Qamar Javed Bajwa | The General of all political seasons 

The Pakistani military chief, who was seen close to Imran Khan, is now being targeted by his party for its ouster from power this month

Published - April 24, 2022 12:15 am IST

Qamar Javed Bajwa. File

Qamar Javed Bajwa. File | Photo Credit: AP

On July 5, 1977, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed by Gen. Zia ul Haq in a military coup, ushering in a decade of authoritarian rule. A year later, a young cadet, Qamar Javed Bajwa of Karachi, joined the Pakistani Army. He would rise through the ranks over the years to finally take the most powerful position in the Pakistani military — the Chief of the Army Staff. In a country that has seen several military coups in the past, the Army chief has always played a critical role in politics.

Gen. Bajwa came to the top in 2016 at a time when the Pakistani military was trying to exert its influence indirectly without disrupting the civil-military relationship that was badly damaged during the Pervez Musharraf years. Yet, seven years later, Gen. Bajwa was thrust to the foreground of Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Rapid rise

Born in 1960, he was educated at the F.G. Sir Syed College and Gordon College in Rawalpindi before joining the Military Academy in 1978. In 2003, he commanded the Pakistan Armed Forces-Africa Command that was attached to the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Major General Bikram Singh, the former Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army, under whose command Brig. Bajwa served in the Congo, later termed him “professional and outstanding”. Back in Pakistan, he was promoted as a three-star General in 2013. Three years later, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif picked Gen. Bajwa as the Army chief.

Little was known about the General back then. He was heading the Army's Training and Evaluation Wing. A brief Army history of Gen. Bajwa released by the military stated that he was commissioned in 1980 and was partly educated abroad, including staff college training in Canada and naval postgraduate studies in the U.S. A Minister in Mr. Sharif's Cabinet told Reuters that the Prime Minister chose Gen. Bajwa because of his low-key style. “He is essentially a very low-profile person and after our last experience (with General Raheel Sharif), this is just a very important consideration; someone who doesn’t want the limelight at all,” said the Minister.

Part of politics

In Pakistan, predictions about the civil-military relationship often go wrong. Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign in 2017 after his government was rocked by the Panama paper revelations. During the 2018 general elections, Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), accused the military establishment of supporting Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Mr. Khan emerged victorious and formed the government, and Gen. Bajwa was expected to have a smooth tenure with Mr. Khan being the Prime Minister. But tides would turn again. As Mr. Khan ran into trouble, with a united Opposition seeking his ouster amid a growing economic crisis, the military’s calculations appeared to have proved wrong. The military maintained that it was staying out of politics. Yet, it was evident that Mr. Khan had fallen out of favour with the establishment, which gave a fillip to the united Opposition’s bid to oust the government. And the military’s change of heart turned Gen. Bajwa a target of online attacks by Mr. Khan’s PTI supporters.

Hours before the no-confidence motion of April 10 that brought down the Imran Khan government, Pakistan's online universe was rocked by calls for sacking of the Army chief. Even as the online soldiers of the PTI continued to call for the ouster of Gen. Bajwa, Mr. Khan, in a last-minute move, called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. What transpired next will remain shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories, but it appears that Mr. Khan tried to clip the wings of Gen. Bajwa during that meeting, which ultimately was disrupted by “visitors”.

Next day, one of the first actions taken by the new government of Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, was to detain Dr. Arsalan Khalid, a prominent businessman of Lahore, who had also led the social media team of the PTI. Police seized Mr. Arsalan’s gadgets and he was subjected to interrogation as the PTI protested about the sudden disappearance of a well-known figure. It was obvious that the military establishment was seeking to crack down on some of the online activists who called for sacking Gen. Bajwa.

Mr. Khan as Prime Minister was markedly different from the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) elites, who had divided power among themselves for more than two decades. Mr. Khan did not have any major case of financial irregularities against him as compared to the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari or the Sharifs of the PML-N, whose families are accused of accumulating wealth abroad. The military did bet on Mr. Khan as he mobilised support across Pakistan for his brand of anti-corruption politics rooted in Islamist nationalism. But Mr. Khan’s hostile approach towards the Opposition led to all major Opposition parties joining hands to take on the government. Last year, he also clashed with the military over the appointment of the new ISI chief. Some of the foreign policy decisions of Mr. Khan also appeared to have upset the Generals.

A confrontation with Mr. Khan was looking certain by 2022 as he crossed certain red lines by dragging the U.S., a long-term strategic partner, into the domestic politics of Pakistan. Mr. Khan also visited Moscow on February 24, the day Russia’s Ukraine invasion began. When the opposition parties submitted a no-confidence motion against Mr. Khan’s government in early March, the PTI leader claimed that a foreign power was conspiring to oust him, referring to the U.S. Gen. Bajwa, however, contradicted with the PTI government on both ties with the U.S. and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Addressing a security conference in Islamabad in early April, he said Pakistan shared a “long history of excellent and strategic relationship with the U.S., which remains our largest export market”. He also called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine. “Sadly, the Russian invasion is very unfortunate as thousands of people have been killed, millions made refugees and half of Ukraine destroyed,” he said, stressing the need to address the issue “immediately”.

Fall of Imran

It was clear that Gen. Bajwa had thrown in his lot with the PML-N and the PPP. Within days, Mr. Khan’s government was ousted in the no-confidence vote after much drama in Pakistan’s National Assembly.

The challenge before Gen. Bajwa now is the apparent popular support that Mr. Khan has gained during the April turmoil. Since losing power, Mr. Khan has been leading massive jalsas — public rallies — in which he has been stating that his government was toppled by a combination of the establishment and the old guard of Pakistan. With his tenure coming to an end in November, Gen. Bajwa has a friendly government in power but a fiery politician in the opposition who is publicly attacking the establishment.

The task before him is to continue to balance between different political groups without losing the establishment’s enormous clout in Pakistani politics.

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