General Asim Munir’s job as Pakistan’s new Army chief will also entail fighting General Qamar Jawed Bajwa’s ghost. No..no. Bajwa hasn’t died, but the powerful General’s political career has finally reached its expiration date. So, before we even breathe a small sigh of relief, it is important to take a view of what he has left his organisation and country with.
Indubitably, everything else that Bajwa has done will be washed over by the infamy he brought to the military. Not even former Pakistan President General Yahya Khan, who lost the war to India in 1971, was cursed this much. The former Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, became unpopular because of getting an extension of service from a civilian government in 2010, and for stories of his brothers’ corruption, who allegedly made money during his tenure. During my own stint in the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), I saw files that implicated the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) under Kayani for corrupt practices, which ultimately resulted in a retired quartermaster General—under whom the land was procured—claiming his own life.
Bajwa’s many controversies
Bajwa’s reputation seems to be even more questionable compared to his predecessors. While reporter Ahmed Noorani exposed Bajwa and his family’s declared legal assets—which run into billions of Pakistani rupees—details of his undeclared wealth are not known. Senior Generals in Pakistan are not known for accountability, but this one was exceptional in extorting State resources for personal and familial gains. From getting his sister-in law Asma Bajwa the position of a highly paid human resource consultant for the national airline to helping his 70-year-old brother retain a cushy Pakistan International Airline (PIA) job in the UK, there is so much that Bajwa must answer for.
Bajwa, in fact, will be remembered for making the military top brass’ lack of accountability far more visible and talked about than before. Surely, supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan will be at the forefront, but Bajwa sceptics also include military men. Unlike ninth Army chief General Raheel Sharif, who had the reputation of punishing Army officers on corruption charges, this one will be remembered for being an egoist who did not forgive and forget. Despite that, this is what he implored the political class and civil society to do in his farewell speech. His message was for civil society and political party players to move on from remembering what Army did wrong.
However, he himself was most unforgiving. In 2021, for example, a Major General’s son was convicted of writing a letter to Bajwa criticising his extension. He was equally unkind and vicious toward a senior retired Lt. General Asad Durrani, who was banned for some time from travelling abroad for ‘being in contact with anti-State elements’. Though a frivolous charge against the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), it indicated the extent to which Bajwa could go.
His treatment of non-military persons was even worse, made evident by his choice for the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media and PR wing of Pakistan Army. Bajwa picked Lt. General Asif Ghafoor, who was known for his crudeness and mishandling of many in the media. Ghafoor completed his tenure before being promoted. Lt General Hamid Hussain, a prominent military historian, emphasised that this was not the right step to take.
The DG ISPR was probably rewarded for doing his boss’s bidding, who will be remembered even more by civilians from smaller provinces for the callousness exhibited in treating them. Parliamentarian and leader of the Pushtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) Ali Wazir, is incarcerated since December 2020— despite getting bail from various courts—because Bajwa wouldn’t allow it.
The disappearance of Baloch people and the anxiety among youth from the province multiplied during his tenure because of how they were treated by the security establishment.
The two Bajwas
More than just ego, Bajwa was caught in the trap of his own imagination—one where he thought he could push Pakistan forward in geopolitics. There, we come across two Bajwas. The one during his first tenure, who sent a signal to the world—including the powerful United States—to recognise Pakistan’s service and stop asking for more. While it is popular to accuse Imran of annoying the Americans, what the cricketer-turned-politician uttered was basically the famous ‘Bajwa doctrine’ presented crudely.
A new centre of gravity for the Islamic bloc was also sought, turning it away from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur. The effort to repair relations with Moscow was also a slowly prepared brew that was spoilt because of the Russia-Ukraine war and Imran’s Moscow trip earlier this year.
The general had reason to be confident as violence related to terrorism was brought down. It was during his second tenure, especially the last year of his 2nd term, that cases of terrorism started to go up. Baqir Sajjad of Dawn says that it was the experience of handling terror, crime and corruption that may have made the upper echelons more anxious about continued political corruption. I would argue that this is how Bajwa convinced his men to support his extension.
The second Bajwa emerged after an extension in 2020, one who was confronted with the reality of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and the overall monetary needs of the country. These developments made it imperative for him to make amends with Washington DC. This is when the services of British diplomats and the Pakistani diaspora were used to improve ties between the two nations. This also meant urgently balancing relations between Beijing and Washington – recalibrating the policy away from an impression that Pakistan was too tilted toward China.
This meant extensive slowing down of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), thus creating an impression for the West that CPEC was dead but keeping it gently alive. Bajwa continued his visits and communication with Beijing for this purpose. In September, he made his last trip to China before visiting Washington on his farewell trip in October.
This was a tough relationship to maintain, but Bajwa created a shift of emphasis from geostrategy to geoeconomics to escape the harsh reality of rising China-US tensions and to ensure the country’s survival. He did bring a gently drifting Pakistan back to the Western security constellation. But this move also meant a Pakistan that’d wait for Chinese power to gain momentum. In the process, institutional changes like the National Security Policy were announced, which got criticised by many due to the environment it was presented in. Furthermore, Bajwa oversaw the recreation of the national security community, ensuring the eviction of strategic sceptics and bringing on board a tamed lot.
Controversies overshadow achievements
Regionally, he ensured that borders remained calm with both India and Iran. He moved slowly by ensuring peace at the Line-of-Control (LOC) for which tools like back-channel diplomacy were used. He also kept the Army away from getting embroiled in the China-India conflict in Ladakh.
According to a visiting European scholar, it was as late as August-September this year when the General was looking for sources in India interested in dialogue. He certainly did not have extra fire in his belly to shake up organisational strategic traditions and propose a formula for peace like former President General Pervez Musharraf did in 2007, but he did manage to keep sufficient peace and wait for responses from Delhi on pressing issues like the restoration of statehood in Kashmir.
Most of these achievements will get brushed aside due to the political environment he created. Notwithstanding his claims that the Army will desist from politics, the fact is that his key message to the military fraternity on Martyr’s Day was to re-emphasise the Army’s superiority, which in itself is a political position.
However, while Bajwa has put the Army in harm’s way due to the controversy around him, this could also allow incoming political leaders to think institutionally and create mechanisms to harness the Armed forces. Will this happen? The answer, sadly, is most likely no, because the men leading Pakistan’s political class do not believe in institutions either.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)