The controversial legacy of Pakistan’s outgoing army chief Bajwa

Islamabad, Pakistan – General Qamar Javed Bajwa is retiring as Pakistan’s army chief during a period of economic instability and political turmoil, with many seeing his tenure fraught with political meddling and creating deep divisions in the nuclear-armed armed forces.

The 62-year-old official held arguably the most powerful job in the country for six years and resigned on November 29.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif named Lt. Gen. Asim Munir, a former spy chief, as Bajwa’s successor, ending weeks of speculation about his replacement.

The military’s dominance of foreign policy saw Bajwa trying to manage his country’s relations with rivals China and the United States, as well as Afghanistan and India, while taking on separatists at home.

Bajwa took charge of the 600,000-strong army for three years in November 2016. He was granted an extension by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan in August 2019. 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 replaced General Raheel Sharif in a transition that was uneventful considering the outsized role the army has played in Pakistani politics since its independence in 1947, staging three coups.

The army has ruled Pakistan for over 30 years and continues to dominate and influence internal politics, foreign affairs and even economic affairs.

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

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

'Big moment': Indian Sikhs on historic pilgrimage to Pakistan

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

In February 2021, the two sides unexpectedly agreed to reaffirm a ceasefire agreement along their disputed border in the Himalayan region 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 $60 billion infrastructure project, would remain safe from internal conflicts. The project is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and has come under attack by fighters in the troubled province of Balochistan.

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

Although the Khan 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 September.

Behind the scenes, he was instrumental in helping Pakistan secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund this year, as well as getting it off the Financial Action Task Force’s watch list of countries that don’t meet the intergovernmental agency’s criteria. to restrict the funding of “terrorist” groups. .

Bajwa vs. Khan

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

The latter refers to a hybrid civil-military administration, with a democratically installed leader supported by the army.

In his farewell speech on Wednesday, Bajwa acknowledged that the army has meddled in political affairs for which he has been heavily criticized.

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

Khan and his followers 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 ousted as prime minister in April following a vote of no confidence in parliament, has never provided any evidence to back up his allegations.

“It will take a long time to [the] Pakistani army is significantly withdrawn 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 realistically be expected is that the army will perhaps remain equidistant from all political factions and that too to preserve its role as the country’s final political arbiter,” he told Al Jazeera.

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

Legacy of ‘internal cracks’

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

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

“Perhaps for the first time, cracks within the military, even though they existed before, are seeping through the concerns of a dominant political party, the PTI,” Rashid told Al Jazeera.

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

Bokhari said Bajwa will leave behind a “significantly divided” army, many of whom still support Khan.

“Bajwa’s successors will have to deal with the consequences for many years to come. Pro-Khan sentiment within the military is deeply embedded in the military ecosystem,” he said.

Dissent against the military is often silenced. But Khan’s criticism of his role in politics has encouraged people to publicly question the military on “an unprecedented level,” he added.

Former parliamentarian Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a vocal critic of the armed forces, hoped the incoming chief would end political meddling.

“His transgression in [the] civilian and political dominance has made the military controversial in the eyes of the general public. One can only hope that the new boss will do away with the idiotic idea of ​​a hybrid regime based on which the military justified its role in politics and government,” he told Al Jazeera.

pakistan in 2023

As Bajwa’s term in office progresses, doubts remain as to 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 this week in Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered.

On November 3, Khan was shot in the eastern Punjab province while leading a protest march in the capital demanding early elections. The term of the current National Assembly ends in October 2023.

Rashid said that “even though the institution recognizes that military rule is not the way to go, and also knows that the hybrid experiment failed miserably, it will continue to be a behind-the-scenes player.”

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

“The general’s six-year tenure would be remembered as one during which an elected prime minister was disqualified for spurious reasons, the media was stifled, a new wave of terrorism began in the country, serious charges were leveled against military officers, but none stopped. to be held accountable and, more importantly, under his watch, a populist came to power.”

In his speech this week, Bajwa exposed the times that the military, under his command, meddled in the country’s political, economic and foreign affairs, which in his own words was a violation of the constitution,” Shah said, and added 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 the election.”