Pakistan’s top gun seeks U.S.-China balance before retirement

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In possibly his last big diplomatic move before retiring, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, presented Washington with a vision for relations “much like the Americans’ understanding with South Korea.”   © Nikkei montage/Source photo by Getty Images

ASIA INSIGHT

Gen. Bajwa’s diplomatic ambitions clash with domestic political tensions

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, Nikkei staff writer

NEW YORK — With the clock ticking on his expected retirement, Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, paid a long-delayed visit to Washington in early October. Some saw it as a valedictory trip. Others speculated that it was a signal he intends to stay on after his term ends next month, just as he secured an extension in 2019.

Either way, Bajwa’s mission was clear: shoring up a crucial diplomatic relationship undermined by years of distrust, at a time when Islamabad faces an unprecedented storm of challenges, including political turmoil inflamed last Friday by the disqualification of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from holding public office.

Sources with firsthand knowledge of the general’s recent meetings paint a picture of Pakistan seeking nothing less than a new arrangement with the U.S. — one that balances ties with China, helps decrease tensions with India and boosts the struggling economy, while sustaining military relations.

Forging such a broad relationship would normally be up to civilian diplomats. Indeed, new Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari recently made his own lengthy stateside trip. But few would deny that it is the commander of the 600,000-man army and the only nuclear-armed Islamic military who wields the most clout in Pakistan, where the elected leadership relies on the top brass’s patronage to stay in office.

As whispers swirl over Bajwa’s future and who might succeed him — late last week the general himself declared he is retiring — a key question is whether his outreach to the U.S. can usher Pakistan onto firmer footing. The South Asian country’s weak government is wrestling with high debt, dwindling foreign exchange reserves, catastrophic flooding and a raucous opposition further riled by Khan’s disqualification.

Over the course of six days, from Oct. 1 to 6, the general held a flurry of meetings with senior officials from the State Department, Defense Department, the National Security Council and the intelligence community. According to one official familiar with the proceedings, Bajwa presented a vision for a bilateral relationship “much like the Americans’ understanding with South Korea.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, hosts Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Pentagon in Washington on Oct. 4. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

“He told them that we’d like to be a strategic partner of the U.S. not in name, but in action,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The message was that there should be “a wider net connecting us — infrastructure, tech, health and trade — and not just the military and defense ties that we’ve depended on for decades.”

Alluding to Pakistan’s dire economic straits, the official noted the country can be a “more useful partner” if it is doing well. “Frankly, we’d rather [the Americans] invest in us.”

While the Pentagon issued only a brief statement about the general’s visit, commemorating 75 years of diplomatic relations, the State Department made a clear disclaimer: Pakistan’s civilian government, and not the military that has ruled the country directly or indirectly since independence in 1947, is America’s “primary interlocutor.”

Still, another source confirmed that U.S. “follow-ups” to the general’s visit are underway across different departments.

Bajwa’s trip made it apparent that the U.S. wants Pakistan’s advice on Afghanistan, particularly how to help Afghan women. A source said that Bajwa was consulted about the women at every meeting, and that he offered ideas such as incentivizing the Taliban to allow women to study and work by sponsoring all-female schools and hospitals.

Moreover, the U.S. and other partners last week removed Pakistan from the Financial Action Task Force’s terrorism financing “gray list,” after major efforts by Bajwa’s security agencies.

But to restore its Cold War-era position as a trusted U.S. partner, Islamabad has its work cut out. Pakistan has lost America’s confidence due to its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, its tilt toward China, its never-ending rivalry with India and its expanding nuclear arsenal.

“Pakistanis have to be careful not to start expecting a return to the relationship of the past,” warned Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington and now a director of Central and South Asia at the Hudson Institute.

“At the same time, there is now potential for a new relationship,” he added. “It will be based on a more realistic assessment, hopefully by both sides, of what the two countries can do for another. … Pragmatic engagement is the only viable way forward.”

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, observed, “Given that the visit came at a moment when U.S.-Pakistan relations have shown signs of a resurgence, it can also be seen as another data point indicating that the relationship is stabilizing after some years of uncertainty.”

Yet Pakistan still has a serious reputation problem.

On Oct. 13, U.S. President Joe Biden called Pakistan “one of the most dangerous nations in the world,” possessing “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” The rebuke was made on the campaign trail, but it propelled Islamabad to summon the American ambassador. The next day, a bipartisan resolution was tabled in the U.S. House of Representatives, declaring that the Pakistani military had committed genocide in 1971 against its citizens.

One Pakistani diplomat said the country’s “toxic branding” does not afford it much leverage. He pointed out that although U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin invited Bajwa to Washington back in 2021, partly out of appreciation for the Pakistani military’s contribution to the Afghanistan evacuation last year, “publicly, the U.S. couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be thankful to Pakistan, because we are associated in America with being pro-Taliban … and behind bringing them back to power.”

A wave of anti-Americanism triggered by the ouster of former Prime Minister Khan in April is not helping. The born-again-Muslim populist blames the Pakistani military and the Americans for orchestrating “regime change” through a no-confidence vote. Khan’s message resonates despite a lack of evidence. This month, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party swept a series of parliamentary by-elections, winning six out of seven contested seats.

