Enter the chief

Pakistan's new COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa is known for staying connected with his troops

Enter the chief
The long-awaited and much-talked about succession in the Army finally took place this week as Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa assumed command of the half-a-million strong army, considered to be the sixth largest in the world. Gen Bajwa may have been little known to the Pakistani public so far, but that is likely to change now that he is arguably the most influential person in the country.

He was picked from among four equally senior generals, from whom Lt-Gen Ishfaq Nadeem was a strong contender for the position. It could also have been that his well known views about the military focussing on its core job reportedly made the prime minister feel more comfortable, especially if he desires smooth sailing over the rest of his tenure.

In the run-up to the prime minister’s decision and subsequent announcement there was the usual speculation over which name would surface and in the excruciating wait, at one point, a controversy was even raked up to muddy the waters. But Gen Bajwa’s selection did not lead to any major heartburn in the ranks. In fact, as he took over, virtually every other person in the army said they could relate to the new boss. “Literally everyone in the army thinks his man has become the chief,” said one officer when asked about the impression within the army. “He has personally touched and invested in so many people that everyone relates to him.”

Media testimonials have also been positive. He has been described as a moderate on civil-military relations, committed to fighting terrorism and extremism, a lesser hawk on India and an officer with deep bonds with his men. Indeed, the portrait of the new chief being presented to the public is one of a perfect and humane person. These perceptions were reinforced for the nation watching television when it saw how the General embraced and then shook hands with a staff officer after he alighted from his vehicle at PM House. This was completely unlike other generals.

According to different accounts, the new chief has been described as an army officer who grumbled over his men being asked to perform roles that were for the civilians. “We are made for the barracks and battlefields,” someone, who had met him as a colonel, fondly recalls as telling him. This probably made him an ideal choice for the office from the perspective of fraught civil-military ties.

One key feature of Gen Bajwa’s military service, which started with his commissioning in the 16 Baloch Regiment on October 24, 1980, is his extensive association with the Rawalpindi-based X Corps. He started as a colonel in the corps, served as a brigadier there, commanded one of its divisions in the Northern Areas, and eventually became its commander before being posted as Inspector General Training and Evaluation at GHQ.

His service at X Corps gave him firsthand experience of the situation in Kashmir, conventional threats and the responses. It was a coincidence that he took over the command at a time when tensions on the Line of Control (LoC) were running dangerously high. It is small wonder then that in his first comments to the media soon after taking over from his predecessor, he assured that the situation on LoC would improve soon.

One crucial element of Gen Bajwa’s time at the X Corps that everyone seems to have been missing is his work with Gen Ashfaq Kayani, who was then Commander X Corps. This part of his service was probably the defining period of his career. At that time he assisted Gen Kayani with the investigation into the Rawalpindi suicide attack on Gen Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi. The investigation was seen as a factor in Gen Kayani’s rise in the Army.

Gen Kayani also nominated Gen Bajwa for a course to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. (He has also attended the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College in Toronto, Canada.) Gen Kayani is, therefore, considered Gen Bajwa’s mentor and both share the quality of preferring to remain low profile. Interestingly, another one of Gen Kayani’s protégés, Gen Zubair Hayat, has been elevated to the position of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen Bajwa’s other often-mentioned strength is that he stays connected with his troops and has always been accessible for his men. “As Commander X Corps he never stayed desk-bound and was always on the frontlines with his men,” said an officer, who previously worked with him. Indeed, according to a military source, the first thing on Gen Bajwa’s mind as he became the army chief was a visit to the tribal agencies where troops have been battling an extremist insurgency.

The fight against terrorism is one area that will be requiring Gen Bajwa’s immediate attention. He would be required to review the situation and work on consolidating the gains made so far. There are also hopes that he will take the fight further. In its unusual facilitation message to a new army chief, the US Embassy specifically hoped to work with him to “advance our shared counterinsurgency and counterterrorism goals for Pakistan and the region, and to enable Pakistani authorities to honour their pledge to prevent the use of Pakistan’s soil for terrorist attacks against its neighbours”.

Gen Bajwa has served a tenure with the United Nations Directorate of Peacekeeping Operations, where he commanded a brigade in Eastern Congo in 2007 and 2008. It was in the Congo that he worked under Gen Bikram Singh, who later became India’s army chief. “I found him to be upright and professional and committed to UN ideals,” Gen Singh said in media interviews after Gen Bajwa’s appointment was announced.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com and @bokhari_mr