After months of speculation and political contention, Pakistan’s new army chief has been named. Though each handover of the baton generates some noise, this is the first time that the appointment gave rise to so much controversy, analysis and suspense. This became all the more pronounced because of the political flux in the country. Besides being the most senior in the present cohort of two-star generals, Lt. General Asim Munir is backed in his appointment by his reportedly unblemished service record. With President Arif Alvi formally approving the government’s proposal, Munir is set to take over from COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa on November 29.
In recent weeks, the possibility that Munir would be elevated as the chief had added much yeast to the political ferment in Pakistan. As Director-General of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence, Munir had made himself unpopular with then Prime Minister Imran Khan — apparently for informing him privately of alleged corrupt practices by the First Lady and her family. For this, Munir had to go after the shortest stint of any ISI DG in the history of the agency. Khan was then on good enough terms with Bajwa for the latter to have agreed to this course of action. But Munir’s emergence as a dark horse in the COAS sweepstakes appears to have panicked Khan, who even tried pushing for a “consensus” candidate. What all this means is the appointment may not calm the rough political waters in which Pakistan finds itself right now. The next few months will likely see Munir trying to reunite an army which now has pro- and anti-Imran factions, and re-establishing its predominance as the final arbiter of the country’s destiny. General Bajwa’s parting words that the army no longer wanted to be involved in politics but cautioning against speaking ill of the “institution” contains mixed messages and raises more questions about the military-civilian imbalance next door.
For India, Bajwa’s tenure was a mixed bag. He disapproved of Nawaz Sharif’s attempts to make peace with India, and it was under his watch that the former PM was unseated through a “judicial coup”. But four years later, the General has himself extended a hand of peace and indicated that Pakistan should resume trade with India. It was under him that the Pakistan army came to an agreement with the Indian army to maintain strictly the fraying 2003 ceasefire on the LoC. The pressures of the Financial Action Task Force led to a downscaling of cross-border militancy, but drones now drop weapons and drugs over the Line of Control and International Border in J&K. His successor may continue with this ambiguity. Munir headed the ISI when the Pulwama bombing took place, and subsequently, was the man behind the scenes in the release of fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. India has no option but to continue to keep its guard up.