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Is it the chief’s ‘doctrine’?

Zahid Hussain

MYTHS are often woven around men in power. Now we hear about a ‘Bajwa doctrine’ — a term used by some media circles and, indeed, by the ISPR chief himself in an interview with a TV channel. Going by this so-called doctrine, it would seem that the army chief has a grand vision about everything — from critical political problems to the economy and foreign policy. Should we be surprised? Not really. Didn’t we witness similar wisdom being attributed to previous army chiefs?

But the virtues ascribed to Gen Qamar Bajwa make him appear head and shoulder above his predecessors; a messiah the country has long been waiting for. If media circles are to be believed, the so-called doctrine promises to bring about a revolutionary change in foreign policy, making a clean break from the ‘chauvinistic’ approach of the past 70 years. This is quite amazing.

According to this ‘doctrine’, the general envisions better relations with neighbouring countries and balance in dealing with world powers. Violent extremism is certainly not acceptable but the mainstreaming of tamed jihadists is important under the perceived doctrine.

The truth is that the general was reflecting the thinking of his institution.

While being portrayed as ‘pro democracy’ and a staunch supporter of the rule of law, the general appears unhappy about the way our political system works, lamenting the 18th Amendment in the Constitution that, he believes, has turned the country into a confederation. His greatest concern appears to be economic policy mismanagement that is seen as having brought Pakistan to the brink of bankruptcy. Lavish infrastructural projects such as motorways and metro buses, that bear the stamp of the PML-N government, are perceived as a massive drain on the economy as is the Benazir Income Support Programme.

Indeed, in a recent interaction with a group of journalists, the army chief did articulate all that which is is now being hailed as a grand ‘doctrine’ for change. The truth is that the general was reflecting the thinking of his institution — that must not be projected as his own vision. One may agree with his (or rather the army’s) identification of the problems we face, but the solutions to critical political and economic issues are overly simplistic.

Successive military rulers seized power on the pretext of turning things around and fixing problems but they ended up leaving the country in the same mess if not worse. Similarly, while there may be little doubt regarding the expressed intentions, the views enunciated on the political situation, economy and other issues have exposed the widening cleavage between the elected civilian government and the security establishment that has strengthened multiple power centres.

While generals do not seek to take over power, some feel that is the easiest thing to do in a crisis situation. They do not want to give a free hand to elected civilians either. Distrust of politicians remains palpable, though there is no reason to doubt that the general elections will be held.

But if recent elections for Senate chairmanship are an indicator, there’s no way Nawaz Sharif and his cohorts will be allowed space in the future political power structure. The long shadow of the military, in a nexus with the judiciary, will hover over the emerging political setup. It is apparent that most of the country’s law-enforcement and investigative agencies are already operating under the watch of the security establishment.

What is most alarming, however, is the military’s adverse view of the 18th Amendment. The landmark legislation that has lent greater autonomy to the provinces was passed unanimously by parliament with all major political parties on board. Indeed, some provinces have experienced capacity problems in the discharge of their responsibilities. But that can be resolved in due process.

More importantly, the amendment has strengthened the federation and removed a perpetual source of friction between the centre and the provinces. The unitary form of government and concentration of power at the centre had created serious anomalies particularly for the smaller provinces. Indeed, there is a need for a unified education system in the country and for streamlining provincial laws. But any attempt to strike down the amendment — that could only be through unconstitutional means — would be disastrous.

True, the economy is in bad shape, and former finance minister Ishaq Dar, now implicated in graft charges, was largely responsible for financial mismanagement. The crisis has been brewing for a while, made worse by the deterioration of foreign exchange reserves. And yet, the situation is not irreversible.

The so-called Bajwa doctrine cannot provide an instant solution to the crisis. The economy is critical to national security but equally important is the continuation of the democratic process, however flawed. Economic progress is also linked to political stability. And military rule, too, does not have any enviable economic record.

It is evident that foreign and national security policies have largely remained within the security establishment’s domain. One cannot agree more with Gen Bajwa’s words that there is a need for improving ties with our neighbours. It is also true that a significant breakthrough has been made in ties with Afghanistan. But our foreign policy challenges are enormous. Most stem from our skewed security-centric policy for which the military leadership is largely to be blamed. It is the era of geo-economics, and to have a dynamic foreign policy it is imperative we focus more on widening trade and economic relations with neighbouring countries including India.

Indeed, we have done well to fight militancy and restore the state’s writ in the tribal areas, but there is still no clear strategy to deal with violent religious extremism that presents an existentialist threat.

More must be done to bridge the gap between the civil and military leadership on key foreign policy issues rather than presenting an alternative ‘doctrine’ on wide-ranging domestic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, we don’t have a national narrative on anything. The so-called Bajwa doctrine then is more institutional thinking than one man’s views.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2018

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