General Syed Asim Munir became the 17th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military in a recent handover ceremony. Given the fraught political atmosphere and economic and security challenges the country is facing, this routine transition had been the subject of debate and speculation for months.
The COAS is a multi-faceted role and is one of the most powerful positions in Pakistan, where the military establishment remains the most formidable force in the country. In the 75 years since Pakistan became independent, the army has carried out three coups, resulting in martial law regimes that each lasted almost a decade.
The army continues to hold considerable leverage over the political system and Pakistan’s democratic government can no longer afford to ignore this factor. A sympathetic army chief remains an important ally for the country’s prime minister, even though there is no guarantee of such support from the military establishment.
In November, the tenure of the previous chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, came to a close amidst political power games and backdoor consultations. Although former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government had started off on excellent terms with the army in 2018, some fissures emerged during 2021. Khan claimed to look forward to selecting a friendlier candidate for army chief by the end of this year.
In a curious twist of events, the government and opposition became locked in a tug of war which ended in complete pandemonium. In a surprise move, the opposition formed a 13-party alliance and managed to topple Khan with a vote of no confidence.
Khan called for early elections to ensure he would be back in office in time to choose the next COAS and accused the political establishment of conspiring to remove him. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government managed to survive the political frenzy and chaos. When the time came, Sharif opted to select the most senior general eligible for promotion, putting an end to any claims of favoritism.
General Munir is the first army chief to have held both the key posts of director of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the head of military intelligence. However, his service as spymaster ended quickly and he was transferred at the request of former Prime Minister Khan.
Now that Munir has taken charge, a semblance of calm has been restored and the focus has reverted to sorting out more urgent matters, including the reemergence of security challenges from Afghanistan. The local branch of the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), recently ended a ceasefire brokered by the Afghan government. Various attacks have taken place since then and the new army leadership is likely to announce a series of operations to curtail this threat.
Last month, Indian army generals issued provocative statements regarding Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region between Pakistan, India, and China. The nuclear neighbors have fought three full-scale wars over this issue since achieving independence, but the Line of Control (LOC) has remained relatively peaceful since a ceasefire agreement was reached in 2021.
Soon after assuming charge, Munir visited the Kashmir border areas where he vowed to "defend every inch of our motherland."
In the international arena, Munir’s priority will be to revive ties with important allies and to balance relations with rival powers like Beijing and Washington. Pakistan has historic links to both the US and China and these geopolitical dynamics will remain a significant challenge.
Pakistan might also shift slightly towards Saudi Arabia, where Munir was posted for an extended period of time. Recent reports suggest that he may reach out to Riyadh. Although Pakistani army chiefs have followed certain foreign policy parameters, each has produced their own doctrine and legacy.
Finally, the toxic political scene in Pakistan has damaged the country’s economy and chased away investment through creating uncertainty. Whenever there have been rumors that the government would collapse or default, stock markets have plunged and exchange rates fluctuated.
In light of these acute economic challenges, the army and other institutions need to work on overcoming polarization and must urge all stakeholders to reach some degree of consensus. While Khan’s party has sought snap elections ever since its ouster, the current ruling alliance intends to finish out its electoral term, which is set to end in October 2023.
Since the army has promised to remain neutral, Munir might not side with either party and instead leave them to sort out their differences. Political reshuffling and rapprochement seems likely as most senior politicians take a step back to assess the scenario.
In order to tackle these crises, Pakistan will need to forge political unity and rein in the perpetual struggle between the government and the opposition.