By Sarral Sharma*
On 26 November 2016, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed the appointment of Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new Chief of the Army Ataff (COAS). Lt Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat takes the charge as the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee (CJCSC). Gen Bajwa assumes office on 29 November 2016 as the current COAS, Gen Raheel Sharif, completes his three-year tenure.
The successful transition of power will boost the confidence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government which has seen many ups and downs in its relations with the military in the last three years. The new army chief will take at least two to three months to settle in, to make new appointments and to build his new team. During that period, Sharif will have the window of opportunity to assert a bit more on crucial issues such as improving relations with India. However, it is expected that this time around, Sharif will be cautiously treading the path of restarting any dialogue process with India. This is because even one wrong decision would eventually give leeway to the new army chief to dominate both domestic and international policies.
Sharif is likely to have an upper hand in the coming months as far as the relations with India are concerned. He is expected to move towards resuming the dialogue process with India. It appears that he has already made the first move in that direction. Pakistan’s Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaz Aziz has confirmed Islamabad’s participation at the upcoming Heart of Asia (HoA) conference, scheduled to be held in Amritsar, India, from 3-4 December 2016. Although the focus of the conference is the situation in Afghanistan, it is possible that Aziz (if he represents Pakistan at the conference) will meet his Indian counterpart on the sidelines of the summit. If the meeting happens, it will be a deja vu moment for both countries. In 2015, India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj met her Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the HoA conference in Islamabad, which paved the way for Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore. However, the leadership change in the Pakistan Army will likely to have some impact on the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan.
The army chief’s succession may not immediately bring about a major policy change in Pakistan but it could still have important implications on India and Pakistan relations. The change may also hamper Sharif’s efforts to normalise relations with India like it has done in the past. Institutionally, it is Rawalpindi that is in the driver’s seat vis-a-vis prioritising the strategic outlook in Pakistan. The three main strategic considerations of the army are internal security apparatus, the situation in Afghanistan, and the Kashmir-centric India policy. The army’s strategic outlook changes according to the domestic, regional and geo-political situation.
Gen Raheel Sharif prioritised the internal security situation in Pakistan over the situation in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He initiated Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in 2014, which is still ongoing, to target the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) operatives; and the Karachi operation against local criminal syndicates, etc. to improve the overall security environment in Pakistan. During his tenure, the India-Pakistan bilateral has witnessed numerous highs and lows, beginning from Sharif’s visit to India and Modi’s visit to Lahore, the Pathankot and Uri attacks, and finally, the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC).
The new COAS will take some time to draw the roadmap for next three years. His strategic priorities are expected to include the clampdown on home-grown groups – such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar – affiliated to the Islamic State (IS); continuing military operations against Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) in the Federally Administered Tribal Agency region; monitoring the separatist activities in Balochistan and Sindh provinces; helping the Sharif government in its efforts to mainstream FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa before the 2018 elections; resumption of peace talks with the Taliban along with countries including China and Russia.
Presently, India and Pakistan are fighting a limited tactical battle along the LoC and the International Border (IB) with regular incidents of cross-border firing. In such a scenario, Gen Bajwa’s foremost priority would be to either continue the present status quo along the border or consider a possible shift in the Pakistan Army’s Kashmir policy. Having spent a considerable part of his military service in the Rawalpindi-based 10 Corps that is responsible for guarding the LoC, it is expected that Gen Bajwa would try to use his organisational experience to influence the Sharif government’s Kashmir-centric India policy.
It is a wait-and-watch situation for India. The future of any dialogue process between India and Pakistan is heavily dependent on the civil-military relations in Pakistan. With the considerably weak Opposition and the change in military leadership, Sharif has a plausible chance to consolidate his influence in the domestic arena. In order to do that, Sharif will direct his ministers and diplomatic advisors to continue to internationalise the Kashmir issue. It is also possible that Pakistan will raise the Kashmir issue at the upcoming HoA conference in India. That will satisfy the domestic audience, whom Sharif is targeting for the 2018 general elections, and will also send across a strong message to the new military leadership in a bid to bolster civil-military relations.
Also, it is important to understand that the Pakistani military’s institutional thinking is unlikely to change in the near future. Gen Bajwa might consider targeting terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), or the Haqqani Network under international pressure. But Pakistan is likely to continue its current orientation of supporting certain non-state actors and concurrently, playing the nuclear card as a deterrence policy against India.
* Sarral Sharma
Researcher, IReS, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]