Will a new army chief calm Pakistan's political crisis?
Taking command of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military, General Syed Asim Munir became the 17th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in late November. Although it was a routine transition of power, the background events lent the occasion special significance.
In April this year, the government of populist leader Imran Khan ended after a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
The army also got dragged into the political mess, bitterly criticised by Khan and his followers for not saving their government and urging it to play a “constructive role” in the future. The outgoing military hierarchy had, reportedly, provided some support initially.
In the 75 years since Pakistan’s creation, there have been three coup’d etats in the country and each stint of army rule has lasted almost a decade. As a result, the military retains a strong hold on foreign policy and security matters and remains a formidable power lobby.
"The appointment of the new army chief has restored some stability back to Pakistani politics, as it has removed what had been a key source of uncertainty for several months"
Therefore, appointing a sympathetic COAS was crucial for Khan, but his government fell just seven months before the appointment was due.
One objective of Khan’s ‘long march’ and street protests was not just to topple the present administration, but to create sufficient pressure on the army establishment to ensure his return to power. However, by appointing the army chief on a seniority basis instead, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif brought weeks of frenzied speculation to an end.
Nevertheless, after assuming charge of this post, each army chief has left his own legacy and doctrine. Having received a sword of honour in his cadet days, Gen Asim Munir is also the first chief to have headed both the Military Intelligence (MI) in 2017 and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2018, even though he was transferred from the second posting after just a few months on the request of Imran Khan.
Several main issues are likely to take up most of his time.
To start with, a ceasefire with the Tehrik -e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, has just ended and they have threatened to carry out attacks across the country. The group has been responsible for many ghastly incidents over the last 15 years.
Last week, Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul came under attack and the Afghan government has been reminded to make sure no terrorist activity takes place from its side. In addition, attacks by armed rebels have spiked in the southern province of Baluchistan and it is possible that a series of operations could be launched by the new army chief.
Indian generals have also been issuing provocative statements about crossing the Line of Control (LOC). Visiting these border areas over the weekend, Munir resolved to “take the fight back to the enemy”.
Having been posted in Pakistan’s border areas with India and China, and having been in charge of the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) and then Corps Commander Gujranwala, Munir has an India focus and New Delhi already considers him ‘hardline’.
A second issue is that political frictions have wrecked the business environment completely. While the current ruling alliance would like to complete the parliamentary term and hold elections in October 2023, Imran Khan’s party keeps pushing for an early vote.
“The appointment of the new army chief has restored some stability back to Pakistani politics, as it has removed what had been a key source of uncertainty for several months,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director at The Wilson Centre in Washington told The New Arab.
“Uncertainty can breed anxiety, raising the risks of escalation in a political crisis that had dragged on for months. But we are already seeing how the political temperature has come down since Munir took office: Imran Khan has ended his protest campaign, and the entire political class and the military have rallied around the new chief.’
Meanwhile, most politicians are hoping that Munir will keep the army out of politics and focus on other areas.
"Pakistan has a particular history of institutional development in which non-elected institutions have traditionally been more powerful than others"
“It is too early to say what path Munir will take, notwithstanding journalists close to him writing that he is apolitical and not supporting a particular party,” Zeeshan Shah, a political observer and financial analyst based in Washington told The New Arab.
“No one knew at this point in their tenures that Raheel Sharif was going to focus on domestic security, or Qamar Javed Bajwa was going to be knee-deep in internal politics. At least in the short term, 6 to 9 months, there will not be any visible change as Munir will be mostly busy with assuming command of the Army and overseeing the transition.”
A continuity of government would bring stability, ensure a stable currency exchange rate, and boost the economy.
“The Imran Khan episode has a key lesson for democrats that they must try to keep their democratic credentials well-guarded and keep their fraternity in the network,” Zubair Faisal Abbasi, a development policy and management specialist in Islamabad, told The New Arab.
“A parliamentary form of government provides that framework, Khan should have not victimised his political opponents under one pretext or the other.”
Restoring political sanity is essential, as fake news, threats, and the harassment of rivals on social media have become the norm.
Abbasi added, “Khan’s political rivals keep him away from the centre, and Khan’s provincial Chief Ministers are not unambiguously supporting his decision of dissolving provincial assemblies, this confusion goes in the favour of his opponents.”
On the foreign policy front, especially where Islamabad’s relations with Washington or Beijing are concerned, a balance is likely to be maintained by the new chief.
“Pakistan has a particular history of institutional development in which non-elected institutions have traditionally been more powerful than others,” Abbasi said. “In this context, the military under the new chief may choose to keep an arms-length relation with Islamabad, but it shall be one of the key players giving strategic direction to key policies such as foreign policy.”
Colonel Joe Buccino, spokesman for the US Central Command, said that CENTCOM chief Erik Kurilla congratulated Gen.Munir on his new position and discussed security cooperation and bilateral ties via video link.
For maintaining the status quo, Shah said, “The key appointments to watch will be who becomes Chief of General Staff, Director of Military Intelligence, and most importantly will Nadeem Anjum be retained as DG ISI. Whoever is the DG ISI will signal which way the wind will blow once elections occur next year.”
In the meantime, having debuted in Saudi Arabia as part of the Pakistan army’s close defence cooperation program, the new COAS might have some closeness with Riyadh.
Displaying an apolitical stance, the military so far has publicly said that it will not play any role in politics, meaning it is up to Sharif’s government and Khan to resolve their mutual issues. Therefore, the civilian government should be able to withstand the political pressure and complete its electoral term if there is no major upset.
"This doesn't mean Pakistan is out of the woods. The crisis continues. Munir has inherited an institution that's taken major hits to its popularity because of the actions of his predecessor"
As Kugelman said, “This doesn’t mean Pakistan is out of the woods. The crisis continues. Munir has inherited an institution that’s taken major hits to its popularity because of the actions of his predecessor. Khan is still at dangerous loggerheads with the government, as he keeps pushing his early elections demand. And meanwhile, the economy continues to spin out of control”.
He added, “But the new chief appointment has calmed things down enough that these other issues seem more manageable, simply because the uncertainty about who would be the new chief had been looming over everything for so long. It’s the most powerful political post in Pakistan, so the stakes will always be high and especially when there is uncertainty during the transition process.”
If the political deadlock and security issues are dealt with capably, the army’s image among the public would also improve automatically. Having the reputation of being a professional soldier, General Munir is likely to remain neutral and he is expected to continue in the traditional pattern, though in the long term he is likely to select his own inner circle and team.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi