Newly-labelled doctrines and well-worded off-the-record statements are unlikely to persuade sceptics that it is on the verge of a fundamental transformation.
Every few years, the Pakistani media initiates a discussion about how the nation’s military is becoming more committed to moving away from Jihadi terrorism, building democracy at home, and achieving peace with the neighbours.
Some sections of the international press pick up the theme while western diplomats and American generals voice hope that Pakistan’s current military chief will pave the way for incremental progress, even if his predecessors failed to do the same.
It is necessary, therefore, to compare what is being described in the Pakistani media these days as the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’ — a description of the army’s ‘altered’ worldview based on an ostensibly off-the-record briefing of select journalists by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa — with similar descriptions of the country’s change of direction under different military leaders.
Most of the discussion at General Bajwa’s briefing was on political matters, which explains why it was formally labelled ‘off-the-record’. But because its purpose was to let the Pakistan army’s views be known to the world, including to the country’s politicians, it has been reported widely.
In fact, there was not even a proforma protest by General Bajwa’s team over the fact that an off-the-record conversation should not be reported with full attribution.
In any other country, the army commander would not publicly voice his institution’s displeasure with the Constitution or on the elected government’s handling of the economy. In 2010, US General Stanley McChrystal had to step down because his staff had made critical remarks about President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy.
But then, this is Pakistan. Here, army commanders are not fired or asked to resign by elected civilian leaders. Instead, Pakistan’s army commanders have a tradition of sending prime ministers packing.
In 1999, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to exercise his constitutional authority to appoint a new Chief of Army Staff, he found himself out of job and in prison. The general he tried to fire, Pervez Musharraf, ended up ruling the country for the next nine years.
To be fair to General Bajwa, his distaste for a military coup might be the reason he chose to convey the army’s displeasure about political developments through a press briefing.
If the media, the Supreme Court judges, and the politicians know what the army wants, they might just make it all happen without General Bajwa, the honourable soldier, having to soil his hands with direct involvement in politics.
And there might be the additional benefit of persuading a senior American military figure, in this case CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel, to bear with the Pakistani commander while he tries to steady the ship of state and do the right things, especially in Afghanistan.
After all, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (army chief 2007-2013), managed to sell the ‘change around the corner’ concept to Admiral Michael Mullen for a few years until, after 26 in-person meetings, Mullen concluded that he had been wasting his time.
General Bajwa cannot avoid politics even if he wishes to, because he presides over an officers’ corps that spends more time thinking about politics than about purely professional matters.
Dr Aqil Shah proves that methodically in his empirical study ‘The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan’ (2014, Harvard University Press.)
Notwithstanding his personal distaste for getting directly embroiled in politics, every Pakistani commander must give voice to his institution’s views and beliefs, most of which have remained static and unaltered since the ascendance in 1951 of General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan as the first indigenous Muslim commander of the army left for Pakistan by the British.
The training and education of Pakistan’s military officers tends to cast their minds in a similar mould, with very little variation, and their worldview remains mostly unaltered by changing realities around them.
Georgetown University professor Christine Fair makes that point in her analysis of Pakistan army officers’ writings, which was published as the book ‘Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War’ (2014, Oxford University Press.)
Thus, General Bajwa’s recently expressed views are somewhat rehashed versions of views expressed by Ayub Khan and almost all others who have commanded the Pakistan army in between. There are variations of language and of emphasis, but the essential content on domestic politics, regional affairs, and the army’s institutional primacy is similar.
Some Pakistani generals, like Zia-ul-Haq, used more Islamic idiom; others such as Ayub and Musharraf chose more Western-oriented themes. But some things remain unchanged. Pakistan’s generals do not like Pakistan’s politicians, they do not like regional autonomy and prefer a highly centralised state, and their basic opinion on foreign policy generally coincides.
Thus, Bajwa criticised the Eighteenth Amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution, passed by two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament in 2010, because it “has changed Pakistan from a federation to confederation”. The army remains opposed to provincial or ethnic autonomy, as it has consistently done before and after it went to war against Bengalis seeking self-rule in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Gen. Bajwa reportedly described the Eighteenth Amendment and its redistribution of power between Pakistan’s central and provincial governments as “more dangerous” than the six-point programme of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
On Afghanistan, General Bajwa spoke of ‘peaceful coexistence with neighbouring countries’ and not having expansionist designs in Afghanistan, just like the ‘Kayani Doctrine’ circa 2009-2010. The doctrine’s only priority, we are told, is Pakistan and it “believes in totally wiping out terrorism from Pakistan. It is making sure that no safe havens [will] be spared for the terrorists”.
“General Bajwa and his team have a clear vision of peaceful and prosperous Pakistan and they want to make Pakistan totally violence free,” said one gushing account of the army chief’s press conference-that-was-not-a-press conference. “They want the militant groups to be de-weaponised and brought to the mainstream like Ireland and other strife-stricken countries where warring groups were dealt in an ideal way.”
But no one should expect a complete end to support for Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani Network or the elimination of India-oriented Jihadis like Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba, because Pakistan’s army under General Bajwa is unlikely to eliminate something it continues to refuse to acknowledge.
Within a few days of General Bajwa’s laying out his ‘doctrine’, the head of the military’s public relations wing declared that all Jihadi groups had already lost their safe havens in Pakistan — a ‘mission accomplished’ statement that renders having to do anything further unnecessary.
The only area where General Bajwa broke some new ground was on the question of relations with India, invoking the analogy of US-Canada relations and recognising China’s advice that Pakistan should seek means other than war to resolve the Kashmir issue.
But his assertion that there can be no war between two neighbouring nuclear countries came with the caveat that Pakistan must wait through the ‘stubbornness’ of the ‘extremist Modi regime’.
From Ayub to Musharraf to Kayani and now Bajwa, the most consistent theme in the thinking of Pakistan’s generals remains the belief that contending ideas about Pakistan’s direction remain a threat to Pakistan’s survival and stability, and that the army is better suited than civilian institutions to define Pakistan’s national interest.
Unless that rejection of pluralism and the entrenched notion of institutional supremacy is abandoned, the burden of history will continue to suggest continuity rather than change in the thinking of Pakistan’s military.
Newly-labelled doctrines and well-worded statements, nominally off-the-record to create the illusion of candour, are unlikely to persuade sceptics that the Pakistan army, and because of it the country, is on the verge of a fundamental transformation.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His forthcoming book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’