After a period of suspense and intense speculation, the Pakistan government has picked Lt General Asim Munir, currently the Quartermaster General, to succeed General Qamar Javed Bajwa as the Chief of Army Staff on his retirement on November 29. He had earlier served as Director General of Military Intelligence and ISI, as well as the Commander of Pakistan army’s XXX Corps at Gujranwala.
Munir is the senior-most officer in the army after Bajwa. However, his appointment has not been without controversy.
To begin with, he was due to retire on November 27 — two days before the post of army chief falls vacant. As per Pakistani media reports, the government decided to retain his services on security considerations under the Army Act until he takes over as chief. Further, he had been shunted from the post of DG ISI within eight months in June 2019 by then PM Imran Khan, reportedly because of some disagreements and replaced by the latter’s favourite, Lt General Faiz Hameed. Imran Khan looked at Munir with suspicion, which was compounded by the reports of Munir’s choice as chief having been made by exiled PML(N) supremo, Nawaz Sharif.
Expecting Munir’s elevation, Imran Khan had stated recently that President Arif Alvi, who belonged to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), would consult the former PM before approving the appointment. The president’s approval is a constitutional requirement. The president can delay it by about 30 days and send it back for reconsideration. He is, however, bound to approve it after the government recommends it again. Government representatives had said that they were prepared to deal with any delay by the president without spelling out how they would do so. According to some reports, in such a contingency, Munir could have been appointed the Vice Chief of Army Staff to hold the fort till presidential approval. However, better sense appears to prevail in the presidential and PTI camps. The president gave his approval after a meeting with Imran Khan in Lahore. Imran had also announced he would join the long march of his supporters in Rawalpindi on November 26 and reveal his further course of action. It is possible that the presidential approval was facilitated by some assurances of an even-handed attitude by the incoming army chief to Imran Khan.
The new army chief will face many complex challenges. His foremost task will be to deal with the damage done to the army’s image by Bajwa’s political engineering throughout his six-year tenure. This has been compounded by reports of his immediate family having amassed considerable wealth after he became army chief. In a recent farewell speech, he admitted that the army has faced criticism from time to time because of its involvement in politics, which he described as “unconstitutional”.
Bajwa claimed that in February last year, the army leadership had decided after a lot of deliberation not to interfere in any political issue. He added that the army had initiated its catharsis and hoped that political parties would also review their conduct. Given his record in office, few are impressed by this mea culpa and his assurance of political neutrality or that his successors would be bound by it. The army cannot stay neutral if it has to protect its prime position in the polity and its enormous perks and privileges. However, the new army chief will have to contend with the public anger against the institution now embodied by the increasingly popular Imran Khan. There is also reported sympathy for Imran within the army. A wise course for Munir would be not to seek revenge against Imran Khan, keep the army away from politics and at best play the role of a facilitator for dialogue between opposing political camps. He should let the politicians slug it out and look for an opportune moment to recover the lost ground for the army.
Another major challenge for Munir would be the continued terrorist activities within Pakistan by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror groups, notably in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There were reports recently of TTP activists resurfacing and consolidating their position in the Swat area, which had seen an army operation in 2009. These were initially denied by the authorities, but finally acknowledged in the face of public protests. There is no easy solution to this problem. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan has not brought the dividends that the Pakistanis might have expected. They have refused to act against TTP elements in Afghanistan, recommending instead a solution through dialogue. The Taliban does not acknowledge the Durand Line and oppose Pakistan’s fencing activity along it.
Munir will also face the difficult task of sustaining and nurturing Pakistan’s renewed transactional activity with the US. Bajwa was able to begin this towards the end of his tenure, resulting in the F-16 sustenance package from the US. At the same time, the new chief will also have to continue to broaden and deepen Pakistan’s all-important relationship with China.
In the course of his career, Asim Munir has served as commander of the Pakistan forces in “Northern Areas” and Corps Commander, Gujranwala — both posts focussed on India. Because of the multiple challenges outlined above and Pakistan’s precarious economic situation, he may in the immediate term espouse Bajwa’s policy, seen over the last two years or so, of tactical restraint towards India. This may mean a continuing respect for the LoC ceasefire and not ramping up terror activity. However, we will have to watch out once his other compulsions ease a bit.
While the appointment of a new army chief to succeed the by now highly-controversial Bajwa has been expected to bring a degree of calm to Pakistan’s deeply divided polity, much will depend upon how Munir conducts himself, particularly in dealing with the highly polarised political situation.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan