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Pakistan’s new Army Chief Asim Munir faces an uphill task

Lt. Gen. Asim Munir

Lieutenant General Asim Munir Ahmed was appointed Pakistan’s new Army Chief on Nov 24. He will formally take over from Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa when the latter retires on Nov 29. Munir was the senior most Lieutenant General, posted as Quartermaster General (QMG) at General Headquarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi but he was slated to retire on Nov 27. This technical glitch was resolved during a Cabinet meeting on Nov 24, where relevant Rules of Business relating to the Army Act, 1952 were used authorizing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to retain his services. Thereafter, a summary was sent for the President’s approval.

Under Art 243(4) of the 1973 Constitution, the Prime Minister’s advice is `binding’ on the President but Art 48 (1) gives the President an option to delay his assent. The cat seemed set against pigeons when President Arif Alvi decided to go to Lahore after receiving the summary from the Prime Minister’s office, to meet Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf leader, Imran Khan. The latter had told a private TV channel on Nov 23 that Dr Alvi would consult him on the appointment. However, no constitutional crisis ensued as the President returned to Islamabad the same evening and signed his assent. Better sense seems to have prevailed on the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) leadership not to enter into a fresh confrontation with the Army leadership.

Along with the Army Chief’s appointment, Pakistan’s other four-star General’s slot – the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) has been filled up by Lt.Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Sindh Regiment, erstwhile X Corps Commander, Rawalpindi. The present incumbent as CJCSC, Mohd Nadeem Raza retires on Nov 27. Both the newly appointed Generals paid courtesy calls on the President and Prime Minister the same evening.

These appointments had been delayed, leading to a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories in Pakistan. Ever since his ouster through a no-confidence vote in April, ’22, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had been determined to make the appointment of the new Army Chief controversial. He claimed at his frequent public meetings that leaders of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government, especially Shehbaz Sharif and his exiled elder brother in London, former PM Nawaz Sharif had no right to make this decision. He asked for consultations with him, through President Alvi and suggested that a panel of names could be considered; failing which, Gen Bajwa’s term could be indefinitely extended, for general elections to be held first.

After the abortive attempt on his life in Wazirabad on November 03, Imran Khan has been trying to take stock of what political options lie before him. He declared he is moving on from allegations of a sinister foreign conspiracy behind his ouster. Affecting another `U turn’, Imran declared he will now accept any decision the government makes on the Army Chief’s appointment. On Saturday, Nov 26’s public rally at Islamabad, being held in culmination of his interrupted `Long March’, he can be expected to outline a new, perhaps somewhat milder agitational agenda for now.

Asim Munir will be Pakistan’s 15 th Army Chief (not counting the two British officers- Messervy and Gracey, who helmed it between 1947-51). He graduated with the sword of honour (first position) from the 17 th course of the Officers Training School (OTS), Mangla (a feeder stream for recruitment alongside the Pakistan Military Academy long courses at Kakul) in 1986.

He belongs to the Frontier Force Regiment (FFR) also known as Piffers (Punjab Irregular Force), which was set up by the British as the third oldest infantry unit in Pakistan in 1843, after the Punjab and Baloch regiments. He will be the fourth Chief from FFR. Three other Chiefs from FFR were Musa (1958-66), Abdul Waheed Kakar (1993-96) and Raheel Sharif (2013-2016). He hails from a modest middle-class family in Dheri-Hassanbad, near Rawalpindi. His parents migrated from Jallandhar, Punjab. Munir joins 7 other Punjabis who have become the Army Chief (Zia, Tikka Khan, Asif Nawaz, Karamat, Kayani, Raheel Sharif & Bajwa), 3 Pashtuns (Ayub, Gul Hassan & Abdul Waheed Kakar), 1 Hazara (Musa), 1 Qizilbash (Yahya) and 2 Mohajirs (Aslam Beg & Musharraf).

Asim Munir had served as Pakistan’s Defence Attache in Saudi Arabia and as Chief Instructor in the Command & Staff College, Quetta (CSC) earlier. He was well liked by Gen Bajwa. He held crucial assignments, heading a brigade in the turbulent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and as the Commander, Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA), when Bajwa was Corps Commander, Rawalpindi. He was then was brought in as DG Military Intelligence (DGMI) in 2017. He was promoted as DG, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in October, 2018 but joined a little late as Lieutenant General in November, 2018. This was a rather lucky quirk of fate which left him as the senior most among three-star Generals when the COAS selection sweepstakes came up.

However, Asim was transferred out from ISI in a cloud after just 8 months, apparently when he apprised Imran Khan, the Prime Minister then, of alleged financial misdemeanors of certain associates close to the First Lady, Bushra Sheikh @ `Pinky Pir’. Imran took umbrage and asked Gen Bajwa to shift him out from ISI. Asim was posted to the XXX Corps, Gujranwala in June, 2019. After a two-year stint there, he was serving in General Headquarters from October, 2021 as Quartermaster General.

