed on the counter-terrorism drive started by Sharif, or someone who balanced the campaign against militants with a renewed focus on India. Given his extensive expertise in Kashmir affairs, Bajwa was a natural fit when the Pakistani leadership chose the second option.

Brig (retired) Feroz Hassan Khan, who was Bajwa’s commanding officer on the LoC, says the man in what is usually seen as the most powerful position in Pakistan does not have a “visceral hatred” of India.

“There is an assumption that every Pakistani military officer who rises has some sort of a visceral hatred towards India, as if it’s a default. This is not the case with (Bajwa) and I can tell you he has studied India so much,” Khan told Hindustan Times on phone from Monterey, California, where he teaches at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

Bajwa, with whom Khan has stayed in touch over the years, “understands India (and) reads a lot of what India writes and knows a lot about what India thinks”. He added, “There’s hardly any senior officer of his level who reads a lot of what is published in India and he studies, he reflects and he remembers.”

Bajwa also believes in striking a civil-military balance and giving space to the elected government, Khan said. “The complexity of the issues…demand that neither the army can do it alone and nor the civilians can do it alone, so you have to balance the civil-military relations,” he said. “I think (Bajwa) is one person who realises the heavy responsibility that comes on his shoulders.”

Khan, however, noted Bajwa had taken over at a difficult time. Tensions between India and Pakistan have spiked because of a string of terror attacks on the Pathankot airbase and army camps at Uri and Nagrota. Fierce exchanges of fire on the LoC have put severe strain on the 13-year-old ceasefire along the frontiers in Kashmir.

“If he inherits something with so much tension on the border, he is first and foremost chief of the Pakistan Army. He has to do his duty,” Khan said.

Despite its recent focus on targeting “bad militants” such as the Taliban, the Pakistan Army largely remains – as former army chief Ashfaq Kayani once put it – an “India-centric” force. The military also retains a tight grip on key aspects of foreign and security policies, especially relations with countries such as the US and India.

Pakistan’s recent weapons purchases – including F-16 jets from the US and frigates and submarines from China – and a rejig of defence ties with Russia have all been done with an eye to countering India’s conventional military strength.

Lt Gen (retired) Kamal Davar, the first chief of India’s Defence Intelligence Agency, is among the skeptics who believes that a change of guard will not necessarily lead to a change of heart in the Pakistan Army.

“An army’s stance emerges from national strategies and national interests. And the chief of any army is responsible for implementing those policies. Strategies don’t change because of a change of personality,” Davar told Hindustan Times.

“I think Pakistan’s current operational strategies aren’t going to change at all. Besides, there’s a difference between tactical and strategic matters, and an army chief wouldn’t be directly involved in tactical stuff,” he added, referring to the attack in Nagrota.

The jury, therefore, is still out on whether Bajwa’s three years in office will lead to a meaningful change in India-Pakistan relations or whether the general will be content to stick to the tried and tested path as far as his force is concerned. – HT


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