Contextualizing the Appointment of Pakistan’s New Army Chief and Implications for India

Chief of Army Staff - Gen Asim Munir

The appointment of Asim Munir as the new army chief of Pakistan has dominated the political conversations and television talk shows in Pakistan, however, it wouldn’t make much difference as far as India’s interests are concerned. Undoubtedly, he is likely to toe a line akin to his predecessor’s line on India and continue doing what Pakistan’s most powerful man is expected to do. Taking into consideration the above facts, India can only afford to remain watchful and cautious.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed Lieutenant General Asim Munir as the new army chief putting an end to all speculations in the political conversations and television talk shows in Pakistan for almost two to three months. Asim Munir has a host of challenges to face; however, it is being observed in Pakistani media that he is well-equipped to tackle all the challenges coming his way. Munir joined the Pakistani military through the Mangla Officers Training School (OTS) programme, where he won the prestigious Sword of Honour, an honorary sword given to best performing cadets (Hussain 2022). He started his military career as a Second Lieutenant in 1986 when the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was ruling Pakistan. He has commanded a division which overlooks Pakistan’s northern areas, part of Jammu and Kashmir, where he worked in tandem with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who then headed the Pakistan army’s elite X Corps.

Munir is considered an officer with an “impeccable reputation” within the Pakistani military. Shuja Nawaz, an expert commentator on Pakistan and its military, described Asim Munir as “a straight arrow” (Subramanian 2022). Munir is the only senior general in the present crop of three-star officers who has headed both Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was made the head of MI in 2017, the unit mandated to look after matters pertaining to military affairs. After his promotion as a three-star general the very next year, he was given charge of the country’s premier spy agency, the ISI. However, his eight-month stint as the head of ISI remains one of the shortest in the army’s history. He was removed as ISI chief at the request of former Prime Minister Imran Khan following his warnings to Imran about the alleged corruption by his wife and her relatives.

Nonetheless, the new army chief has critical challenges to face— from civil military relations to tackling ties with India, managing Afghanistan and balancing Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. and China. Internally, the most important challenges include a deeply polarized polity and problems of financial solvency, a stagnant economy, persisting education deficit and demographic dynamics characterized by a youth bulge.

Is there a rift between Imran Khan and the new Army Chief?

Asim Munir has had a bad experience with Imran Khan in the past and he has now been chosen despite Imran’s apparent bid to put pressure on the Shehbaz government not to pick him up as the chief. Khan has been deeply critical of the Pakistan Army’s upper echelons for having remained neutral when he was facing a political crisis at the beginning of the year and desperately needed the support of the establishment to survive in power. Imran famously stated that army did not have to be neutral because only animals can truly stay neutral!
He has alleged that the ‘neutrals’ allowed themselves to support an ‘imported government’ at the behest of the US. He even went to the extent of calling top generals "traitors" while secretly seeking Bajwa's help to stay in power as prime minister or at least to return to power at the earliest, after he lost his majority in the house and had to quit office. Khan went to the town with the theory of conspiracy by the US and alleged that forces within the army, the ‘dirty Harrys’ were conspiring to assassinate him. Pakistan continued to singe in the political turbulence and uncertainty that he manufactured with his high decibel propaganda against the sitting government and the army.

In fact, Imran and his men suspected that Gen Bajwa would work in tandem with the PML-N leadership to bring in General Asim Munir as the next army chief to make it difficult for Imran to win in the upcoming elections. Imran has seemingly turned paranoid especially after the Toshakhana case where it has been alleged and summarily proved that Imran, despite his tall claims of being an incorruptible leader, had undersold gifts given to him by host governments in contravention of the existing procedures and utilized the money for yet-unknown purposes.

Munir’s elevation as the new army chief, therefore, must have irked Imran, but he has had to eat the humble pie because there was perhaps no other alternative for him, because Shehbaz Sharif government followed the laid-down procedures and selected him. Imran must be fearing at the moment that the new army chief might stand by Shehbaz Sharif government and further expose his financial mismanagement or misuse of public assets. If the new army chief goes after Imran Khan, then there could be more Toshakhana stories that might come out denting Khan’s reputation further among his supporters and certainly within the Army.

