Pakistan's new army chief: A reality check

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Story highlights

  • Qamar Javed Bajwa was named the country's army chief this week
  • He has a reputation as camera-shy and congenial
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The opinions expressed are his own.

(CNN)To many in Pakistan, Qamar Javed Bajwa is an unknown soldier. Yet on Tuesday, he'll become arguably the country's most powerful person when he's sworn in as its next army chief.

Testimonials about Bajwa are overwhelmingly positive. Those who know him say he's a proponent of strong civil-military relations -- the main reason, according to one account, why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a man who has often sparred with the army, selected Bajwa for the job.
He's not seen as reflexively hostile to India, and he once served under an eventual Indian Army chief while on a United Nations mission in Congo. He's regarded as low-key and camera-shy, yet also congenial and accessible.
    Pakistani Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
    This all sounds great. Still, it pays to be skeptical in our expectations, and for two reasons.
    One is institutional interests.
    When it comes to Pakistan's army, the institution is stronger than the individuals that lead it. When a new army chief enters the scene with relatively moderate views about India and a desire for civil-military comity, these sentiments won't necessarily lead to major attitudinal or policy shifts.
    The other reason is the reality on the ground. This shapes the thinking and actions of the military more so than the views of its leader.

    Predecessors

    Consider Bajwa's two immediate predecessors.
    Early in his 2007-2013 term, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said that domestic terror in Pakistan required more "immediate attention" than the threat from India. Initially, this position appeared to have impact on the army's thinking. In 2013, an official army doctrine reportedly accorded unprecedented importance to internal militancy.
    Former Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani salutes a guard of honor as chief guest during a graduation ceremony for some 64 Sri Lankan army officers in the island nation's central district town of Diyatalawa on June 29, 2013.
    However, by the end of Kayani's term, India-Pakistan ties were struggling again after a brief détente. Kayani himself stated that India remained Pakistan's core threat, at one point admitting that the military remained an "India-centric" institution, thereby undercutting his earlier arguments.
    This was a case of the military's institutional interests trumping the individual ideas of its leader. The military justifies its outsize role in the state on the need to defend the country from the threat of India. If India is no longer seen as a threat, or even as a lesser threat, then this justification is undercut.
    Now consider Raheel Sharif, who served from 2013 to 2016.
    Here, the disconnect between personal views and institutional interests is even starker. Before he became army chief, military colleagues described him as a "moderate" who believed Islamist militancy was a threat as important as that of India. Observers also noted that he was less senior than those he had competed with for the army chief position -- suggesting Prime Minister Sharif saw him as less of a threat to his own power.
    Pakistan's former army chief General Raheel Sharif seen in Rawalpindi on November 29, 2013.

    Realities on the ground

    Three years later, the results are sobering. General Sharif did ramp up the fight against domestic terror by launching an offensive in North Waziristan. However, India-Pakistan relations were in deep crisis for much of his term.
    Additionally, Jaish-e-Mohammed, a notorious anti-India terror group with ties to Pakistani intelligence, mysteriously materialized publicly after several years of quiet. In 2014, its leader, Masood Azhar, began issuing public statements and threats. New Delhi blamed his group for two attacks on Indian military bases in 2015.
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    Meanwhile, civil-military relations, particularly over the last year, were extremely tense.
    Here, realities on the ground arguably contributed to this state of affairs as much as institutional considerations.
    In 2014, Narendra Modi took office as India's Prime Minister. Bilateral relations deteriorated in part because of repeated Indian provocations -- from Modi's declaration of support for the people of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, home to a separatist insurgency, to India's decision to launch a "surgical strike" on Pakistani militants.
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    Additionally, multiple developments -- including revelations in the "Panama Papers" about the offshore wealth of Nawaz Sharif's family and a newspaper article recounting how Pakistani civilian leaders took the military to task for not acting sufficiently against militants -- contributed to the poisoning of civil-military relations, and particularly because they came after Prime Minister Sharif threatened the military's institutional interests by daring to push for better relations with India.

    What's coming with Bajwa?

    All this said, there's reason to believe Bajwa will be a strong and effective army chief who will build on, and even increase, the gains made by Sharif and Kayani -- particularly efforts to combat anti-state militants.
    And yet the upshot is that the buzz about Bajwa may prove too good to be true.
    Ultimately, you just don't know what you'll get. When Pervez Musharraf was army chief and then Pakistan's military leader, few initially pegged him as someone with dovish views on India.
    And yet, Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed off on a potential peace process involving Kashmir -- perhaps the closest the two countries have come to resolving that dispute.
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    Raheel Sharif was initially described as low-profile and a relative unknown.
    And yet he steps down as perhaps Pakistan's most popular person -- a celebrity and a virtual cult of personality, as evidenced by billboards and even men's undergarments bearing his likeness and thanking him for his service.
    As Bajwa settles in, perhaps the best advice for analysts is to watch and wait rather than project and predict.