Pakistan gets a new army chief, but will he play the old game?
General Asim Munir, Pakistan’s new military chief, took command this week amid security and economic crises and a deepening political rift between opposition leader Imran Khan and the government. Can the new man on the job stem the chaos, and would that entail the old way of doing military business in Pakistan?
As the troops in full dress stood at attention, Pakistan’s new army chief was handed the baton of command at a ceremony on Tuesday, November 29, ending months of uncertainty and political tensions in a nuclear-armed nation with a history of military coups.
In keeping with military tradition, General Asim Munir looked his predecessor, General Qamar Bajwa, in the eye, as the outgoing army chief handed him the Malacca Cane, Pakistan’s baton of command.
In the 75 years since Pakistan gained independence, the army has seized power three times and directly ruled the country for almost four decades.
It also has an outsized economic presence, with experts estimating that the army controls more than 10 percent of the country’s real estate in addition to its interests in diverse sectors ranging from construction and insurance companies to army-owned bakeries.
The appointment of a new army chief – often called the most important post in Pakistan – has long been the stuff of headline news in the country. But this time, the lead-up package of rumors, reports of backdoor meetings and outright conjecture was exceptionally fraught.
Pakistan is in deep crisis. The country had to secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan in August to avert a default exacerbated by galloping inflation and the decimation of the vital agricultural sector following devastating floods earlier this year.
Tuesday’s army command handover came a day after the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) – also known as the Pakistani Taliban – ended a ceasefire with the government and ordered its fighters to resume attacks across the country.
A day later, the TTP conducted a suicide attack on a police vehicle in the western Baluchistan province, which killed four people and wounded 23 others.
While Gen. Munir was accepting the Malacca Cane at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s foreign minister was meeting her Afghan counterpart in Kabul amid fears of increasing cross-border attacks.
The Taliban are separate groups in both countries, but they share a common ideology and allegiances, which the TTP renewed following the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, Islamabad condemned the TTP’s use of Afghan soil to conduct attacks in Pakistan.
But it was ‘Taliban Khan“ – the moniker given to former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan – that was the source of much of the drama around the army chief’s appointment.
Four years ago, the all-powerful army backed Khan in the 2018 election, believing the former cricketer with no regional political base and a ‘born again’ penchant for espousing Islamist family values, sharia law and negotiating with the Taliban would make a pliant candidate.
They were proved wrong. Since he was ousted from office in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, Khan turned on the military and has unleashed a populist mass mobilisation in a bid to regain the prime minister’s post. This has put Gen Munir’s new job at the centre of the storm.
Pakistan’s shortest-serving spy chief
A career army officer, Gen. Munir was a relatively little-known figure when Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif nominated him to the post last week and promoted him to four-star general.
The national media was quick to note that the new army chief was a Hafiz-e-Koran (a person who has memorised the Koran), but failed to elucidate the import of the qualification, if any, on Pakistan’s pressing socio-political concerns.
More interesting by far was the fact that Gen. Munir was also the shortest-serving head of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s infamous spy agency.
In October 2018, Munir was appointed ISI director-general, but just eight months later, he was replaced “on the insistence” of then-PM Khan, according to leading Pakistani daily, Dawn.
Under Pakistani law, the appointment of the head of the intelligence service is the prerogative of the prime minister. But the levers of power in Pakistan are ultimately wielded by the army. It’s a tussle between the generals and civilian leaders that makes for a particularly febrile political climate, providing grist for the national and regional media mill.
According to Pakistani media reports, Gen. Munir lost the top ISI job because he alerted Khan to a corruption scandal involving the then-PM’s wife. His replacement as the country’s spy chief was Faiz Hameed, an army man widely believed to be a Khan loyalist, who held the post for over two years before another shakeup.
Politicising a military position
Gen. Munir’s investiture came on Tuesday, November 29, the day former amy chief Gen. Bajwa’s term ended with his retirement. It was a date that dominated the Pakistani political discourse for months amid speculation that Gen. Bajwa’s term would be extended.
Much of the media storm over the new army chief spot was kicked up by Khan in his bid to get back to power, according to most experts.
