Pakistan Names a New Army Chief, Amid Political Drama Centered on the Military

The appointment of Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir comes after weeks of intense speculation and backstage negotiations over who would lead the nuclear-armed military.

A photo released by Pakistan’s government showing the newly appointed army chief, Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir, right, meeting with President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, on Thursday.
Credit...Press Information Department, via Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan on Thursday announced the rise of a new army chief, a changing of the guard that many consider as crucial to Pakistani affairs as civilian political cycles and that comes at a moment of fierce debate over the military’s power in politics.

After weeks of intense speculation and backstage negotiations over who would lead Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military for at least the next three years, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government said on Thursday that he had chosen Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir to become the army chief.

General Munir is the most senior general in the country’s army, and formerly served as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the intelligence wing known as the I.S.I., and the Directorate-General for Military Intelligence. His tenure at the I.S.I. was cut short in 2019 after he clashed with then Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The decision coincides with a period of intense political upheaval in Pakistan, driven in large part by Mr. Khan. That turmoil has spilled over into street protests and put a spotlight on the outsized role the military establishment has played in foreign and domestic affairs.

The military has ruled for over half of Pakistan’s 75-year history and, even under civilian governments, military leaders are seen as the invisible hand guiding Pakistani politics.

That political meddling has come under fierce scrutiny this year, after Mr. Khan was ousted by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April that he said was aided by the Pakistani military, the United States and his political rivals. Military officials, as well as Pakistani and American officials, have denied the allegations by Mr. Khan.

Image
Credit...Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

But Mr. Khan’s relentless criticism of the military has resonated deeply among Pakistanis and seriously damaged the military’s reputation within the country, analysts say.

The political turmoil has also caused schisms within the military, with many lower-ranking officers quietly supporting the ousted leader while its top brass have lost patience with his accusations.

“A state of hysteria was created in the country on the pretext of a fake and false narrative,” the departing army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, said on Wednesday during a military ceremony in Rawalpindi.

Still, he acknowledged his military’s central role in politics, saying that the army would remain apolitical as the country hurtles toward general elections scheduled for August next year. “The time has come for all political stakeholders to set aside their ego, learn from past mistakes and move forward,” he said.

General Bajwa is leaving command after an eventful six years in power, made possible in part by a three-year extension announced by Mr. Khan in 2019, when he was newly prime minister. Much as his predecessors did, General Bajwa left a large imprint on the country’s politics, enjoying strong popularity among the Pakistani public even as his military was accused of engineering an electoral and judicial environment that furthered its own aims.

His military establishment was accused both of winnowing the electoral field for Mr. Khan to rise to office in 2018 and of then quietly signaling the disapproval that led to his ouster this year. In both cases, military officials have denied those accusations.

“General Bajwa was the de facto ruler of Pakistan over the last six years,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The completion of his term, therefore, is more significant than a completed parliamentary term in Pakistan.”

Image
Credit...Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

The army chief also influences the foreign policy direction of the country and the surrounding region. It is to Pakistan’s military brass, long accused of nurturing Taliban militants in Afghanistan, that the United States appealed for decades for help reining in the Taliban insurgency and urging it to make peace — though the insurgents instead ended up seizing the whole country of Afghanistan in 2021.

The military also controls a huge industrial conglomerate worth billions of dollars, which encompasses agricultural and construction staples, as well as banking and real estate holdings.

Mr. Sharif’s older brother — the three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif — was a vocal champion of curbing the military’s influence. He appointed four army chiefs, including General Bajwa, during his stints in office, but eventually fell out with all of them.

Now, it is Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s turn to manage a government under the military’s gaze. Mr. Sharif is widely considered more deferential to the military’s top brass than his older brother, analysts say.

General Munir, who was chosen from a short list sent to Mr. Sharif by Pakistan’s powerful military command structure, will take over after General Bajwa retires on Tuesday. He will inherit the position at an exceedingly challenging moment for Pakistan.

The country’s economy has been teetering on the brink of collapse, with double-digit inflation pushing many basic goods out of people’s reach. Devastating floods have inundated much of the country’s agricultural belt. In neighboring Afghanistan, anti-Pakistan militants have been bolstered by the new Taliban government.

General Munir will also have to find a way to mend the divides that Mr. Khan’s political comeback has created within the military’s ranks and restore the public’s trust in the military establishment, analysts say.

Image
Credit...Pakistani Army's Inter Services Public Relations/EPA, via Shutterstock

In public rallies, Mr. Khan has lashed out at General Bajwa and unleashed a barrage of criticism by his supporters against the army — a public rebuke that the military establishment has rarely experienced in Pakistan. Earlier this month, he blamed a senior intelligence general for a gun attack during a political rally that left him wounded — an allegation the military denies.

The former prime minister has also cast a shadow over the new army chief’s appointment, claiming that the government lacks the popular mandate not only to govern but also to choose a commander. “How can these crooks and thieves choose the army chief?” Mr. Khan has said in a recurring refrain during public rallies.

He is currently leading a cross-country protest movement to demand new national elections. He and thousands of his supporters are expected to reach the capital later this month, stoking fears that clashes between him and Mr. Sharif’s administration could turn violent and deadly.

In recent days, Mr. Khan has toned down his anti-military rhetoric in public speeches — a move, analysts say, that suggests he may be looking to establish a better relationship with the incoming top brass to help pave the way for a return to office. He is also facing mounting cases against him in court and, if convicted of the most serious charges, of lying to the election commission about assets from state gifts he received, he could be disqualified from holding office.

General Munir has no known political inclination and has a reputation in the army for going “by the book,” said Khalid Masood Rasool, a Lahore-based political analyst. “Munir’s crucial test would be to demonstrate action of the pledge that his predecessor made about staying neutral in politics,” he said, “and revive the image of the army inflicted by partisan politics and harsh social media blitz.”

Salman Masood reported from Islamabad and Christina Goldbaum from Doha, Qatar.