Pakistan: Appointment of New Army Chief
Rana Banerji

After much delay and deliberate attempts by former Prime Minister Imran Khan to make the issue controversial, Lt. Gen Syed Asim Munir Shah, Frontier Force Regiment, was appointed Pakistan’s new Army Chief on Nov 24. A lingering `technical issue’ had been complicating the appointment, pertaining to the date from which the seniority and pecking order of eligible panelists should apply. Lt. Gen Asim Munir was slated to retire on Nov 27, two days before Gen Bajwa retiring on Nov 29. This glitch was overcome through a Cabinet resolution, with relevant Rules of Business relating to the Army Act, 1952 being used to authorize the PM, Shahbaz Sharif `to retain his services’. Asim Munir may count himself to be rather lucky at this quirk of fate which left him as the senior most among three star Generals when the COAS selection sweepstakes came up.

There was an apprehension whether the President, Dr Arif Alvi would accept the summary sent by the PM on Munir’s appointment. Under Art 243(4) of the 1973 Constitution, this advice would be `binding’ but under Art 48 (1) thereof, the President could delay accepting the PM’s advice. Former PM Imran Khan told a private TV channel on Nov 23 that Dr Alvi was in touch with him and would consult him on the appointment of the COAS. Sure enough, President Alvi rushed to Lahore to meet Imran as soon as he received the summary. However, no constitutional crisis ensued as the President returned to Islamabad the same evening and signed his assent. Better sense seems to have prevailed on the Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) leadership not to enter into a fresh confrontation with the new Army leadership.

Asim Munir would be Pakistan’s 15th Army Chief (not counting the two British officers- Messervy and Gracey, who helmed it between 1947-51). He would be the fourth Chief from the illustrious FFR @ Piffers regiment, set up by the British as the third oldest infantry unit in Pakistan in 1843, after the Punjab and Baloch regiments. Three other Chiefs from FFR were Musa (1958-66), Abdul Waheed Kakar (1993-96) and Raheel Sharif (2013-2016). Of the 14 Pakistani Chiefs before him- 3 have come from the Armoured Corps (Gul Hassan, Zia & Karamat), 2 from Artillery (Tikka Khan & Musharraf), 2 from the Punjab ( Ayub & Asif Nawaz) & 4 from the Baloch regiments (Yahya, Beg, Kayani &Bajwa).

Ethnically, Asim Munir joins 7 Punjabis who have become the Army Chief (Zia, Tikka Khan, Asif Nawaz, Karamat, Kayani, Raheel Sharif & Bajwa), 3 Pashtuns (Ayub, Gul Hassan & Abdul Waheed Kakar), 1 Hazara (Musa), 1 Qizilbash (Yahya) and 2 Mohajirs (Aslam Beg & Musharraf).

Alongside, the appointment of Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Sindh Regiment, who was serving as X Corps Commander, Rawalpindi, was announced as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), Pakistan’s other 4 Star General post, vice the retirement, on Nov 27 of Gen Nadeem Raza, also of the Sindh Regiment.

Asim hails from a modest middle class family in Dheri-Hassanabad, near Rawalpindi. He is a sword of honour from the 17th Officers Training School (OTS) course at Mangla. His father was a teacher at a vocational training institute. His family originally migrated from Jallandhar, East Punjab. Asim Munir started his education in a local madrassa. Later on, he went on to complete the `Hafiz e Quran’ (a technical epithet for capacity to memorize and recall the Quran verbatim), while serving as a Colonel.

Well liked by Gen Bajwa, he was brought in to hold crucial assignments as Commander, Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA- 2016), then as DG Military Intelligence (DGMI- in 2017). He was promoted as DG, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in October, 2018. He had served with a Pakistani contingent deployed in Saudi Arabia and as Chief Instructor in the Command & Staff College, Quetta (CSC) earlier.

He was transferred out from ISI in a cloud though, after just 8 months, apparently when he apprised Imran Khan, the Prime Minister then, of alleged financial misdemeanors of certain associates close to the First Lady, Bushra Sheikh @ `Pinky Pir’. Imran took umbrage and asked Gen Bajwa to shift him out from ISI. Asim was posted to the XXX Corps, Gujranwala in June, 2019. After a two year stint there, moved to General Headquarters, serving as Quartermaster General (QMG) from October, 2021 till his elevation as COAS (from Nov 29).

The manner of his appointment has caused some heartburn among the cohort of senior Lieutenant Generals he just pipped for the top post. Reports have surfaced about Lt. Gen Azhar Abbas, Baloch Regiment, currently Chief of General Staff and an officer with a sterling reputation, having decided to put in his papers. The rather controversial Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed, presently XXXI Corps Commander, Bahawalpur is also seeking premature retirement.