When consulted in London by Shehbaz Sharif recently, former PM Nawaz Sharif possibly took on board Munir’s latent angst against Imran Khan and opted for the seniority yardstick, chastened perhaps, by the memory of unfortunate consequences in not observing seniority while choosing Army Chiefs in the past.

Asim Munir is the first Army General who is a `Hafiz- e- Quran’, qualifying in a religion-based course which he completed from a seminary in Rawalpindi, while in service as a Colonel. He is reputed to have the ability to recite from the Quran forthwith. This fact and the circumstance of his heading the ISI in February, 2019 when the Pulwama attack occurred in Jammu & Kashmir has led some scare-mongers in India to assume Munir may well be a hardline Islamic fundamentalist, which cannot augur well for India.

Hardline he may well be, as any General trained in old school Pakistan Army mindsets would be, but it may not necessarily follow that he is a supporter of radical Islamic views. He has had the reputation of being a tough officer and a stickler for rules in his earlier assignments. However, earlier reports of his alleged involvement in the sacking of a high court judge, Shaukat Siddiqui have recently been denied by the latter, as his de-notification happened on Oct 11, 2018, before Munir joined ISI. Siddiqui blames former Chief Justices Saqib Nisar and Khosa for his ouster, in which Maj Gen Faiz Hameed, then Deputy DG in ISI colluded.

As the new COAS, Gen Asim Munir’s priority must clearly lie in ending dissensions within the Army, at middle and senior levels, which have simmered during the recent fracas between Gen Bajwa and Imran Khan. A section of retired Lieutenant Generals known to have sympathy for Imran Khan, such as Asif Yasin, Tariq Khan and Naeem Lodhi, opposed the Establishment position on the `technical lacuna’ of extending Asim Munir’s service for two days to make him eligible for selection as Army Chief. They opined publicly in favour of deeming the seniority date of eligible Lieutenant Generals valid from Nov 29, not Nov 27. Reports surfaced of Gen Bajwa stopping pensions of some retired Army officers for voicing dissent.

There was a huge traffic of trollers in social media disparaging Bajwa and his team of loyal Generals, forcing DG Inter Services Public Relations, Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar and the DG, ISI, Lt. Gen Nadeem Anjum, to appear together in an unprecedented press conference on Oct 27, where they castigated Imran in no uncertain terms. Already reports have surfaced about Lt. Gen Azhar Abbas, present Chief of General Staff (CGS) considering premature retirement.  Munir will have to lend a healing touch to allay this resentment.

Three other appointments of Lieutenant Generals, to fill up vacant slots, have come to notice after the new Army Chief’s appointment. Lt. Gen Nauman Zakariya, Armoured Corps, goes as X Corps Commander, Rawalpindi. Lt. Gen Ahsan Gulrez, Frontier Force Regiment becomes Director General, Joint Staff at Joint Staff Headquarters, Chaklala and Lt. Gen Shahid Imtiaz, AK Regiment, becomes the new Quartermaster General. The next slew of appointments may come up in April 2023 when three other Lieutenant Generals from the 75th PMA long course retires, or even earlier, enabling Munir the opportunity to put his own team of officers in place.

While Asim Munir cannot disregard the angst of senior officers against Imran, how he deals with the populist support behind the latter will be interesting to watch. While Asim may feel naturally obliged at the way the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government bent backwards to smoothen ruffles about his retiring date, he may need to distance himself from any perception of needless hostility to Imran. He would do well to defuse the current polarized atmosphere and shepherd civilian politicians towards negotiations on an acceptable date for elections.

At the same time, as rather embarrassing disclosures about Gen Bajwa family’s escalated financial assets surfaced on journalist Ahmed Noorani’s `Fact Focus’ website on November 22, the new Chief he may have to nip in the bud any possible witch-hunting which may ensue against the outgoing Chief in days to come. This could become a challenge in evolving civil- military ties if Imran wins the next elections and becomes PM again.

On the external front, the difficult situation prevailing in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover will be a concern. Far from being deferential to their past handlers in the Pakistan Army, the Taliban have been resilient, even defiant while dealing with persisting border infringements across the Durand Line and refusing to handover Tehreek-e- Taliban (TTP) militants on Pakistan’s wanted lists.

Diplomatic balancing may be needed to overcome recent Chinese annoyance on Pakistan’s cozying up to the United States or in handling developments on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, where security of Chinese engineers has been under threat.

In this backdrop, India policy may perforce take a back seat and any immediate escalation of hostility or disruption of the ceasefire status quo on the Line of Control seems unlikely. Pakistan’s difficult economic situation may also compel restraint. However, given Munir’s hardliner reputation, India cannot afford any complacency in this regard.

(Rana Banerji was Special Secretary (Retd.) in the Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

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