Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) has historically been seen as the man who sets the country’s strategic agenda; this then trickles down to other institutions. And, while the army is a strong institution where the COAS is primus inter pares among senior officers. However, despite this, he holds the ‘Malacca cane’ and calls the shots.
However, Pakistan’s current COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa has shunned grand public appearances, focusing instead on promoting defence diplomacy. Some of his predecessors, such as General Pervez Musharraf or General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, were happy to be seen in every international capital.
With every announcement of fresh policy initiatives, they gave the impression that the army worried more about its international public image than its core objectives.
There was also a glaring gap between policy and diplomacy, leading to much confusion over ‘grey areas’, such as Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan relationship with the Saudis and the broader Middle East.
The past six months has seen a change first begun with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief until November last year.
Some of the key charges against the country were that Pakistan’s actions did not match its words. Islamabad, critics – including the US – claimed was not ‘coming clean’ about its policies in Afghanistan, that its relationship with the Saudis lacked transparency and that it was pursuing a hostile stance towards Iran.
Bajwa, who took over in November 2016 from Sharif, has sought to dispel these claims. Since taking over, he has set his eyes firmly on strengthening Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran, talking straight about Afghanistan to the Americans and not misleading India over false promises of conflict resolution.
His first three foreign visits were to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and he has now announced a forthcoming visit to Tehran. Over the past decade, Pakistan’s relationship with the various GCC states has been rocky while its relationship with Iran hit an all-time low with constant border skirmishes and public diplomatic spats.
Under Bajwa, the army has reached out to Iran publicly and looked to reassure Tehran that Pakistan will be a force for stability rather than a spoiler in its row with Riyadh. The COAS has also put an official trip to Iran at the top of his agenda and has met publicly with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Tehran’s ambassador to Islamabad.
Bajwa called the Iranian ambassador in Islamabad, Mehdi Honardoost, to allay fears about Pakistan’s role in the Islamic Military Alliance force (IMAFT), a Saudi-led coalition of troops pledged to fight Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).
He explained to the Iranians Pakistan’s role in IMAFT, while also assuring Tehran that bilateral ties are strategically vital. The Pakistan army spokesperson formally announced Islamabad’s strong desire to maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In contrast to Pakistan’s past military leaders, Bajwa is seeking to ensure that Iran does not feel isolated. Pakistan’s leading military institution, the National Defence University, celebrated Iran’s national day with a visiting Iranian military delegation.
Similarly, the army’s defence diplomacy over the past six months in the Middle East has engaged most countries, without taking sides. Saudi Defence Minister – and now crown prince – Mohammed bin Salman has visited Pakistan three times to discuss further bilateral cooperation in both IMAFT and defence procurement. Ministers from the UAE and Qatar have also conducted visits.
Saudi Special Forces also took part in a military parade in Islamabad, their first such presence outside the Gulf. The Pakistani air force was also the only foreign air force to take part in Exercise Northern Thunder, which heralded the coming of the anti-Daesh Islamic alliance.
Bajwa also assured the Emiratis of continued support, and in Qatar, he spoke of a new impetus in Doha–Islamabad defence ties. Qatar has also hinted at possible Pakistani army involvement in securing the 2022 football World Cup. Bajwa also stressed that the Qatar–Pakistan relationship was one that could bring regional stability.
On the Afghan front, Bajwa’s argument seems to be that Pakistan has secured its own territory and it is not the Pakistani army’s job to secure Afghanistan, as this is up to NATO and the Afghan National Army. This may be debatable, but one conclusion is clear: Pakistan’s military leadership is no longer either apologetic or pretending to play along with any foreign narrative on Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials have made it clear to NATO that the anti-US and anti-regime Haqqani Network is a legitimate player in Afghanistan, whether Kabul likes it or not. In the past, Islamabad just denied contact with the Haqqanis.
The frank assertion that Islamabad is now bent on pursuing Pakistan’s own security interests seems to have particularly impressed US Senator John McCain, who has spoken in support of Pakistan despite the common anti-Pakistani drumbeat in Washington.
Similarly, British Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter also said Pakistan was finally ‘delivering’ on its anti-terror promises.
All told, Pakistan’s army is now moving away from its previous stance of purely working in support of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. And in Afghanistan, Bajwa has brought more clarity. The army wants action rather than words to dictate perceptions, irrespective of whether these are positive or negative.