New Army Chief as Bajwa’s ProtĂ©gĂ©

For General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Asim Munir has a critical role to play especially in view of the recently surfaced report that the assets of Bajwa's wife went from zero to PKR 2.2 billion in the last six years, after he became the army chief. This report clearly hinted at the sudden accumulation of wealth by Gen Bajwa and his family members, which can perhaps be explained in terms of the conclusions drawn earlier by Ayesha Siddiqa about the entrenched economic benefits accruing to army officers.

An academic and expert on Pakistan army, Siddiqa had exposed the corruption within the Pakistani army in her much-acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She identified two of the military’s biggest business conglomerates in the country: The Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust and held that this kind of “military capital” that did not follow the protocols and norms of accountability that government institutions have had to follow in handling financial matters (Siddiqa 2017: 17). Siddiqa further writes that the inability to apply government accountability procedures to Milbus (army capital) itself increases the possibility and magnitude of corruption.

As far as his loyalty goes, Asim Munir is being projected by Pakistani media as a protĂ©gĂ© of his predecessor, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (Hussain 2022). The latter had appointed him as the head of Military Intelligence, and then promoted him to head the ISI. Munir is thus expected to protect his former boss to ensure that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) crowd do not engage in abusing Bajwa as it did in the past. Though some experts believe that Munir has a reputation of “taking on corruption” even when he was not the Army chief, he may not find it easy to go against the corporate ethics of the army and support any action against Bajwa (Siddiqa 2022).

Implications for India

The appointment of new Army chief in Pakistan is bound to have its own ramifications for India, particularly with regard to peace in Jammu and Kashmir, border conflicts, the sustainability of the 2021 ceasefire agreement, and the continuance of terror modules operating in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Most likely, he would follow his predecessor’s line on India. However, many observers in New Delhi see a "hardliner" in Munir, who could be more rigid than Bajwa in his approach towards India (Subramanian 2022). One of the reasons why he would be so, they would aver, is because he does not have any experience at military training academies in US or Britain, unlike three of his immediate predecessors—Gen Kayani, Gen Sharif and Gen. Bajwa (Roy 2022). It is widely believed that Pakistani military officials who graduate from colleges in the West have a more holistic worldview compared to those who received their training entirely on home soil. Munir, on the other hand, has served in conservative Saudi Arabia, and is seen by New Delhi as being close to the Saudi regime. Some analysts would also aver that India cannot expect much from someone who has served as the chief of a spy organization ISI, which is intrinsically inimical towards India. Moreover, he was the chief of the ISI when the Pulwama attack took place in February 2019 and he was also directly involved in returning the Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman to India safe and sound.

Going by the past, no chief can be expected to be soft on India. But this does not mean he will not adhere to the ceasefire agreement signed between India and Pakistan in February 2021. Pakistan and its army are in no position to rock the boat given the country’s financial position. It does not serve the Army’s interests, nor can the country afford to risk a confrontation with India. This is the time when the country needs to be accommodative to get the aid that it so desperately needs. However, India-Pakistan relations are fragile and a single cross-border incident could unravel already fraught relations. There are many spoilers that could muddy the waters, especially since Pakistan is awash with weapons and unemployed non-state actors.

Michael Kugelman, the Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, recently said that “regardless of who is in charge of the Pakistani Army, the Kashmir issue will remain a constant in the country's discourse with India” (Dawn 2022). Even when Bajwa was calling for better relations with India, he did emphasize several times that the Kashmir issue has to be resolved in order to have better relations with India.

Ever since the departure of Musharraf, the framework he had backed for dialogue with India disregarding the UN resolutions has been rejected by the Pakistan all the three army chiefs succeeding him. They have clung on to the position that Kashmir issue can only be addressed through the UN resolutions which is unacceptable to India and unimplementable because of the developments that have taken place in Kashmir since the resolutions were passed in 1948. The post-Pulwama, post-Balakot dynamics in Kashmir has led to further hardening of Indian stance. Will Asim Munir take a pragmatic line and opt for reset of the dialogue process that had shown some promise during 2004-2007? Quite unlikely. Given the multiple challenges that he is confronted with, he is most likely to follow through on the Kayani-Raheel-Bajwa approach to India.

Syed Eesar Mehdi is currently associated with a project at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He is also an Associate Research Fellow at International Centre for Peace Studies, New Delhi, India.