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The Mountains Facing Pakistan’s New Army Chief

For most of Pakistan’s history the Army Chief has held the most important role in the country. So, the appointment of a new Chief this week by the prime minister is a significant moment. General Asim Munir faces a dizzying range of internal and external challenges.

Changing of the guard: Pakistani President Arif Alvi meets with newly appointed Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir on 24 November 2022. Image: Xinhua / Alamy

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has made his decision and has chosen Lieutenant-General Asim Munir to be the next Chief of Army Staff. Sharif has agonised for weeks over this choice and even flew to London in early November to consult his brother, Nawaz, the former prime minister. Both Nawaz and Shehbaz are still haunted by their near-fatal error in choosing Pervez Musharraf in 1998, only for the apparently mild-mannered general to mount a coup the following year and appoint himself president for the next eight years. Nawaz’s long periods of exile and imprisonment serve as constant reminders of the perils of such decisions.

However, the choice seems to be a good one. Munir was the highest ranking general on the list and has a good pedigree. He has commanded a brigade on operations in the northwest and an army corps near the Indian border. He has run Military Intelligence (MI), the body which monitors the security of the army itself, and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful espionage and security agency which looks at external and internal threats to the state. The latter two appointments demonstrate that he has the total confidence of the outgoing chief, General Qamar Bajwa. After all, Bajwa needs someone to protect his back against any future political or judicial moves against his record in office.

Furthermore, President Arif Alvi travelled to Lahore to consult Imran Khan on the appointment. Khan, the leader of the opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, is recovering from a recent assassination attempt and gave his assent. Any surprise is because Khan, when prime minister, had insisted on the removal of General Munir from his ISI role after only eight months and had installed Faiz Hamid in his place. Indeed, PTI supporters suspect that Shehbaz made the appointment on the assumption that Munir still nurtures some bitterness towards Khan for his treatment. However, Khan knows that he has to rebuild relations with the army, which reached breaking point in the lead-up to his resignation as prime minister in April. So, he decided to accept the appointment rather than be accused of meddling with a promotion system in which he has no formal locus.

Munir will have to show diplomatic finesse in restoring some balance between the Pakistan army’s Chinese and US relationships

The army, too, seems broadly content. There was irritation at Corps Commander level when, in 2019, Bajwa extended his term for an additional three years (ruining the career prospects of several generals), and also at the promotions of members of Bajwa’s own Baloch Regiment. By contrast, Munir is from the more mainstream Frontier Force, but the Baloch Regiment and Frontier Force have provided the last four Chiefs and the Punjab Regiment, which sees itself as the core of the Pakistan army, will undoubtedly feel bruised. Nonetheless, Munir is here to stay for the next three and possibly six years.

The first challenge facing Munir is the chaos in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Far from being helpful to a Pakistan army which sustained them during their 20 years out of power, the Taliban have been almost vindictive: refusing to hand over terrorists of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (the TTP, or Pakistani Taliban), disputing the de facto border with Pakistan (the Durand Line), and even threatening to enter a dialogue with India on the provocative subject of military training.

In parallel, Munir needs to provide some tangible reassurance to the Chinese. Beijing is privately infuriated by the failure of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. In spite of China’s suggestions of incorporating Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Taliban are refusing to crack down on the several thousand Uighur militants in Afghanistan who have made common cause with the TTP and the Baloch Liberation Army, which targets Chinese infrastructure projects in Balochistan. These are core elements of the BRI known locally as CPEC (the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor). The failure of CPEC would raise more international questions about the success of the BRI. So, for the Chinese, the stakes are higher than they might seem to outsiders.

Furthermore, Munir will have to show diplomatic finesse in restoring some balance between the Pakistan army’s Chinese and US relationships. General Bajwa has spent a lot of time courting the US government, which had resented Pakistan’s opaque role during the latter years of NATO’s Afghan presence. Bajwa made clear that the Pakistan army wanted close relations with both Beijing and Washington. This has annoyed Beijing, which finds it hard to understand why Pakistan still clings to its US alliance in spite of the Pakistan army’s own narrative of Washington’s multiple betrayals. The answer is simple. Pakistan values the technical superiority of US weapons, and Pakistani officers want to train at the US War College and to send their children to US, not Chinese, universities.

Munir is not going to find it easy to handle a popular and populist prime minister at a time when the army has been coming in for domestic criticism for its involvement in politics

In recent months Pakistan appears to have been providing Ukraine with tank and artillery ammunition, in a move likely to help restore the country’s strained relations with the West and to atone for Khan’s inept visit to Moscow on the very day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the big US requirement is to fly drones from Pakistan to monitor and strike terrorist targets in Afghanistan. Khan has always been hostile to US drone activity, but it may also be the only way for Pakistan to counter its own threat from the TTP.

This brings us to Munir’s biggest challenge: how to manage the man who is almost certain to become prime minister again in 2023 on the crest of a large populist wave. General Bajwa has assured Pakistanis that the army has backed out of politics since February 2021. But the reality is not so simple. The army controls policy towards India and Afghanistan. It sees itself as the guardian of the country’s unity and security, and it also has a large stake in the economy. Hitherto, every civilian government has had to accept the army’s political role. Khan baulked at the limitations on his freedom of action, especially over foreign policy, and took the almost unprecedented step of criticising the army’s interference in public. At much the same time, he invented a story that the US had been conspiring to overthrow his government. This brand of anti-Western populism has served Khan well electorally for over a decade, but it causes Pakistan considerable problems of governance, particularly for an economy which frequently teeters on the edge of disaster.

General Munir is not going to find it easy to handle a popular and populist prime minister at a time when the army has been coming in for domestic criticism for its involvement in politics. Khan will want to repair his reputation with the military and to have good relations with his army chief, but a time will come when he wishes to assert his own political primacy, whether in relations with Washington, Beijing and New Delhi or over policy towards the BRI, Afghanistan and Kashmir. This is when tensions with the army are likely to re-emerge, and when we will discover the true qualities of General Munir.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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