Asim Munir-Pakistan Army chief: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed Lieutenant General Asim Munir as the new army chief putting an end to the days of uncertainty that engulfed the nation. Munir joined the Pakistani military through the Mangla Officers Training School (OTS) programme, where he won the prestigious Sword of Honour, given to the best performing cadet. He has commanded a division which overlooks Pakistan’s northern areas, part of Jammu and Kashmir, where he worked in tandem with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who then headed the Pakistan army’s elite X Corps.
Munir currently serves as the quartermaster general at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and is considered an officer with an impeccable reputation within the Pakistani military. Shuja Nawaz, an expert commentator and strategist on Pakistan and its military, described Asim Munir as a straight arrow. Munir is the only senior general in the present crop of three-star officers who has headed both Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to be employed as Pakistan’s army chief.
Munir was made the head of MI in 2017, the unit mandated to look after the army’s internal affairs. After his promotion as a three-star general the next year, he was given charge of the country’s premier spy agency, the ISI. However, his eight-month stint as the head of ISI remains one of the shortest in the army’s history. He was removed as ISI chief at the request of former prime minister Imran Khan following warnings about the alleged corruption by his wife and her relatives.
The appointment of Munir as the army chief is crucial given the fact that he has had a bad experience with Imran Khan in the past and he has now been chosen despite Imran’s apparent bid to put pressure on the Shehbaz government not to pick him up as the chief. Khan has been deeply critical of the Pakistan Army’s upper echelons for having remained neutral when he was facing a political crisis at the beginning of the year and desperately needed the support of the establishment to survive in power.
He has alleged that the neutrals allowed themselves to support an imported government at the behest of the United States. He even went to the extent of calling top generals "animals" and "traitors" while secretly seeking Bajwa's help to stay in power as prime minister or at least to return to power at the earliest, after he lost his majority in the house and had to quit office. Khan went to the town with the theory of conspiracy by the US and alleged that forces within the army, the ‘dirty Harrys’ were conspiring to assassinate him.
Pakistan continued to singe in the political turbulence and uncertainty that he manufactured with his high-decibel propaganda against the sitting government and the army. Imran and his men suspected that General Bajwa would work in tandem with the PML-N leadership to bring in General Asim Munir as the next army chief to make it difficult for Imran to win in the upcoming elections. Imran has seemingly turned paranoid, especially after the Toshakhana case where it has been alleged and summarily proved that Imran, despite his tall claims of being an incorruptible leader, had undersold gifts given to him by host governments in contravention of the existing procedures and utilised the money for yet-unknown purposes.
Munir’s elevation as the new army chief, therefore, must have irked Imran, but he had to eat the humble pie because there was perhaps no other alternative for him, because the Shehbaz Sharif government followed the laid-down procedures and selected him. Imran must be fearing at the moment that the new army chief might stand by Shehbaz Sharif government and further expose his financial mismanagement or misuse of public assets. If the new army chief goes after Imran khan then there could be more toshakhana stories that would come out denting Khan’s reputation further among his supporters and certainly within the Army.
For General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Asim Munir may come as a saviour as the new army chief, especially in view of the recently surfaced report that the assets of Bajwa's wife went from zero to PKR 2.2 billion in the last six years, after he became the army chief. This report clearly hinted at the sudden accumulation of wealth by General Bajwa and his family members, which can perhaps be explained in terms of the conclusions drawn earlier by Ayesha Siddiqa about the entrenched economic benefits accruing to army officers.
An academic and expert on Pakistan army, Siddiqa exposed the corruption within the Pakistani army in her much-acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She identified two of the military’s biggest business conglomerates in the country: The Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust and held that this kind of ‘military capital’ did not follow the protocols and norms of accountability that government institutions have had to followin handling financial matters. Siddiqa further writes that the inability to apply government accountability procedures to Milbus (army capital) itself increases the possibility and magnitude of corruption.
As far as loyalty goes, Asim Munir is being projected by Pakistani media as a protégé of his predecessor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The latter had appointed him as the head of Military Intelligence, a service critical for the Army in terms of keeping a watch inside the organization, and then he had also promoted him to head ISI. Munir is expected to protect his former boss to ensure that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) crowd do not engage in abusing Bajwa as it did in the past. Though some experts believe that Munir has a reputation of ‘taking on corruption’ even when he was not the Army chief, he may not find it easy to go against the corporate ethics of the army and support any action against Bajwa.
For India, the appointment of Asim Munir as Pakistan’s new army chief will not make much difference. He is likely to follow his predecessor’s line on India. However, most observers in New Delhi see a hardliner in Munir, who could be more rigid than Bajwa in his approach towards India. One of the reasons why he would be so, they would aver, is because he does not have any experience at military training academies in US or Britain, unlike three of his immediate predecessors- General Kayani, General Sharif and General Bajwa. It is widely believed that Pakistani military officials who graduate from colleges in the West have a more holistic worldview compared to those who received their training entirely on home soil.
Munir, on the other hand, has served in conservative Saudi Arabia, and is seen by New Delhi as being close to the Saudi regime. Some analysts would also aver that India cannot expect much from someone who has served as the chief of a spy organization ISI, which is intrinsically inimical towards India. He was the chief of the ISI when the Pulwama attack took place in February 2019 and he was also directly involved in returning the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman to India safe and sound.
India can only afford to remain watchful and cautious because it has always been the “religiously oriented” generals that have hurt India the most. Can the new army chief of Pakistan reverse this trend? Let’s wait and watch!