RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) — The new head of Pakistan’s army took command of the armed forces Tuesday amid rising tensions with arch-rival India over disputed Kashmir and as ties with Afghanistan remain rocky.
In his first comments after assuming charge of the country’s powerful army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa signaled that the ongoing tensions with India along their frontier will ease soon. “The situation at the Line of Control will hopefully improve soon,” he told reporters after the change of command ceremony.
Bajwa was installed at a ceremony in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, replacing Gen. Raheel Sharif, who steps down after completing his three-year term during in which the military launched several operations against al-Qaida, Taliban and local militants to dismantle their sanctuaries near Afghanistan and elsewhere in the country.
Bajwa was fourth in seniority on a list of five army generals sent to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and had been little discussed until picked him. According to the constitution, the prime minister can pick any officer from the list forwarded to him by the Defense Ministry.
The change in command took place when the outgoing army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, publicly handed over his “Malacca stick” to his successor at a ceremony that was witnessed by civilian and military leaders, as well as diplomats.
The Malacca baton, which is made of bamboo produced in Singapore, is part of the Pakistan army uniform. The change in command has taken place this way starting in the British colonial days. Pakistan became independent in 1947 when Britain gave independence to Pakistan and India, although the military has ruled this Islamic nation for nearly half of the time since then.
Tuesday’s ceremony in Rawalpindi near the capital Islamabad comes as tensions have climbed between Pakistan and neighboring India over Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region which is divided between the two nuclear-armed rivals and claimed by both.
Pakistan and India have been working with reduced number of diplomats in each other’s capitals for the past several weeks when both sides withdrew some of their diplomats amid tension over Kashmir.
The outgoing army chief called for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute for the sake of regional stability. But he also warned that any miscalculation on the part of India could be dangerous. “I want to make it clear to India that taking our policy of constraint and patience as any sign of weakness will prove dangerous for itself,” he said.
Observers believe Bajwa will offer more support to Sharif’s efforts to improve ties with Pakistan’s neighbors, including Afghanistan and India.
Pakistan’s relations with Kabul have also soured amid allegations from Afghan officials that Islamabad shelters the Taliban, who have intensified attacks against the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
Pakistan’s army says it has dismantled many militant sanctuaries in the tribal regions, but the militants have still been able to carry out high-profile attacks.
Bajwa, who was commissioned in the 16 Baloch Regiment in October 1980, is a graduate of Canadian Forces Command and Staff College in Canada, and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.