Pakistan has named Lieutenant-General Asim Munir as the head of the country’s nuclear-armed military, the country’s most powerful institution not far from its next crisis.
The appointment could have a significant impact on the future of Pakistan’s fragile democracy and whether relations with India are allowed to improve.
Role of Army in Pakistan
In the 75 years since independence and the partition of India to form Pakistan, the military has seized power three times and ruled the Islamic republic directly for more than three decades, fighting three wars with India along the way.
Even when a civilian government is in power, Pakistan’s generals maintain a dominant influence on security and foreign affairs.
Who is Asim Munir?
Munir will succeed General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who will retire later this month after a six-year tenure.
Munir also worked in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s main financial backer.
He later headed Pakistan’s two most influential intelligence agencies – the Military Intelligence (MI) in 2017 and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2018. He was removed from the post of ISI chief after only eight months at the request of then Prime Minister Imran Khan. No reason was given for his removal.
Munir is currently the quartermaster general of the army, in charge of supplies.
Why it matters globally
Pakistan’s army chief will play a key role in managing the risk of conflict with nuclear-armed rival India on its eastern border while dealing with potential instability and friction with Afghanistan on its western border.
Many world capitals, including Washington and Beijing, have direct ties to Pakistan’s military, given the country’s strategic location in a volatile environment and a coastline close to major shipping lanes serving the oil-rich Gulf.
Foreign governments have periodically questioned the security of a nuclear arsenal, including long-range missiles, in a country that frequently requires IMF bailouts and where anti-Western and anti-India terrorist groups have proliferated.
And internal security has become an almost constant problem due to insurgencies in ethnic Pashtun and Baloch regions.
Despite all the risks, Pakistan and its military have dismissed foreign concerns about command and control and security of its nuclear weapons.
Why is this assignment important domestically?
The military has long been accused of rigging the democratic process to maintain its dominance. 19 of Pakistan’s 30 prime ministers have been elected, but none of them have completed their five-year term.
The army recently acknowledged its past meddling in politics and said it would no longer interfere. Whether the new chief keeps that promise could be a key issue in Pakistan’s democratic evolution.
Pakistan is in the midst of another bout of political uncertainty as Khan has led nationwide protests in an attempt to force Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to call early elections.
The incoming army chief could play a key role in lowering the political temperature as Pakistan tries to survive an economic crisis and recover from historic floods.
Bajwa wanted to balance relations with China and the US. As Islamabad moved closer to Beijing, Bajwa also worked to thaw relations with Washington, with whom he worked closely when Western forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021 and were evacuated from Kabul.
Bajwa also took an active interest in economic affairs, as well as how much of the budget went to the military sector.
He made highly publicized visits to Beijing and the Middle East – helping secure financial aid for Pakistan. He lobbied Washington to help broker an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
He even called a meeting at army headquarters to encourage Pakistan’s top industrialists to pay more taxes.
During his tenure, India and Pakistan engaged in aerial combat in 2019, but he has been a public advocate of better relations and avoided escalating when tensions ran high, such as this year when an Indian missile accidentally crashed into Pakistani territory.
In early 2021, Bajwa approved the reinstatement of a ceasefire agreement with Delhi in Kashmir.
Internally, he has been accused of political interference. Politicians say he helped former cricketer Imran Khan become prime minister in 2018. Earlier this year, Khan accused Bajwa of playing a role in his downfall.
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