General Qamar Javed Bajwa
Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa | File photo: Flickr
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Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa was recently in London to meet his counterpart and many other bigwigs of the security establishment of the UK ostensibly to discuss issues of strategic cooperation. However, the visit – his second in nine months – was more than the usual tête-à-tête.

If anything, there were four objectives of the tour: find a via-media to improve relations with the US that would relieve the immediate financial pressure on Pakistan; reduce pressure of poor India-Pakistan relations from the latter; recruit the British government to play the role of a strategic intermediary, and use London as platform to convince the international community that the general could do the job of turning Pakistan around, especially as far as delivering Taliban to the American negotiation table and cleaning the country of jihadis, and peace with India was concerned.

After all, even after Kargil, Pervez Musharraf understood that a comprehensive dialogue could be had then, why can’t Bajwa do the same? The difference is that Musharraf had the longevity of tenure on his side, Bajwa doesn’t. London is abuzz with rumours of a year’s extension, which may not be enough to turn things around. A new chief would come with his own ideas.

Also read: Imran Khan backers fear return to Musharraf era in Pakistan: We were sold a fake dream

While private conversations were held with the British national security adviser and Prime Minister Theresa May’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the army chief also addressed a larger audience of over a hundred people in an off-the-record meeting at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

General Bajwa had good news for his audience – the army was committed to putting an end to all militants, a target that would be better achieved once the newly elected (popularly known as “selected”) Imran Khan government settled down in its job. The general also expressed his intention to talk peace with India for which, he claimed he was not in a hurry but was willing to let the Modi government come around to the idea of peace at its own pace. The interesting part of the entire show was that he had the British believe that he means business just like Pervez Musharraf did. It could be that faced with the grim prospects of Brexit, the British bureaucracy feels it has a chance to create a legacy of brokering peace between India and Pakistan.

The emerging understanding in London is that financial pressures may have awoken the army leadership to the need to change its attitude. Something has certainly happened in speeding up the Afghan peace process; Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad, Pakistan government facilitating a round of talks between Kabul and Taliban at the hill resort in Murree, and increased possibility of an Imran Khan-Donald Trump meeting in July this year.

So, will Bajwa apply his new perspective on India as well? Post-London, Pakistan’s army chief spoke at his military university about the need for regional connectivity.

There are two issues here – timing and intent.

Also read: New ISI chief Faiz Hameed a manipulator picked by army chief Bajwa to be his master’s voice

The possibility of a shift in attitude depends on how consistent and hard the pressure from outside is. Bringing about a fundamental shift in thinking towards New Delhi at a time when India is changing itself to become more ideological means Pakistan will need greater clarity about its future goals and how it wants to build itself regionally. It will also require consensus amongst domestic stakeholders. What we have learnt from the Musharraf episode in the past is that while Delhi couldn’t reach out to the Pakistani general on time, there was also a lack of consensus in Pakistan regarding the outcome. It was after Musharraf left that his generals started to speak about how they did not see eye-to-eye with his Kashmir formula.

Selling the idea of peace-with-India inside the military’s corridors is not easy – back then or now. For one, it is a new India where minority relations will continue to raise concerns. Moreover, given the consistent propaganda about this new India in Pakistan, where every dissenting voice is viewed as funded by RAW against Pakistan’s interests, the general’s claim to be open about relations with India is nothing but fallacy. While General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was popular for supporting trade with India, he left no stone unturned to ensure that it wouldn’t happen. One of the reasons for pushing Nawaz Sharif out was the army’s concern that the prime minister would encourage trade and normalisation of relations with neighbours. The Europeans are certainly unable to understand the logic but the fact is that any evidence of change in the attitude of Pakistan’s army will start with how they treat domestic stakeholders.

Despite feeling hopeful, the British at least understand that improving ties will also call for some progress on the Kashmir issue. The perception is that since the present movement in Kashmir is operationally indigenous, the Indians could be convinced to return to the Musharraf Kashmir formula in return for an end to Pakistan’s jihad policy. General Bajwa, it is believed, would take action against the jihadis to be verified by a third party. For instance, the CIA or MI6 will verify a rumour of JeM’s Masood Azhar getting injured or killed. Of course, the underlying assumption is that western intelligence capacity has increased from the days when they could not find Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. It took a Pakistan army officer, who now lives comfortably in California, to walk into the US embassy and spill the beans.

A third party verification of this kind is a complex idea especially when all voices inside are being silenced. The fact that General Bajwa lost his cool at the mention of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) is not just because he genuinely thinks, as he claimed in his response, that PTM is an extension of the TTP  (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) or that it is a Western/Afghan conspiracy, but because the movement exposes the lack of progress on the Taliban. The British may consider the Pakistani voices and civil society irrelevant but the Indians would ignore it at their own peril.

