Saturday June 25, 2022

The myth of the dovish general

November 29, 2016

Now that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has appointed Qamar Bajwa as the next chief of army staff, there are some sighs of relief that are understandable, there are others that are premature, and there are some that are downright silly. Let’s explore.

General Raheel Sharif was not offered an extension to his service. For this, it is understandable that the nation sigh with relief. For my money, an extension to the tenure of General Raheel Sharif was never on. The two most important people in the equation, the prime minister who would award such an extension, and the general who would accept, were never in the game. The issue is not whether he was the greatest army chief we have ever had, or not. He may well have been. But an extension in his service would have undermined, first and foremost, the very professionalism that he himself has embodied his entire career.

An extension would also have added to the number of years with very little movement upwards for the top of the armed forces. On the day that Gen Sharif took the baton from General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, let us not forget, between Kayani and Gen Pervez Musharraf, two men had ruled the army for 16 years. Retiring on time was an individual imperative for the professionalism of Raheel Sharif the soldier.

Retiring on time was an institutional imperative for the blood circulation necessary to ensure the vitality and dynamism of our armed forces’ top performers. And equally, retiring on time was a national imperative for the symbiosis between elected civilian leaders and our generals – in at least word, if not in spirit. The legacy of Raheel Sharif will surely be attacked as lots and lots of rhetorical sniper fire emerges this week and in the weeks to come, but by going home when his time was up, General Sharif will always have people like me to defend him.

He is a soldier’s soldier, who fought to defeat the TTP and its allied groups like no other general has done before him. He resisted the urge to make extra-constitutional interventions. No one is perfect. But for Pakistan between 2013 and 2016, Raheel Sharif was the right choice to lead the Pakistan Army.

Is General Qamar Javed Bajwa the right choice to lead the Pakistan Army today? Some of the narratives being promoted by those in or near government seem to be a tad premature. On WhatsApp, as happens so often these days, I have received more than one message about the self-confidence and humility of General Bajwa. “He doesn’t need admiration and adulation, constantly”, said one friend. Well, by the time this article is published he would have been chief of army staff, inshaAllah, for a total of about five minutes.

Being chief has had a remarkable effect on several humble men in the past. In fact, to pump the tires of a general for his humility and self-confidence might be the greatest exercise in irony that is possible. Our first elected prime minister was hanged by a humble general, and our current prime minister was put on a flight to Jeddah, via the Attock Fort, by another. One was too Toba Tek Singh to be anything but humble, and the other was too Mohajir.

So how are we supposed to interpret General Bajwa? Honest observers can’t know the answers to questions about what kind of chief he will be. But we do know this: as a young man, General Bajwa was intelligent and tough enough to pass the ISSB, and get through Kakul. As an officer, he was competent enough to be deployed overseas, be trained abroad, to be named corps commander Rawalpindi, to sit in on corps commanders conferences, and to have his opinion listened to and matter. So if you are breathing a sigh of relief that Pakistan has just handed its army to a competent general, you are spot-on. But if you are making bets about what kind of chief he will be, you are gambling. It is too early to make any bets.

Which brings us to the silliness. Let’s examine some of the analysis of General Bajwa’s juxtaposed with analysis of General Raheel Sharif.

Reporting PM Sharif’s appointment of Raheel Sharif as COAS, the Wall Street Journal on November 28, 2013 said that “In this coup-prone country, Gen. Sharif is known for taking orders and implementing them without question.” The same Wall Street Journal, on November 26, 2016, reports that “Pakistan’s government appointed a new army chief of staff on Saturday, a boost for democracy in the coup-prone nation,” and that “Gen Bajwa is said to be a “soldier’s soldier.”

On December 22, 2013, the Al Jazeera news site: “Raheel Sharif’s reputation as a professional soldier with no obvious political ambitions possibly played a major factor in his selection by Nawaz Sharif.” On November 28, 2016 the same Al Jazeera website quotes a defence analyst saying: “General Bajwa, whom I have met a few times, is someone who will not interfere a lot in the civilian government’s matters”.

One could go on. The analytical consensus seems to be that at the time of appointment as COAS, both General Raheel Sharif and General Qamar Javed Bajwa were principally concerned with soldiering, rather than politicking.

We now know that General Raheel Sharif, whilst maintaining that reputation as a soldier’s soldier, also oversaw a massive expansion of the military’s capability as a driver of the national discourse. In short, he certainly did a fair bit more than only soldiering.

Those in government who are telling anyone that will listen that General Bajwa won’t be like Raheel Sharif need to wake up. Raheel Sharif ceases to be Raheel Sharif when he puts on the uniform that he wore for over three decades. At the periphery, his behaviour may have been informed by Raheel Sharif the person. But the core of his being, his postures, and his cognitive skills, were shaped by the Pakistan Army – as an institution.

The individual person of General Qamar Javed Bajwa might well be the biggest democrat since IA Rehman, and the most passionate human rights person since Asma Jahangir. But as COAS, Gen Bajwa will be motivated less by personal conviction, and more by the institutional momentum of the organisation that nurtured him, developed him and cultivated him from a young cadet three decades ago to one of the world’s most powerful men today.

PM Sharif is a genius at reading the man. And as a man, he is a political genius. But he hasn’t had much luck with institutions – either those that he himself is responsible for, or those that he is supposed to manage (like parliament or the civil service or the judiciary or, of course, the army).

This is why he is great at managing individual DMG/PAS bureaucrats but not so much the civil service at large. Good with army chiefs individually, not so much with the army. And incidentally, good at dealing with Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Narendra Modi, but not so much with the Hindutvadi institutions that those two Indian leaders represent. This is why PM Sharif gets flummoxed by the assertiveness of non-poodle civil servants, by the stubbornness of non-compliant corps commanders conferences, and by the hawkishness of Indian hegemony at Ufa, at New Delhi, and at the LoC.

If PM Sharif has appointed General Bajwa because he thinks there is such a thing as a docile, dovish, pro-civilian dominance three-star general, in Pakistan, or anywhere in the world, he is about to learn, for at least the fourth time, that there isn’t.

The addiction of Pakistani democrats to the myth of the dovish general needs to be replaced with a theory of change for democracy that privileges civilian competence in national security and foreign policy matters. Till then, we will keep spinning new ways to make excuses for our military’s constant appearances in civilian matters like foreign policy. Expecting better from a three-time prime minister is not unwarranted.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.