The greatest challenge for the new Army Chief

General Qamar Javed BajwaThe wait is over, and Pakistan has a new Chief of Army Staff as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has appointed Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new COAS. The incoming Army chief faces a number of challenges, as were enumerated by Abbas Nasir in his excellent column for Dawn. These challenges include dealing with a belligerent Modi-Doval regime in India and continuing Army’s successful operations against domestic terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. There is another challenge that the Gen Bajwa will face, though.

Taking over as head of Army from Gen Raheel, Gen Bajwa inherits many successes. One of these successes, though, will actually be a challenge for him. It is the successful PR operation that has elevated Gen Raheel into almost super human status.

By attributing all of Army’s successes to the genius of Gen Raheel, they have built a reputation that will be nearly impossible to live up to. More than ever before, the new COAS will always live under the shadow of his predecessor and will find himself compared to the one who has been made larger than life. If there is an uptick in violence, will it be blamed on the new COAS? Will the people say he is not as good as the previous Army chief? If relations with India continue to deteriorate, will Gen Bajwa be questioned about why tensions have grown worse under him than under Gen Raheel?

During previous transitions, incoming Army chiefs were seen as restoring hope and the possibility of improved relations. This can’t happen for Gen Bajwa without tearing down the impossibly high expectations that were built around Gen Raheel. For Gen Bajwa, the greatest challenge will not be to overcome sectarian militant groups, Indian belligerence, and international pressures, but to overcome the reputation of his predecessor.

Is Gen Raheel the Final Army Chief?

Gen Raheel billboard KarachiIn a recent blog, Omar Derawal described the growing ‘cult of personality‘ surrounding Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif. He is worried that such flattery could undermine the Gen Raheel’s credibility if people begin to see him as a self-promoter. I found this argument interesting, but ultimately I felt like it was not quite on the mark. That doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed the phenomenon. Whether I’m wasting time on social media or driving down the street, it seems increasingly impossible to not to find the Army chief staring back at me. I’m not sure whether it makes me think he is a self promoter, but it certainly makes me take notice. Then I was talking to some friends and someone mentioned that he will surely receive an extension next year after all the progress that has been made. That is when I realised what seemed so strange about the entire situation. What if Gen Raheel did not receive an extension?

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Will COAS be summoned back to Beijing?

Gen Raheel Sharif in China

It was only two months ago that Beijing summoned Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif to Beijing to discuss the growing problem of jihadi terrorism seeping over the border into China. While meeting with China’s Secretary of Central Politics and Law Commission Meng Jianzhu, Gen Raheel assured the Chinese that Pakistan would ‘do more’ to crack down on militants that were training and supplying jihadis in China. His latest visit “came in the immediate backdrop of recent multiple bomb attacks in Xinjiang’s provincial capital Urumqi in which 43 people were killed 94 injured”.  COAS Gen Raheel may be summoned back to China, however, as jihadi terrorists continue to carry out attacks against Chinese innocents, the most recent occurring only days ago and killing over 100.

Masked militants attacked civilians, police and officials last week in China’s far western region of Xinjiang leading to almost 100 deaths, the government said on Sunday, giving fresh details on one of the worst incidents of unrest in years.

Despite official statements claiming that Zarb-i-Azb operation is Pakistan’s final blow to terrorists, Chairman Senate Defence Committee Mushahid Hussain recently suggested that military operations in North Waziristan are actually due to pressurisation from China.

ISPR can release all of the statements that it wants to claiming that terrorists are ‘on the run‘, but it is unlikely that China is interested in empty boxes of sweet meats. It is more likely that if Pakistan is unable or unwilling to root out jihadi militants, China will increase the pressure to levels that Pakistan is unable to withstand.

Can Gen Raheel Rise To The Challenge?

Lt Gen Raheel SharifNawaz Sharif has promoted Lt Gen Raheel Sharif to Chief of Army Staff, but there are reasons to worry that a change of names is not likely to bring a change of direction for the military. To put Pakistan on the right track, Gen Raheel is going to have to overcome some big challenges.

Gen Raheel is being lauded as a ‘moderate’ who believes TTP is ‘as big a threat as India‘. This is meant to sound reassuring, that the new Army chief’s priorities are in tune with the actual threats the country faces. But it also means that Gen Raheel sees India, which has not attacked Pakistan, as an equal threat to the TTP which has killed thousands and thousands of innocent Pakistanis and launched multiple attacks against Pak military bases. Before being promoted to COAS, Gen Raheel was focused on developing new responses to India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine. While TTP is threatening more attacks, we are getting another Army chief whose focus has always been India.

Gen Raheel takes over command of the military at a time when Pakistan is not only facing constant attacks by TTP militants, but is likely to lose a significant amount of military support as the Americans are preparing to leave Afghanistan. Gen Raheel has a choice: He can continue the India-centric policies supported by his predecessors, or he can reorient national security policy against the enemies that present actual, not ‘ideological’ threats to the nation. Only the future will tell if he can rise to the challenge.