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Off The Record?: COAS Bajwa Met Dozens Of TV Anchors, Social Media Continues To Speculate

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Last weekend, Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javaid Bajwa invited nearly 30 TV anchors and journalists to an informal, frank dialogue on regional security, peace with India and other issues of concern that included the ongoing political developments and media freedoms.

No official record of the meeting has been shared as the rendezvous was ‘off the record’, but such interactions given their nature rarely remain secret. Much speculation has been made regarding the meeting and some details have come to light through indirect sources. These comprise vlogs by journalists Asad Toor, Bilal Ghauri and Rauf Klasra, among others and an article written by Fahd Hussain for the Daily Dawn. Mainstream media especially TV channels have pretended that this reportedly 7-hour-long interaction never took place.

Here’s what we know so far

Regional security & peace with India

Gen Bajwa apparently shared his three personal wishes: first, he wants Pakistan to be a ‘normal’ state, i.e. free from ‘jihadi’ culture. Thus, ‘jettisoning militant organisations and dismantling their networks’ seems deliberate rethink, according to Fahd Husain’s article that does not mention this meeting but it is not too difficult to derive this conclusion from that. As was noted by Husain, high level officials have been crafting and exerting this ‘renewed’ narrative in Pakistan’s security apparatus, away from geostrategic depth. A paradigm shift that centres on economy, and social uplift.

Gen Bajwa is also hopeful of Aghan peace. Taliban and Afghan government would make a broader consensus on power sharing and elections will be held after which the elected group would form the government. Pakistan would extend all-out support to all factions for peaceful transition in post-American Afghan set up.

Pakistan wants to improve its relations with India as both realise that conventional war is a distant possibility now and any confrontation could lead to mutual suicide.

Secondly, “Pakistan wants to flex its financial muscles”, writes Husain. It badly needs economic stability. Thirdly, as far as Indian position is concerned, India cannot afford a two-front confrontation. Owing to its recent conflict with China on Ladakh, it had to move a significant portion of army personnel to Northern border thus bringing the Pak-India forces ratio to equal. It used to be highly favouring to India as 1:3. Added to the point is a corollary that India no more considers Pakistan to be a greater threat but China. Pakistan’s need to prioritise the economy and stability has led to reciprocate Indian wish for rapprochement.

Strategic rethink. Gen Bajwa wishes Pakistan to be a ‘normal’ state.

Backchannel diplomacy – the economic compulsion

Backchannel diplomacy has been confirmed by official sources on both sides of the border. Although FM Shah Mehmood denies it, it is no more a secret as Gen Bajwa ascertained that back-channel diplomacy is in place since 2017 and the recent ceasefire along LoC is a logical outcome of this process. During the meeting under review, trade, as a confidence building measure was also talked about, but it was stalled by cabinet. The backchannel talks are being held between the intelligence leaderships of the two countries, writes Fahd Husain, adding that it was insisted by India and Pakistan consented. The back-channel was also initiated in 2017 when the-then PM Khaqan Abbasi formally gave a ‘go-ahead’.

Both sides want to resolve issues including Kashmir. However, there is no wiggle room on statehood, identity of Kashmir as Pakistan may move past with Article-370 but 35A is something that could be a big bump in talks. There will be no third-party mediation in the talks, it has been agreed so far. A possible breakthrough could be on Sir Creek issue, noted Hussain. Kashmir for the time being might be put on back burner so that two sides could work on issues separately rather than having a composite dialogue.

When asked if the current rethink would be intact after he is gone, Gen Bajwa reportedly said that he took the commanders on board. Klasra however suggests that civilian leadership should refrain from lumping the stance into treason; political leaders label befriending, normalizing, move of now-in-opposition PM as treasonous (see ‘Modi ka yaar’ phenomenon). That could be a setback.

The TLP question

What used to be assets are now liabilities as they challenge the state writ. That seems to be a nuanced, principle that Gen Bajwa hinted at. However, as Klasra and others have noted Gen. Bajwa said something different on the issue of the banned TLP as it would be brought back into the national fold. The implication of such mainstreaming is that the ban would be lifted; and the party will compete in national ‘politics with peace’.

Attack on Absar Alam

Gen Bajwa was bluntly asked whether the army was involved in the attack on journalist Absar Alam. According to Rauf Klasra and Toor, he denied and added that army was too big an institution which could not be made insecure with a few tweets. According to the vloggers, Gen. Bajwa referred to former NA speaker Ayaz Sadiq who rebuked the military leadership saying that their legs were shaking fearing Indian retaliation (after the 2019 escalation).  How could such an attack be pinned on military when remarks far more offensive had not been registered or responded in kind. Asad Toor, however, thinks otherwise. He recalls targeted attacks on journalists like Saleem Shehzad and Hamid Mir. Also, the technology used in the attack on Absar Alam, according to Asad Ali Toor, hints involvement of high tier organized security outlet. Most Vloggers attributed this question to anchor Munizae Jahangir but she denied it on Twitter.

On the incarcerated MNA Ali Wazir

MNA from Waziristan Ali Wazir is lingering in jail and such a treatment to a representative to thousands of Pakistanis does not seem befitting, notes Asad Toor. Gen Bajwa was apparently asked about this and he said that Wazir had a case of illegal occupation of land for a bus stand and the army had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, Asad Toor thinks that Ali Wazir has been singled out as a target for his political views. Toor added in his Vlog that there is a long list of land cases against many MPAs and MNAs but no action was taken against them.

Army did not fire Nawaz Sharif

According to unconfirmed reports, Gen Bajwa in that meeting stated that his institution cooperated with Nawaz Sharif but he fell ‘under his own weight.’ Asad Toor, in his vlog, however, thinks otherwise. He recalls that representatives of security agencies were members of JIT that probed Sharif’s assets and financial transactions. The conundrum of Dawn leaks, proactive engagement with Modi ‘bypassing’ the army were well-reported factors. It goes without saying that the foreign policy maters are not decided in foreign office or the PM office in Pakistan.

‘aey vii saade tay paa deyo’ – No, not everything that happens in Pakistan is the doing of the establishment. Apparently Gen Bajwa was answering a question on Shehbaz Sharif’s bail, according to Rauf Klasra

On Imran Khan

Gen Bajwa denied that army was calling the shots. It was exerting no influence in the running of the government, said the Army Chief. Klasra said that Gen Bajwa in a lighter vein said that if army could, it would have made PM Khan remove CM Buzdar by now.

Should the meeting be held secret? Was it a right approach, as parliament could be a more pertinent means to communicate? What more went inside – in the days to come, we would find out. However, Gen Bajwa is claimed to have said in a lighter note that if asked about anything, he would out rightly deny.

Media and the military

Klasra has reported that Gen Bajwa pointed out some anchors and their talk shows, prompting journalists whether the COAS watched so much TV. Gen Bajwa said although he did not watch TV, he was regularly updated. (According to Haroonur Rasheed, security institutions in most countries keep an eye on media in the national interest). About the the attack on Hamid Mir, Gen Bajwa ostensibly asked Mir to file an FIR against former spymaster Gen Zaheer ul Islam after Mir allegedly said that Gen Islam orchestrated the attack on him.

Gen Bajwa apparently complained that media personnel rarely corrected their guests on issues of national security, and national interest according to Klasra. The media gives relatively greater attention to ‘missing persons’ and not the martyred soldiers whose families “missed” (lost) their loved ones.

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