Months of rumor and speculation have ended for now, with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointing Lt. Gen. Asim Munir as the country’s new chief of army staff (COAS). The change of guard in the Pakistan military has come at a difficult time for the country – Pakistan is in the grip of deep political polarization and instability as well as a severe economic crisis. Although appointing Munir to the top military post was a consensus decision, it is unlikely to have made former Prime Minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan happy.
Anand Arni, former special secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing, throws light on what Munir’s appointment means for Pakistan, India-Pakistan relations, and Pakistan’s ties with the United States and the Taliban regime. In a discussion with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, Arni said that “if Khan crosses certain red lines, the military would act but if he stays within certain bounds, they will not do much.”
Who is General Asim Munir?
Gen. Asim Munir Ahmed is from the 17th course of the Officers Training School (OTS), Mangla, and passed out with the Sword of Honor in 1986. He was commissioned into the 23 Frontier Force Regiment. He has had an interesting career. As a two-star general, he served as Director General of Military Intelligence (DG-MI) for roughly two years, and on promotion was appointed to command the 30 Corps. After a little over two years, Munir was posted as Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG-ISI) but this lasted less than nine months. These two intelligence charges suggest he enjoyed the backing of outgoing army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Gen. Munir has a reputation for integrity. He is said to be a devout Muslim. Much is being made of his being a Hafiz-e-Quran (a person who has memorized the Quran), but it does not necessarily make him a Mullah.
It is also being said that Munir’s relatively short stint as DG-ISI was because he had alerted the then-Prime Minister Imran Khan to the fact that people close to his wife, Bushra Bibi, were involved in corrupt practices. It’s not clear how he picked up the information, but as DG-ISI it would be his duty to keep the PM informed. It does not necessarily flow that he was disloyal or that he had leaked the information.
Munir’s replacement as DG-ISI may well have been because Khan wanted his own man as ISI chief. Faiz Hameed, when he was DG (Counter Intelligence) in ISI, was said to have been involved in the political engineering that helped Khan become prime minister. If you look at the timeline of when Hameed replaced Munir as DG-ISI, it’s obvious that Hameed was brought in as soon as he was eligible for the post. Subsequent events have proved that Hameed was indeed Khan’s man.
Why has Munir been selected as army chief?
There seems to have been a consensus, which built up around Munir. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had announced that they would follow the seniority principle and Munir was the senior-most. [Former Prime Minister and Shehbaz’s brother] Nawaz Sharif is said to have approved of him, and Bajwa, under whom Munir had served, obviously, approved too.
The choice was from a slate of six, and most of them were Bajwa’s appointees since he was at the helm for six years and had the time to handpick his team. The only errant, if that is the word, was Lt. Gen. Hameed and, in any case, Hameed was unacceptable to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). I get the impression that the choice was made well in time, but there were red herrings planted to put Khan off the track and prevent him from rubbishing the choice.
How do you think Munir will handle the challenge from Khan?
In matters such as this, the Pakistan Army works on a consensus struck at the Corps Commanders’ level. The Army chief implements what is in the Army’s interests. If Khan crosses certain red lines, the military would act but if he stays within certain bounds, they will not do much. Munir has taken the first step by forcing Hameed out. It reduces some of the turbulence.
It can be presumed that Hameed would emerge as Khan’s adviser, and Munir will need to take steps to keep his flock in place. Hameed would have some of his favorites in place in the ISI and at various other places within the military hierarchy, and Munir will need to identify them and shift or sideline them.
Do you see a conflict between Munir and Hameed deepening, perhaps with implications for the military’s unity?
There have been reports that, a few weeks ago, Hameed had taken leave and was helping plot Khan’s strategy. I am not too sure of that since, even if that was true, Hameed would have been careful not to be blatant.
What could happen is that Hameed could use some of the assets that were developed to protect Khan. As DG (Counter Intelligence) in the ISI, Hameed was known to have had dealings with the far-right Barelvi outfit, Tehreek-e-Labbaiq Pakistan which was at the forefront of attempting to topple Nawaz Sharif.
