The rumour mill has finally stopped spinning, and the results are in. The ‘November games’ that started in October 2021, and entered a ‘power play’ phase after Imran Khan was removed from the office of Prime Minister in a vote of no confidence, have seemingly drawn to a close.
In exercise of his constitutional authority to advise the President under Article 243(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has nominated Lt. Gen. Asim Munir as the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Pakistan Army. Furthermore, Lt. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza, currently serving as Corps Commander X Corps Rawalpindi, has been announced as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC).
A significant proportion of the political cacophony in Pakistan for the past twelve months circled around this all-important posting, which appears to have been settled for now. Though a senior civil servant in the military bureaucracy, the Chief of Army Staff is considered as a near-omnipotent designation in a country whose history is replete with episodes of military rule and hybrid experimentation. Political governments in Pakistan are often deemed to be at the mercy of the ‘military establishment’ which exercises immense influence over important domains such as national security and foreign policy. This entrenched power of the ‘deep state’ and militaristic mindset in almost all facets of Pakistani life have stifled democratization and inadvertently promoted intolerance across society. In his speech yesterday at a ceremony for families of martyrs, outgoing army chief General Bajwa acceded that the military’s intervention in national politics – directly or indirectly – was “unconstitutional” and the military leadership had decided not to intervene in any political matter. The audience was frequently reminded that it was to be his last address as Chief of Army Staff.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa will be replaced by 57-year-old Lieutenant General Syed Asim Munir Ahmad Shah, the senior-most officer among the nominees for Chief of Army Staff, in a change of command ceremony at GHQ Rawalpindi on Tuesday 29th November. Before he receives the ‘Malacca Gold’ swagger stick (or ‘baton of command’) from his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir will be promoted to the four-star rank of General, for which he received the ceremonial assent of President Arif Alvi.
In his speech at a ceremony for families of martyrs, outgoing army chief General Bajwa acceded that the military’s intervention in national politics – directly or indirectly – was “unconstitutional”
Starting his military career in 1986, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir is a graduate of the 17th batch or course of the Officers Training School (OTS) at Mangla. He won the Sword of Honour for outstanding performance as a cadet, and was commissioned into the 23rd Battalion of Pakistan Army’s Frontier Force Regiment. During his posting in Saudi Arabia as a Lieutenant Colonel, he memorized the Holy Qur’an at the age of 38. This remains an interesting facet of his career profile. He served as a Brigadier in the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) where his performance at the Indian frontier invited the attention and respect of then-X Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Bajwa.
In early 2017, he was posted as Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI), the army’s administrative intelligence apparatus that maintains organizational security and also gathers intelligence on adversaries’ ground forces capabilities. In March 2018, Major General Asim Munir was awarded the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (Military) for ‘meritorious contribution to the security and national interests of Pakistan’. In September 2018, he was promoted to Lieutenant General rank, and in October he was posted as Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s ‘premier’ spy agency which is celebrated or chastised – depending on who you talk to – for a plethora of national as well as regional incidents.
In June 2019, after serving only eight months, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir was replaced as DG ISI by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. Sources reported that the then-Prime Minister Imran Khan was unhappy with Lt. Gen. Munir for identifying corrupt practices that could politically expose the chief executive. Upon Khan’s insistence, Gen. Bajwa transferred Lt. Gen. Munir out of ISI before his tenure had completed. Lt. Gen. Munir was posted as commander of XXX Corps in Gujranwala, a post he held till October 2021 when he was appointed Quartermaster General of the Pakistan Army, the principal staff officer responsible for supplies and logistics.
It was also in October 2021 that Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed was transferred out of ISI to Peshawar, and Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum was posted in his place. Delays in this key appointment, reportedly due to disagreements between then-PM Khan and army chief General Bajwa, defenestrated the ‘same page’ mantra of the hybrid regime at the time. The simmering rift would come to the fore in April 2022, when Khan would begin blaming the military for facilitating an American-sponsored ‘regime change conspiracy’ against him.
Since his ouster in a vote of no confidence, and subsequent boycott of the National Assembly, Khan continues to demand immediate general elections as the country grapples with an imploding economy and catastrophic floods. His most vocal supporters – especially in social media echo chambers – assumed the role of anti-establishment freedom lovers, to the unbridled bemusement of many who remember PTI’s positions and proclamations before March 2022.
For months, PTI supporters on social media had a field day berating and vilifying the ‘military establishment’, especially Gen. Bajwa, Lt. Gen. Anjum, Lt. Gen. Chiragh Haider, Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer, and anyone whose name caught the fancy of Khan or PTI. Some claimed that Gen. Bajwa was ‘conspiring’ to get an extension in service, while others launched campaigns against potential aspirants for the army chief slot. Many social media accounts were busy drumming up support for Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed as the ‘ideal candidate’ for Chief of Army Staff.
Though Lt. Gen. Asim Munir was slated for superannuation on November 27 this year, his promotion to General rank and appointment as Chief of Army Staff extends his tenure of service to November 29, 2025. Known for his professionalism and ‘no nonsense’ attitude, General Asim Munir will be expected to both exhibit and ensure institutional neutrality, especially in political affairs. But it remains to be seen whether he will be able to facilitate a lowering of the country’s political temperatures, and restore the military’s integrity and institutional cohesion to what it was before, or not. It is also a matter of conjecture whether the army’s ‘military diplomacy’ will continue in its current form, or if it will be institutionalised with civilian oversight (if not control) in the future.
General Munir will have to deal with a motley crew of ‘rogues’ and unprofessional actors who put political affiliations (and perhaps personal ambitions) over national interest and institutional discipline.
General Munir will also have his work cut out for him in the national security domain, as India has recently threatened to reclaim Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan by military force, inviting a stiff rebuke from the ISPR. Pakistan’s eastern border, however, is more calm and secure than its border with Afghanistan: General Munir will have to contend with a resurgent TTP and an increasingly belligerent Taliban who attack Pakistani border positions at will. His vast experience of intelligence matters will be tested to the limits as sub conventional threats to internal security are compounded by extremist narratives and intolerant attitudes now deeply embedded within Pakistani society.
It is obvious that the Pakistan Army, or the ‘military establishment’, cannot just absolve itself of the deep political mess the country has been plunged in. Upon assuming command of Pakistan Army, General Munir must begin to rectify at least those mistakes that the military leadership has already admitted to. Most importantly, General Munir will have to deal with a motley crew of ‘rogues’ and unprofessional actors who put political affiliations (and perhaps personal ambitions) over national interest and institutional discipline. One can only hope that the law will take its due course, and that preferential treatment will no longer be extended to any ‘favourites’, whether civilian or serving or retired officials.