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Can Pakistan's new army chief save his country?

Syed Asim Munir has taken charge in Pakistan at a time when the country is particularly fragile. But who is he really, and can he, the most powerful person now in Pakistan, save the country?

Syed Asim Munir is the new Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan.

Pakistan has a new army chief. Lieutenant-General Syed Asim Munir has been appointed as the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan as the six year tenure of General Qamar Javed Bajwa comes to an end. The new appointment has been approved by the President of Pakistan Arif Alvi and scheduled to be enforced from November 29th 2022.

In an already volatile political climate, Pakistan now receives a new Chief of Army Staff. As the army has always held a firm position in the Pakistani political structure, it would be interesting to note the implications of this new appointment. Lieutenant-General Asim Munir will be inheriting a Pakistan that has mixed opinions on the relevance of Army in the political decision making structure. The country has struggled to maintain a democratic environment since its inception and the recurrent military coups overthrowing the democratically elected have placed the political baton in the army’s hands quite often.

Before understanding what the new Army Chief faces in terms of the challenges within the country as well as cross border issues with India, it is important to know who Lieutenant-General Asm Munir is.

A Four Star General

The new Army Chief Asim Munir is a highly reputed officer with many accolades under his name. He has been the former Director General of Military Intelligence as well the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. The Military Intelligence (MI) is the intelligence branch of the Pakistani branch of the Pakistani Army. This makes Lieutenant-General Asim Munir as the only Army Chief to head two of the three premier intelligence organisations in the country.

His appointment to the Director General of ISI happened in October 2018 and was removed from office by the then Prime Minister Imran Khan in June 2019. This also forms the basis of their tensions between the two. Now, as Munir becomes the Army Chief by winning the race against Imran Khan’s favourable candidate Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed Chaudhary, the rift is likely to consolidate further.

The winner of the prestigious Sword of Honour for the best performing cadet, Lieutenant-General Munir also holds the Hilal-e-Imtiaz which is the second highest civilian honour in the country accorded to civilian as well as military personnel for their extraordinary services to the state. He has also headed the X Corps of the Pakistan Army in the Punjab province along with Lieutenant-General Bajwa. Lieutenant-General Munir has also held the command of the Army cadres in the northern areas of Pakistan including the disputed regions of Kashmir.

His strong portfolio suggests that the new army chief likely holds a comprehensive intelligence and strategic understanding of the strategic issues within and outside of the country.

A Hardliner?

It is a known fact that Lieutenant-General is often referred to as the ‘mullah General’ owing to his status as the Hafiz-e-Quran. The title of the Hafiz bestowed upon him suggests that he has memorised and can recite the whole Quran by himself. This fact has prompted people to consider the fact that he could become a ‘religiously inclined’ Chief of Army Staff. What this could mean for the Army’s position regarding religious matters, is for time to tell.

However, this factor could be viewed with a little bit of caution. This is because in the recently uncovered sections of Shuja Nawaz’s book “The Battle for Pakistan”, Munir has been described as the ‘tough officer rooted in the Islamic traditions’. Not only this, there is an account of Munir maintaining a ‘hardliner’ position within the army and overpowering his subordinates with his ‘cult status’. Reportedly, he has had a role to play in the removal of Islamabad’s high court judge Justice Shaukat Aziz for criticising the ISI under his leadership. Even though the claim has been refuted by Justice Aziz himself, there could still be some apprehensions about his religious inclinations.

Whatever approach the new Army Chief is likely to take in his new role, it is no news that there stand a plethora of challenges in front of him as he begins in tenure shortly.

The challenges ahead

It may seem that even though as the Army Chief the focus of attention for Lieutenant-General Munir would be the cross border disputes and tensions with India, the reality points to the fact that the major challenges lie within the home.

This is because Munir has taken over Pakistan at possibly its most fragile situation politically, economically as well as strategically. Owing to the central role that the Army occupies in the political matters of the country, all of this is likely to affect his tenure. Most of all, the focus would be on the rift that exists within the Pakistani Army. There are strong pro and anti Imran Khan factions within the army. The first major goal as the chief would be to bridge the gap and find a balance between these factions. Even though Munir himself may not see eye to eye with Imran Khan, as the head of the institution, his challenge would be to keep the army from disintegrating further into these factions.

The next important challenge at home would be to restore the faith in the Pakistani Army. The Army has been losing its credibility as a reliable institution and it is an open secret that the new chief is a favoured candidate of the ruling Shareef family. It would thus be a challenge to establish the credibility of the Army once again. The last speech of Lieutenant-General Bajwa as he steps down the office was probably an attempt to establish the grounds for this work. Bajwa claimed that the army would likely stay out of the political matters and restructure its role in Pakistan’s governance.

During his years in service, Lieutenant-General Munir has held the control of the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA), as the army chief, he will have to take the command of all the divisions of the Army spread across the country. This is the reason why the unrest in Balochistan forms another major challenge for Munir. The tensions have also started affecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as the Baloch rebels target Chinese nationals as a form of protest.

Another task would be to manage the cross border tensions with India and now with the advent of Taliban, there are tensions up in the north as well.

What does it mean for India?

While the appointment of new Chiefs of Army Staff is a routine administrative procedure, the implications largely depend on who gets appointed and when. In this case, Lieutenant-General Asim Munir was the Director General of the Inter-State Service during the Pulwama crisis. This means he was the head of the prime intelligence agency of Pakistan during the most tense cross border situations between the two countries in years. He was also a part of the negotiations to secure the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was captured by Pakistan after his MiG fighter jet collapsed on the other side of the border.

There is less enthusiasm on the Indian side regarding the position that Munir is likely to take on the question of Kashmir and India. He is most likely to echo the sentiments of the previous officers in the position. However, it would be interesting to note the position the new army chief takes on the question of normalising relations with India and mitigating the tensions.

A decorated army officer, Lieutenant-General was the senior most candidate among the list of others in the race. The appointment was quite clear when Shahbaz Sharif noted that the principle of seniority would be followed while choosing the next chief. He is now in command of a nuclear weapons possessing army and appointed at a strategically important time for Pakistan. Whether he will take hints from the vision of Lieutenant-General Bajwa or carve his own path in the power structure of the country will define the trajectory of the country for the years to come.


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