The controversial legacy of Pakistan’s outgoing army chief Bajwa

After six years as the head of the country’s most powerful institution, General Qamar Javed Bajwa will exit next week.

Pakistan army chief BAJWA
Pakistan's outgoing army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa [File: Inter Services Public Relations via AP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – General Qamar Javed Bajwa retires as Pakistan’s army chief during a period of economic instability and political upheaval, with many viewing his tenure as one rife with political meddling and which created deep schisms in the nuclear-armed armed forces.

The 62-year-old official was in charge of arguably the country’s most powerful post for six years and steps down on November 29.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed Lieutenant General Asim Munir, a former spy chief, as Bajwa’s successor, ending weeks of speculation over his replacement.

The army’s dominance in foreign policy saw Bajwa trying to manage his country’s relationships with rivals China and the United States, as also Afghanistan and India while tackling separatists at home.

Bajwa took charge of the 600,000-strong army for three years in November 2016. He was granted an extension in August 2019 by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan. But the two fell out in 2021 after disagreeing over a key military appointment.

[Alia Chughtai / Al Jazeera]

Pakistan’s most influential figure?

In 2016, Bajwa took over from General Raheel Sharif in a transition that was relatively uneventful considering the outsized role that the military has played in Pakistan’s politics since its independence in 1947, staging three coups.

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than 30 years and continues to dominate and influence domestic politics, foreign affairs and even economic issues.

The role of the army chief is also one of global importance, given the volatility not just in Pakistan, but its immediate neighbours and Bajwa will also be remembered for his part in shaping foreign policy.

He was credited by Khan’s government for reopening the border crossing between India and Pakistan in 2019 to allow the movement of Sikh pilgrims.

He frequently called for better ties with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed neighbour India, insisting that it was time to “bury the past”, and recognised that the economic potential of South and Central Asia had “forever remained hostage” to India-Pakistan disputes.

In February 2021, both sides unexpectedly agreed to reaffirm a ceasefire agreement along their disputed border in the Himalayan region o of Kashmir, over which they have fought two of three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.

On visits to China, Bajwa assured officials there that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $60bn infrastructure project, would remain safe from internal strife. The project is a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and has been attacked by fighters in the restive province of Balochistan.

He was dispatched to Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s key trade partners when a diplomatic spat over Kashmir in 2020 threatened to derail ties.

While Khan’s government did not enjoy particularly warm relations with the United States, Bajwa maintained regular contact and made multiple visits, the last of which was in October.

Behind the scenes, he was instrumental in helping Pakistan secure an International Monetary Fund loan this year, as well as take it off the Financial Action Task Force watchlist of countries that do not meet the intergovernmental agency’s criteria to restrict the funding of “terrorist” groups.

Bajwa versus Khan

Bajwa will be remembered for his involvement in Khan’s rise, with the military accused of engineering the success of the populist leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, helping him win general elections in July 2018 and creating a so-called “hybrid-regime”.

The last refers to a hybrid civilian-military administration, with a democratically installed leader propped up by the army.

In his farewell speech on Wednesday, Bajwa acknowledged that the military has meddled in political matters for which it has been severely criticised.

“In my opinion, the reason for this is the constant meddling by the army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional,” he said. “That is why, since February last year, the military has decided they will not interfere in any political matter.”

Khan and his supporters subsequently blamed the military establishment for changing course and conspiring to remove him from office through a US-led foreign conspiracy that also involved his political rivals.

Khan, who was removed as prime minister in April following a vote of no-confidence in parliament, has never provided any evidence to back his allegations.

“It will take a very long time for [the] Pakistani army to meaningfully retreat to the confines of its constitutional role,” said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy think-tank in Washington, DC.

“What can be realistically expected is for the army to perhaps remain equidistant from all political factions and that too in order to preserve its role as the country’s ultimate political arbiter,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The reality is that in Pakistan, institutions, political parties and civil society – they have all made mistakes,” Bajwa said. “It is time we learn from them and move forward.”

Legacy of ‘internal rifts’

For many observers, Bajwa’s abiding legacy will be the “internal rifts” within the army, which has been viewed as the most disciplined institution in the country.

“General Bajwa miscalculated and underestimated the cracks within his own establishment. He acted too late and also perhaps does not seem to have the stomach to ‘quash’ the rebellion within,” said Maria Rashid, the author of a book on Pakistan’s military, Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army.

“For the first time perhaps, the cracks within the military, even though they existed before, are being filtered through the concerns of a mainstream political party, the PTI,” Rashid told Al Jazeera.

“This splinter within a normally opaque institution has become a chasm against which people can align themselves as against or for, is Bajwa’s legacy.”

Bokhari said Bajwa will leave behind a “significantly divided” military, many of whom still root for Khan.

“Bajwa’s successor(s) will have to deal with the fallout for many years to come. The pro-Khan sentiment within the military runs very deep within the military’s eco-system,” he said.

Dissent against the military is usually silenced. But Khan’s criticism of its role in politics has encouraged people to be more vocal in publicly questioning the army at “an unprecedented level”, he added.

Former parliamentarian Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a vocal critic of the military, hoped the incoming chief would do away with political meddling.

“Their transgression into [the] civilian domain and politics has made the army controversial in the eyes of the public at large. One can only hope that the new chief would do away with the idiotic idea of hybrid regime based on which military justified its role in politics and governance,” he told Al Jazeera.

Pakistan in 2023

As the clock ticks down on Bajwa’s tenure, questions remain on whether the new chief can bring stability to the country before elections scheduled for next year.

Khan, the country’s most popular leader, has promised to arrive in Rawalpindi, where the military has its headquarters, this week.

On November 3, Khan was shot and wounded in the eastern province of Punjab, while leading a protest march on the capital to demand early elections. The current National Assembly’s term ends in October 2023.

Rashid said that “even as the institution may acknowledge that military rule is not the way forward, and it also knows that the hybrid experiment has failed miserably, it will continue to be a player behind the scenes.”

And how will Bajwa be remembered? Journalist and political analyst Benazir Shah said the army chief’s legacy is tied to that of Khan’s.

“The general’s six-year term would be remembered as one during which an elected prime minister was disqualified on spurious grounds, the media was stifled, a new wave of terrorism began in the country, serious allegations were levelled against military officers but none were held to account, and more importantly, under his watch, a populist was brought to power.”

In his speech this week, Bajwa laid out the times the military, under him, meddled in the political, foreign and economic affairs of the country, which in his own words was a violation of the constitution,” Shah said, adding that “he also hinted that the military played a role in the outcome of the 2018 general election and only recently decided to stop meddling in elections.”

Source: Al Jazeera