During the recent fracas between Gen Bajwa and Imran Khan, a lot of dissent was reported against the former within the Army, especially among families of Other Ranks and junior officers. Even as this resentment simmered, there was a huge traffic of trollers in social media disparaging Bajwa and his team of loyal Generals. Reports surfaced of Gen Bajwa stopping pensions of some retired Army officers for voicing dissent. A section of retired Lieutenant Generals known to have sympathy for Imran Khan, such as Asif Yasin, Tariq Khan and Naeem Lodhi, opposed the move to `retain’ Asim Munir’s service for two additional days, only to make him eligible for selection as Army Chief. They opined publicly in favour of deeming the seniority date of eligible Lieutenant Generals valid from Nov 29, not Nov 27. Meanwhile, the sustained public attacks by Imran Khan in his public rallies, berating Gen Bajwa and his team of senior Generals as `neutrals’ equivalent to `janwars’ (animals), and deeming them betrayers like Mir Jaffer and Mir Sadiq caused tremendous umbrage, forcing DG Inter Services Public Relations, Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar and the DG, ISI, Lt. Gen Nadeem Anjum, to appear together in an unprecedented press conference on Oct 27, where they castigated Imran in no uncertain terms.

As the new COAS, Gen Asim Munir’s priority must clearly lie in ending these dissensions within the Army, not only at middle and senior levels. Munir will have to lend a healing touch.

The early retirements will showcase bitterness within but it may indirectly help Asim Munir to get his own team of officers in place earlier than he otherwise may have been able to. Three new appointments of Lieutenant Generals, to fill up vacant slots, have already come to notice after the Army Chief’s appointment. Lt. Gen Nauman Zakariya, Armoured Corps, goes as X Corps Commander, Rawalpindi. Lt. Gen Ahsan Gulrez, Frontier Force Regiment becomes Director General, Joint Staff at Joint Staff Headquarters, Chaklala and Lt. Gen Shahid Imtiaz, AK Regiment, becomes the new Quartermaster General.

At the same time, as rather embarrassing disclosures about Gen Bajwa family’s escalated financial assets surfaced on journalist Ahmed Noorani’s `Fact Focus’ website on November 22, the new Chief he may have to nip in the bud any possible witch-hunting which may ensue against the outgoing Chief in days to come. This could become a challenge in evolving civil- military ties if Imran wins the next elections and becomes PM again.

After the abortive attempt on his life in Wazirabad on November 03, Imran Khan has been trying to take stock of what political options lie before him. He declared he is moving on from allegations of a sinister foreign conspiracy behind his ouster. Effecting another `U turn’, Imran declared he will now accept any decision the government makes on the Army Chief’s appointment. Nov 26’s public rally at Rawalpindi did not draw as large crowds as had been anticipated. The Long March was called off without going to Islamabad. However, Imran made a surprise announcement at the end, suggesting that he was planning to call for dissolution of the Provincial Assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pahtunkhwa, where Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf governments are in power. The aim ostensibly, would be not only to project a `face saver’ before his followers, also to build pressure for early elections. He would be keeping himself relevant, reminding the new military leadership of his capacity to continue the domestic instability and chaos.

While Asim Munir cannot disregard the angst of senior officers against Imran, how he deals with the populist support behind the latter will be interesting to watch in days to come. If and when elections do happen, the professed neutrality stance of the Army, reiterated so emphatically by outgoing Chief, Gen Bajwa at the recent martyrs’ day function, will be put to test.

On the external front, the difficult situation prevailing in Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over will be a concern. Far from being deferential to their past handlers in the Pakistan Army, the Taliban have been resilient, even defiant while dealing with persisting border infringements across the Durand Line and refusing to handover Tehrik e Taliban (TTP) militants on Pakistan’s wanted lists.

Diplomatic balancing may be needed to overcome recent Chinese annoyance on Pakistan’s cozying up to the United States or in handling developments on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, where security of Chinese engineers has been under threat.

Promised financial bail outs from the Saudi or Chinese benefactors are yet to materialize. The IMF too has not loosened its purse strings for renewed dollops of aid even as Pakistan made a strong pitch for assistance to the flood affected during the COP meet just ended. Major debt repayments loom on schedule, which Pakistan has to pay in time, to avoid the impression of hurtling towards default.

All of these challenges make for a formidable platter of woes for Asim Munir to tackle, as the Pakistan Army’s new strong man. In this backdrop, India policy may perforce take a back seat and any immediate escalation of hostility or disruption of the ceasefire status quo on the Line of Control seems unlikely. Pakistan’s difficult economic situation may also compel restraint. Asim Munir has had the reputation of being a tough officer and a stickler for rules in his earlier assignments. The fact of his conservative educational background, the Hafiz e Quran capacity and the circumstance of his heading the ISI in February, 2019 when the Pulwama attack occurred in Jammu & Kashmir has led some scare-mongers in India to assume Munir may well be a hard-line Islamic fundamentalist, which cannot augur well for India. Hard line he may well be, as any General trained in old school Pakistan Army mind sets would be but it may not necessarily follow that he is a supporter of radical Islamic views.

However, given Munir’s hardliner reputation, India cannot afford any complacency in this regard.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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