Outgoing army chief Bajwa recently admitted that for seven decades the Pakistan army had “unconstitutionally interfered in politics” and that the military had deliberated on the matter and decided to stay out of politics. “I want to reassure you that we are strictly adhering to this decision and will continue to do so,” he said. Will Munir follow the “Bajwa Doctrine?”
As I said, it is the Army’s consensus that will hold and this consensus is hammered out by the Corps Commanders who meet collectively once a quarter or whenever there is a need. It was not that Bajwa propounded something of his own in the first place, it was what was probably proposed and approved. It was Bajwa’s to implement and there may be nuances here and there, which reflect Bajwa’s views. It is called the Bajwa doctrine because it was he who articulated it.
The experiment of the recent past, the political engineering referred to as “hybrid democracy,” has been eschewed. This was the last major step taken by Bajwa, and that’s one contentious legacy that Munir need not follow. Also, with Nawaz Sharif having approved of Munir, the animus that had developed between Nawaz and Bajwa and the army to an extent is diffused.
On other issues, Munir can be expected to continue with the old doctrine, at least till such time he is able to appoint officers whom he trusts to the Corps Commanders table and then try and steer a consensus. This process will take time and much could happen before then.
What is Munir’s relationship like with the United States?
Not much is known of his personal views.
We need to see how he places his officers. If he keeps Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum on in the post of DG-ISI, then it could signal warmer ties with the U.S. since it was in Nadeem Anjum’s time that al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri died. This was preceded by the U.S. extension of a $450-million package for the F-16s for counterterror reasons to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s financial status is precarious and they have only just gotten off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s grey list. The COAS can ill afford any problems as it could impact the army unless there are alternate sources of aid. As prime minister, Khan had tried and pretty much exhausted other options.
How will Munir’s appointment as army chief impact India-Pakistan relations?
Munir knows India in the sense that he not only headed the ISI and MI, both of which devote much time to India, but also he has commanded the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA), under Bajwa who was then commander of the X Corps, and he was later appointed as Corps Commander Gujranwala. Both these military formations have an India focus.
Going by the past, no chief can be expected to be soft on India and it is important, personally, for Munir not to appear to be Nawaz’s man. Nawaz has gained a reputation for appearing “soft” on India and it is important for Munir to dispel the notion that he is a Nawaz acolyte.
But this does not mean he will not adhere to the ceasefire. 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 jihadis.
There are domestic issues that will assume greater priority than India on Munir’s agenda as army chief. He would need to remedy the aberrations of the Bajwa years when the so-called hybrid government was in place, and this needs careful handling without much disturbance. Then, there is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issue, which needs delicate handling. There will also be some domestic turbulence created by Khan, and the Army will need to contain the fallout over leaks about Bajwa and his alleged corruption. Those close to Bajwa say that these leaks could only have come from within the army. Munir is said to be “straight as an arrow” and there may not be much to use against him; else it would have emerged by now. It now makes little sense to target Bajwa, but there could be some lingering fallout that could taint others.
What do you see unfolding in Afghanistan?
The situation in Afghanistan is largely of Pakistan’s making and while there may be areas of minor conflict, the current situation works to their advantage. For one, foreign troops are out – the presence of U.S. forces have had an impact no matter the relationship with Pakistan. Secondly, India is no longer playing a major role in Afghanistan. Thirdly, fighting is down and the Taliban who were operating out of Pakistani sanctuaries have moved out. The only remaining issues, in a sense, are the refugees and the TTP operating out of Afghan sanctuaries.
It will, probably, continue in the same fashion but maybe with some minor changes, more of nuance. We can wish that there is a change in the Taliban’s attitude towards Pakistan and much of that hope may be grounded in reality, but it would remain in the realm of wishful thinking to contemplate a Vietnam-like scenario where the Vietnamese turned against the Chinese.
What needs to be seen is whether the Haqqani Network retains the commanding heights they currently enjoy in the Islamic Emirate or whether they would play second fiddle to the “main” Taliban. The Army brass was reportedly taken aback by Hameed’s visit to Kabul immediately after the fall of Kabul and the speed at which the Haqqani Network moved in. If this is true, then the script Hameed was following could well be marginally reworked but very carefully and in a nuanced fashion.