Pakistan’s powerful army chief has been granted a three-year extension in his post – as tensions with India again flared over disputed Kashmir.
Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had been due to end his three-year tenure in November but has been allowed to stay on “in view of the regional security environment,” a statement said.
As Chief of Army Staff, he heads what is widely considered Pakistan’s most powerful and popular institution, which has ruled the country for almost half its existence.
Imran Khan’s government said the decision put Pakistan’s forces in safe hands when the country was facing an emergency because of Delhi’s decision to end self-rule in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Delhi’s move to abolish autonomy in the country’s only Muslim-majority state has been been condemned as illegal by Pakistan and triggered another stand-off between the turbulent neighbours.
But Gen Bajwa’s extension is also likely to intensify opposition allegations that the country’s generals are seeking to embed their grip on the country at the expense of civilian institutions. During Gen Bajwa’s tenure, the military has been accused of manipulating last year’s elections to appoint their favoured candidate, Mr Khan. Rights groups have also complained that dissent and the media are being stifled by military-backed censorship. The military denies manipulating politics or censoring the media.
“I welcome the extension of General Bajwa for another term,” said Naeem ul Haque, a special adviser to Mr Khan.
“His leadership, integrity and patriotism is critical at this crucial juncture when Pakistan is facing a grave crisis in Kashmir. The whole nation can feel comfortable that leadership of our armed forces is in good hands.”
Gen Bajwa’s standing was highlighted last month when he accompanied Mr Khan to Washington for meetings with President Donald Trump, as Pakistan tried to reset ties with its ally. Both America and Britain see help from Pakistan’s military, which they have long accused of supporting the Taliban, as crucial to delivering a political settlement in Afghanistan. The meetings appeared to be a success for Pakistan, with Mr Trump praising his guest and suggesting that suspended military aid could be resumed.
But only days later, India’s decision to revoke article 370 of its constitution and end Kashmir’s special status appeared to catch Pakistan off guard. Pakistan’s claim on disputed Kashmir and its support for Kashmiris against Delhi have been a cornerstone of foreign and defence policy since independence.
Pakistan’s military has said it will go to any extent to support Kashmiris, but analysts point out the country has few military options. Conventional military action risks escalating into a nuclear confrontation, while the use of militant proxies inside Kashmir would probably anger America, which has demanded that Pakistan cut extremist henchmen loose. Pakistan has instead so far turned to diplomacy, trying to raise Kashmir before the United Nations Security Council.
The country observed a ‘Black Day’ of protest last week to coincide with India’s Independence Day celebrations.