It is not that General Bajwa doesn’t know that changing attitude regarding India is not a decade-long project, at least. His hurry to start talks as demonstrated by keenness to open up the Kartarpur corridor is tactical, not strategic.

Also read:  What Pakistani generals want from PM Imran Khan – career advancement

Unlike Musharraf, Bajwa is not out there to create a legacy for himself but to buy time for the army to get back on its feet vis-à-vis the US. He understands that improvement of the Pakistan-US bilateral relations partly depends on Washington not seeing Islamabad from Delhi’s lens.

Bajwa also seems willing to play the long game of engagement with the US, which is why in London he insisted that Pakistan was more naturally inclined towards the West than China. He had said the same even during his visit of October 2018. The fact that Pakistan’s intelligence is allowing media to print stories about the sorry state of Pakistani women in China or the fact that Islamabad is not signing off its copper treasures to Beijing is not a strategic shift in relations but signalling to the US. Improving ties with Washington, it is hoped, could convince the world that while Rawalpindi is ready to change, it is India that must mend its ways. China, on the other hand, has its fate tied with Pakistan due to BRI.

General Bajwa is certainly happy to play the intense game of nerves. Question is if he can take his men along, will Delhi play its own game, or Donald Trump’s, in case Bajwa can stay on for another year?

The author is research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and author of Military Inc. Views are personal.

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5 Comments Share Your Views


  1. A few things about Pakistan need to be understood clearly by us. One, it has hooked China like it did to US in the 80s and China will now play its tunes due to its investments in CPEC. Secondly, it is still looking to seek support of US and improve its bargaining power in AF. Thirdly, it is talking action against terrorists just to buy time till its financial difficulties are sorted and it is trying to lure India to believe that it is serious about this issue. Fourthly, it is known to Pakistan that India will not and can not attack it (except the terrorist camps) as it has nothing to fear against India. Fourthly and most importantly, India has nothing to do with Pakistan unless it it is absolutely clear that it has acted fully and completely against terrorism and it will not use terrorism as instrument of its policy toward India. Fifthly, there is nothing to discuss about Kashmir except return of POK, Gilgitstan and Baltistan by Pakistan. Indigenous separatist movement in Kashmir is India’s problem including removal of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution.
    With this context, there is nothing that this article makes any sense for India, though one can understand that the left liberal pseudo secular aaman ki asha Indian hearts must be warmed up now!

  2. Vajpayee started Lahore talks and was rewarded with Kargill.
    Vajpayee gave a second chance to Musharraf with Agra talks and was rewarded with parliament attack.

    He then tried coercive diplomacy and managed to get a ceasefire agreement which allowed India to fence large parts of LOC

    After Vajpayee left, Musharraf sweet talked a gullible Manmohan Singh, all the while planning 26/11.

    PPP and PML-N’s attempts to normalize trade with Manmohan government were stymied by Pak army.

    Modi’s attempts at peace were rewarded with Uri and Pathankot. India has explicitly said there will be no talks until there are irreversible actions taken against jihadis. This is still not visible despite FATF pressure. British politicians are unlikely to think they have leverage to force India to talk with Pakistan.

  3. This article makes it clear that there is no change in Pakistan as far as India is concerned. Therefore, notwithstanding India’s pro Pakistani left wing elites, there is nothing for India to gain by engaging with Pakistan until they take irreversible steps.

  4. Pakistan’s destiny is inextricably linked to China’s. The golden period of its friendship / alliance with the United States is long over. Its services are required to facilitate an end to the war in Afghanistan, for which it will be duly compensated. 2. If economic difficulties are sensitising Pakistan’s military leadership to the need to normalise relations with India, our economy too continues to sink. Investments are now at a fifteen year low. I don’t think the Budget will set the Yamuna on fire. With or without the intermediation of friends, India and Pakistan need to come out of a state of frozen hostilities that is hurting both.

  5. As far as Trump goes, the bad news for Bjwa is that Pakistan is important to Trump only if Pakistan blindly toes the American line. Which means (firstly) boots on the ground in Iran – à la” Afghanistan during Zia’s regime – and (secondly) Pakistan flushing out lock, stock, and barrel from Afghanistan. But worse still is the fact that America has lost interest in what happens in Afghanistan as long as their objectives of an unbloodied exit can be arranged by Bajwa or whosoever else.

    Bajwa is punching above his weight and that’s because he has begun believing the fancy stuff spun out by his ISPR and then relayed by the totally bought-out media of Pakistan. He has to only wait for a couple of weeks after his retirement to know what everybody within and without Pakistan thinks of him.

    Of course, India will have to be vigilant. Pakistan might bend backwards all the way for a few dollars more and might still wriggle under America’s blanket. It has no other alternative.


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