Shortly after Khan was removed from office in April in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, the cricketer-politician accused Gen. Bajwa of ousting his government under a US plot, a charge the US and the Pakistani military have denied.
Since his ouster, Khan has mobilised his supporters, leading rallies and “long marches” to denounce his removal from office and push for a snap election. Pakistan’s next elections are due in August 2023.
“Imran Khan tried, at one point, to indicate that it would not be fair to appoint a new army chief until new elections were held. The appointment of a new army chief is normally a relatively unpolitical process, but Khan politicised it by putting the issue in the public domain,” explained Michael Kugelman from the Washington DC-based Wilson Center.
The end of ‘uncertainty’
Tuesday’s army command handover has been greeted with a sigh of relief by experts and Pakistani citizens.
“The fact that the new army chief was appointed and sworn in – this can hopefully put Pakistan on the path to political stability. It has removed a key source of uncertainty, and uncertainty does not bode well for political stability,” said Kugelman.
After months of taking to the airwaves to denounce the army’s interference in politics, Khan on Wednesday finally congratulated the country’s new army chief.
In a Twitter post, Khan said he hoped the new military leadership will “work to end prevailing trust deficit that has built up in last 8 months between the nation and the State”.
Khan has played a key role in upping that trust deficit in a country that rarely, if ever, had a public confidence surplus. His acceptance of a military official he once fired from Pakistan’s top intelligence job marks yet another turn in the former PM’s complex relationship with the all-powerful army.
From army’s ‘favourite son’ to nemesis
While Khan has a near-worshipful support base that includes Islamists and conservative Muslims, his critics are quick to note the inconsistencies in his positions on the army. They note that it was Khan who extended former army chief Gen. Bajwa’s tenure in 2019, while he was prime minister, only to turn on the military man when he was ousted from power by the country’s parliament.
“Imran Khan was the favourite son of the army, which helped enable him to become prime minister. But the relationship then went sour. To me, it’s not surprising. Khan is very strong-willed and that’s not a personality trait army chiefs appreciate,” explained Kugelman.
The former PM’s acquiescence on the new army chief appointment is a welcome sign for many experts. “Khan’s anti-military rhetoric has toned down. I think he’s trying to patch up relations with the army,” noted Kugelman. “If a civilian politician wants to become Pakistan’s prime minister, they need to be on good terms with the army.”
Just days after current Prime Minister Sharif announced Gen. Munir’s nomination, Khan called off a “long march” to the capital, Islamabad, over the weekend. It was billed as his first public appearance since an assassination attempt on November 3.
“I have decided not to go to Islamabad because I know there will be havoc, and the loss will be to the country,” said Khan. Instead, he announced that his party would resign from provincial and administrative assemblies in a new bid to push for early elections.
While Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) quit the federal parliament following his ouster, the party also holds power in two provinces and two administrative units in the country.
“If Khan is pressurising the government with parliamentary tactics, that’s not as destabilising as his angry supporters protesting in the heart of the capital,” said Kugelman.
Hybrid of military and electoral power
Restoring stability and public trust in what Pakistanis call “the establishment” when referring to the country’s vast security apparatus is one of the key challenges confronting the country’s new army chief. Given the country’s myriad crises, it’s a big ask, experts concede.
Over the past two decades, the Pakistani military has avoided a direct power takeover, which would be ruinous for an impoverished nation dependent on foreign aid and IMF credit. It has instead attempted a hybrid regime featuring elements of electoral democracy coexisting with continuing military influence.
Since the last period of military rule from 1999-2008, the generals have tended to favour pliant civilian governments that steer clear of the military’s core interests in national and regional security.
The political mayhem in Islamabad has left many in the political class wondering if the army will play a role in defusing the current crisis. If that’s the case, it does not bode well for the domestic and international credentials of Gen. Munir and the institution he leads.
“The army has been so entrenched in Pakistan’s political fabric for so many years. I find it hard to believe the institution would suddenly step away. Army chiefs may say they want to keep a distance from politics, but we’ve been here before,” said Kugelman. “I don’t think the army is going to stop interfering in politics.”
With an election due next year – regardless of whether Khan gets his way on a snap poll – the Pakistani army’s new man on the job looks set to have a perilous time navigating an old game.