The new army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has his work cut out. In the crucial years that lie ahead, his to-do list is long. But this list is also predictable. There is belligerent Delhi, scheming Kabul, badly-inclined Iran and the new face of terrorism, the Islamic State, drawing dispersed groups on our own land.
However, the less-imagined is his don’t list. This list, if prepared dispassionately, can bring greater clarity towards the tasks at hand. In preparing the don’t list, the COAS can learn from his predecessor, General (r) Raheel Sharif. And what he needs to learn essentially is how not to be like him in several key respects.
In the first instance, the new chief has to revive the army’s institutionalised decision and planning mechanism that has been severely damaged by General Raheel’s endless self-projection and self-centeredness. Many unfortunate consequences flowed from this policy. One, everything flowed towards the person of the COAS, and the rest of the institution was marginalised in what represented the entire army in the public sphere. Press releases and tweets in praise of the general’s activities substituted what ought to have been articulation of collective weight and wisdom of senior commanders on serious matters.
It is true that the army is not a parliament of equals: the one who sits at the head carries the maximum authority. But it is not a one-man rule institution either. It cannot be in the modern day and age. The army chief’s personal profile has to reflect the institution’s deliberated and studied policy. The new COAS can bring this side of his office back to life and put a reasonable ceiling on his personal media profile that touched insane heights under his predecessor.
The second consequence of General Raheel’s media-domination strategy was the tendency to commit to irrational goals that were militarily nebulous but did resonate with a public addicted to the mumbo jumbo of quick-fixes. So the big claims went something like this: terrorism has been eliminated; terrorists have been totally neutralised; parts of Fata are close to becoming Switzerland; by December all internally displaced families will be back in their homes; Pakistan’s borders have become totally secure. The list goes on and on.
This excessive embellishment of modest gains created exceptionally embarrassing situations. When in the middle of tall claims spectacular terrorist attacks happened there were no answers to be given only more bluster and more rhetoric. In this year alone, there have been close to 400 violations of Pakistan’s territorial perimeter from the eastern and north-western sides. Three years’ tally sits close 800. Now that is a scary figure but one that underscores the precarious nature of the country’s external environment and demands thoughtful deliberations.
Almost 80,000 families (some 800,000 people) still await return to their homes. This is a grim reality that rains on the pompous parade of achievements. A military commander’s claims must be borne out by facts. The new army chief must bring some realism to posturing on success and resist the temptation of playing to the gallery at the cost of professional credibility.
The third consequence of General Raheel’s media manoeuvre was to create a bubble of political expectations and let a vast group of jackals, hyenas and vultures constantly chase the potential hunt that was the sitting government. There can be many reasons to insist that the Nawaz government doesn’t deserve to be in power and early elections should be considered a serious possibility, but all paths to this change must go through the constitutional door.
On General Raheel’s watch there were any number of events that bordered on conspiracy to oust the sitting government through suspect methods, and his command was seen playing an underhand hand in this trouble by stoking the image of ‘change being imminent’. A countless number of times his name showed up on posters, in campaigns, as a third umpire in protests and in serious conversations across the diplomatic tables about causing the government to collapse and yet not once did he officially disassociate the army or himself from this amazing drama of hopes and dreams.
Generally, the army chief’s office, like all high offices, is exceptionally sensitive to needless controversies. That was exhibited recently when the head of a banned organisation tried to hurl an insane charge against one of the five candidates for the office of army chief but was slapped down so hard that he had to issue a rebuttal in less than 24 hours. This happened because he was told to take back his words and not play dirty politics with a name that could become the army chief. He obliged. He understood the consequences of not obliging.
That’s how neutrality can be ensured, and how effectively an important office can be protected from being used for petty gains by others. General Raheel did not do that. While he never crossed the constitutional line beyond which lies the murky world of coups, he allowed his name to float around scandalously close to the constitutionally alien territory.
There is reason to believe that a veritable army of crystal-ball gazers was nurtured. They vented their venom on screen as information for years, making a complete fool of this nation and pretending to represent the ‘Raheel thinking’. They operated with impunity. They cited ‘defence sources’ freely. They claimed they had been briefed. They had more ‘leaks’ from high security meetings than any hard-working journalist can dream of. They toured Fata. They sat in formal briefings and benefited from informal conversations where news agendas were set. They were never stopped as they marinated their declared goals against a sitting government in General Raheel’s deep praise.
This was accompanied by deliberate myth-building around Gen Raheel as the ‘greatest general’ to have ever walked the face of this country. Every step he took to go to his office was made to sound like a favour to the nation. Every ordinary visitor who complimented him out of courtesy was shown as an endorsement of his exceptional leadership. Every customary medal or an official sash given by the hosts was catapulted to the level of the Victoria Cross. Politicians repeated the hand-written script of greatness because sucking up to the chief of army staff is a long tradition. The media lapped up, or had to lap up, the official line. Others reinforced this image because this made them look ‘so patriotic’. So the folklore spread far and wide.
This was needless. Being the chief of the Pakistan Army is legendary enough. When a nuclear-armed force of under a million is at your disposal, you are very, very important already. You don’t need dubious everymen to become your brand ambassadors. Allowing them to play this role is to deface the office of the army chief. The new army chief needs to cut himself off from this sorry tradition of his name being debated freely in useless political conversations made by frivolous men and women.
And finally the new chief must bring military operations like Zarb-e-Azb out of the temple of mindless worship to the hard planning board of the military directorate (which is where an army chief has to be seen instead of on screen at PR functions). Operation Zarb-e-Azb is an important operation with results but is also a continuation of previous equally important operations with just-as-important results. The sacrifices of men in Zarb-e-Azb stand equal to those who were martyred in the Malakand, Dir, Buner, Bajaur, Mohmand, Kurram, Orakzai and South Waziristan, to name just a few.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb is the endpoint of a decade-long journey the nation has taken along side its forces on a path that is awash with the precious blood of beautiful sons. But like all military operations of the past this one too must be scrutinised and evaluated, and hard decisions taken about its future. This operation in North Waziristan was initially planned to close in two months at a cost of 25 billion rupees. How come it got stretched to two and half years with a 200 billion rupee bill without any closure in sight?
The new chief would do well to take an honest stock of what transpired in the last three years and learn, without malice and ill-will, what not to do now that he occupies this coveted throne of thorns and roses for a full tenure.