Even so, the government — or more precisely, the military — has refused to accept Khan’s demand for a snap general election. And now Khan’s disqualification, which he is appealing, has thrown his fate into doubt.

In Washington, sources said that Bajwa, in addition to laying out a new vision for the relationship, explained Pakistan’s positions on a wide range of regional issues, even the prospect of opening up relations with Israel.

Regarding China, sources said U.S. officials cautioned Bajwa about Islamabad’s proximity to Beijing and the need to adhere to a rules-based order, even as they claimed to understand the compulsions of the neighbors’ “all weather” friendship. Islamabad owes Beijing $29.82 billion — about 30% of its total external debt — in bilateral and commercial loans, according to recent International Monetary Fund figures.

On India, Bajwa assured senior administration officials that the cease-fire at the Line of Control — the heavily militarized de facto border in Kashmir — has been “holding very well,” according to an official.

A Pakistani soldier stands guard near the Line of Control in Kashmir in July 2020.   © Reuters

The source said Bajwa also noted that “the diplomatic vitriol between New Delhi and Islamabad had reduced over the last couple of years,” despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government and anti-Muslim politics within India. On the other hand, according to the official, Bajwa reiterated that India’s suspension of Kashmir’s autonomous status in 2019 put bilateral ties in a very difficult place.

Critically, Gen. Bajwa is said to have moved away from a long-held Pakistani position, conceding that Islamabad does not expect the U.S. to play an intermediary role with India for now. “We have to act like big boys and figure this out between ourselves and the Indians,” said a diplomat present in the meetings. “We told them that if we improve our position, the U.S. can act as a natural back door [for] talking to India. But first, both sides have to take concrete steps towards peace.”

On the military front, Pakistan is too broke to buy new equipment, but diplomats said the general sought to sustain existing agreements.

Much of Pakistan’s front-line hardware, including F-16 fighter-bombers, is U.S.-made. Just a month before the visit, the Pentagon announced that it would be servicing a $450 million F-16 sustainment package for the Pakistan Air Force. There are also agreements for Pakistani military officers to be trained at U.S. military colleges and academies.

According to two Pakistani officials, Bajwa wanted an answer on the continuity of service and upgrades. “For legacy systems, sustenance packages and maintenance supplies that are owed to our purchases, it is their responsibility,” said an officer. “We said to them: just say yes or no, so we have clarity.”

A source said that “follow-up teams” are exploring “creative solutions” for giving the financially-strapped Pakistanis access to more American equipment — if not directly, then by leasing hardware from common partners. These could include “F-16s from the Jordanian Air Force, which has many of the fighters and doesn’t really need them because of Jordan’s peaceful regional dynamics, or even decommissioned frigates from the U.S. Navy, which cost less money and require less red tape.”

Much of Pakistan’s front-line military hardware, including F-16 jets like this one, is U.S.-made   © Reuters

Despite covering so much ground, some analysts are skeptical about how much Bajwa’s visit achieved.

“There were no specific asks or gets,” said Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Normalization has been going on for some time. But the reality is that bilateral financial assistance — the need of the hour — is extremely low, and is not going to increase as a result of this visit.”

Back home, the timing of Bajwa’s visit, unusually close to the end of his tenure, added an element of controversy. His intentions are still being debated, with Twitter threads and WhatsApp groups — but not censored mainstream media — war gaming different scenarios: him taking up an advisory role in the Middle East or another extension.

Despite his imminent exit, the nearly 62-year-old, four-star Punjabi infantry officer continues to make waves politically.

Soon after arriving back in Pakistan on Oct. 8, he issued an open warning: The army will never allow any “country, group or force to politically or economically destabilize Pakistan.” This was seen as a barely veiled threat to Imran Khan to call off plans for a civil disobedience movement.

Days later, investigators arrested — and allegedly stripped and roughed up — Khan’s deputy, Azam Swati, over “obnoxious and intimidating” tweeting against Bajwa. Swati had questioned the general’s apparent support for incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his family.

Although Bajwa has said the military does not want to interfere in politics, reality appears more complex. In September and October, phone and personal conversations between Khan and his top advisers, as well as Sharif and his staff, were leaked on social media. The leaks were seemingly edited and timed to put both the government and opposition on the back foot. Analysts say such tradecraft can presumably be attributed to the military-run intelligence apparatus, and designed to curb the ambitions and power of the civilians.

At a recent rally, a visibly angry Khan questioned if the military’s job was to protect the country or spy on its leaders.

Pakistan’s record on press freedom under Bajwa is also under scrutiny. The authorities in Pakistan are known for pressuring the media, and suspicions have long swirled over extrajudicial killings, with 89 journalists killed since 2002 including 13 during Bajwa’s term since 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists database. When Bajwa was asked about press freedom while in the U.S., he initially denied knowledge of such pressure, according to a source. When pressed, the source said he suggested that Pakistan lacks legal means such as gag orders, so the authorities resort to other measures.

If Bajwa’s tenure is indeed coming to an end, as he insists, he will leave behind a tattered economy, a polarized polity, rising insurgencies and a wave of populism that could upend traditional power structures.

It may take more than mere generals to fix the myriad problems of the Islamic republic.