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Reading The Pakistani Debate Over Military Chief’s Doctrine

FILE: General Qamar Javed Bajwa
FILE: General Qamar Javed Bajwa

Pakistanis have spent weeks debating a set of goals reportedly outlined by the country’s powerful military chief.

While military doctrines are often understood as the set of principles guiding military forces in pursuing national security goals, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s list of aims was all-encompassing.

Newspaper articles, opinion columns, and TV talk shows hashed out the details of the doctrine, which touched on every aspect of Pakistan’s political life, accountability, counterterrorism, and economy, and even desired changes to the country’s constitution.

Little attention, however, was paid to what such a debate itself showcases.

A careful look at the discourse shows that the army, headed by Bajwa, is still portrayed as the most powerful institution in Pakistan, and its views on national security, foreign policy, and politics are given considerable weight. It also hints at what kind of future the military wants for the nuclear-armed country of more than 200 million people.

While the doctrine was first reported in early March, the military waited weeks to officially respond and sought to distance itself from some of the more controversial aspects.

“If there exists a Bajwa doctrine, then it is only related to the security aspect,” military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told journalists on March 28. “Every army chief has their own perspective, and General Bajwa's is to restore peace, which existed in the past.”

This official questioning and part rebuttal was a far cry from what had been attributed to Bajwa.

“I saved democracy in this country. I am the biggest supporter of democracy,” Bajwa reportedly told a group of journalists in one of the first accounts of his pronouncements. “The institution [military] has evolved and is much more sensitive to the criticality of a democratic order, which we will vociferously defend.”

While claiming that Bajwa supports democracy, the article warned the ruling Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) to abandon its criticism of the Supreme Court, which disqualified the party’s leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year.

Since then, Sharif has criticized the court and the military. “Enslaved democracy is a form of dictatorship, which will never be able to protect the country’s national security,” he told journalists in January.

A more flattering version of the doctrine held that Bajwa would like to do away with the 18th amendment of the constitution, which among other things grants substantial autonomy to Pakistan’s provinces and makes it extremely difficult for military leaders and the Supreme Court to impose and justify military rule.

While distancing the military from some of the reports, Ghafoor confirmed that the military is having second thoughts about the amendment, which was unanimously adopted in 2010.

"This amendment did certain good things like decentralizing certain matters,” he told journalists. “There is nothing better than every province being responsible for its own matters, but they should also be capable of making those decisions."

Pakistan’s politicians, however, are sensitive to the military’s political role because four generals have ruled the country for nearly half of the country’s 70-year history. They often criticize the military for interfering in or manipulating politics even while not ostensibly in power.

Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak said the military’s delayed reaction to the criticism of Bajwa’s doctrine is an exercise in damage control.

“Such pronouncements should not be made by public servants,” he told Pakistan’s Capital TV. “Unfortunately, in our country, abnormal things are being presented as normal. It is in our best interest that everyone sticks to their professional role.”

Veteran politician Javed Hashmi agrees. He, too, advised Pakistan’s powerful military to stay out of politics.

“I ask the army to go to their barracks and safeguard the country’s borders,” he told journalists.