Pakistan’s Latest Change of Command – What to Expect?

Siegfried O. Wolf | 20 December 2022
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Since the end of November 2022, Lieutenant General Syed Asim Munir has taken over as Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is retiring after six years of spearheading the army. Following traditional patterns, the new (17th) army chief of Pakistan initiated a series of replacements and new appointments among the military top brass. Each ‘key change of command’ is part of recurring routines; observers wonder if the army’s leadership will reassess its deeply entrenched role in politics and unhealthy relations with civilians. As such, there are speculations regarding whether soldiers are considering a withdrawal from the political realm. Lately, in search of indicators, several analysts have pointed out that the former COAS Bajwa stated that ‘[…] the army decided not to meddle in any political affairs’, adding that ‘I can assure you that we will strictly adhere to this and will continue to in the future.’ It is interesting to note that General’s Bajwa’s “confession” marks the first occasion, since Pakistan come into existence, that a COAS publicly acknowledged during a press conference that his institution had been meddling in national politics for decades, describing this as ‘unconstitutional’. Yet critical voices like the parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar remain sceptical regarding the potential adoption of an apolitical role by the armed forces. Under Bajwa’s leadership, the military not only expanded massively its informal (“behind the scenes”) political influence but also gained much formal (legal) power. Today, the Pakistani Army possess a more far-reaching and institutionalized role in the political-administrative system than ever before.

Also attached to each reshuffle in Pakistan’s top military posts are issues over the abilities by the new generals in charge to tackle domestic security challenges – and, most importantly, over their stands regarding the country’s relations which “arch enemy India”.

To approach all these questions, it is insightful to have a closer look at General Munir himself. Munir served as the head of the Military Intelligence and subsequently as the former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), the country’s main intelligence agency. He was properly the DG ISI with the shortest time in office (around eight months); he was replaced due to the insistence of then Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan. After being commissioned into the 23rd Battalion of the Frontier Force Regiment, he has commanded Pakistani troops in areas bordering Afghanistan and India (first as the brigadier of the Force Command Northern Areas, then as a Commander of the X Corps. Munir is perceived by both domestic and international experts as a “hardliner”. His latest, rough India-related statements during a visit to Pakistani troops deployed at the Line of Control (a de facto part of the border with India) serves as an example. With Munir as COAS, the potential window of opportunity for a normalisation of India-Pakistan relations is much narrower than under Bajwa[6] – perhaps even closed. It is also crucial to mention that ‘Munir headed the ISI when the Pulwama[7] bombing took place’. This terrorist attack was apparently conducted by Pakistan-based terrorists; New Delhi accused Islamabad (more concretely, the ISI) to be responsible (Wolf, 2017). Having this in mind, one must doubt that cross-border terrorists, properly supported by Pakistani authorities, will end their actions on Indian soil soon.

From a Pakistan-internal perspective, the major puzzle regards how far the change in the army’s leadership will bring greater political stability. This will partly depend on the relationship between General Munir and former PM Khan as well as between the COAS and the government. Regarding the latter, apparently Munir is PM Shehbaz Sharif’s choice as army head. It will be interesting to observe how the potential return of Nawaz Sharif (Shebaz’s brother) will affect affairs between the army and the current administration. Nawaz is well-known for his critical, even hostile, stand towards the army – and for his efforts to push back the military from both the political and economic domains in the country during his three (unfinished) tenures as PM[8]. However, to smoothen his return from his “self-imposed” exile in London, Nawaz supported Munir’s nomination as well. Several analysts argue that the support for Munir by the Sharif brothers was done based on the assumption (or hope) that Munir is influenced by an “anti-Khan attitude”[9], and subsequently is willing to keep in check the most prominent figure of the political opposition. Khan, who was ousted as PM in April this year -for which he partly blamed Bajwa- became remarkably vocal not only with his criticisms on Shehbaz’s succeeding government but also as concerns the army. His call for early national elections, combined with his growing overall popularity and victories in latest regional (local) elections, as well as his ability to mobilise the masses, are all factors increasingly perceived as a threat by the government. This development is perceived with unease by several top army officers.

However, it remains to be seen how Munir’s approach towards Khan will develop after Khan stepped into the COAS’ mantle. One should expect that his new institutional requirements leave no space to vindictiveness, which would be interpreted by his peers as unprofessional. Furthermore, any open ressentiments by Munir against Khan would further enhance the political turmoil. Munir -as all his predecessors- will use the first months to establish himself (consolidate his position) as COAS. This includes elevating people’s perceptions of the armed forces and dissolving the emerging factionalism within the army along the lines of their attitude towards Khan. However, that President Arif Alvi, who belongs to Khan’s political camp, approved the appointment process (a constitutional requirement), and the fact that Khan tuned down the tone of his criticisms on the army, can be seen as hints that a major confrontation between the political opposition and the military establishment might not appear, at least not immediately.

There are no doubts among analysts that Munir takes charge of the country’s most powerful and political influential institution at a time when the country is in one of its worst crises in recent history. Pakistan is in a precarious economic situation; political stability is severely shaken; and internal security is once again at the edge since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. The latest cross-border shelling by the Taliban and the terrorist attack on the Pakistani Embassy provide a grim perspective on future Pakistan-Afghanistan ties. Considering that the new army head ‘has navigated complex political, internal and external challenges’, one must question whether the army is both willing and able to fulfil Bajwa’s pledge to stay out of politics. Here, according to political analysts, ‘[…] the weakness of Pakistan’s institutions leaves an opening for the army to assert itself.’ According to the Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, ‘[…] there are always politicians looking for military support to achieve their political objectives.’ Also, the vast corporate interests will continue to compel the top brass to reach beyond their constitutional mandate. In other words, to protect their economic and social “reserved domains” (benefits) and their disproportional budget compared to the national wealth of the country, the armed forces is unlikely to disengage from politics. US-based expert Michael Kugelmann states that ‘[t]he institution [army] has been so entrenched in Pakistan’s political fabric for so long, that it would be well-nigh impossible to engineer such a sharp shift.’

Finally, that Bajwa clearly outlined the limit regarding critic on the army (concretely, he ‘warned against the use of undignified words against the army’), makes it obvious that one can’t expect any substantial transformation in the mindset of the Pakistani officers corps. In brief, everything will stay the same!

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Programme); he was educated at the Institute of Political Science (IPW) and South Asia Institute (SAI), both Heidelberg University. Additionally he is member (affiliated researcher) of the SAI as well as a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India). Dr Wolf worked as a consultant to NATO-sponsored periodic strategic independent research and assessment of Afghanistan-Pakistan issues.

This article was originally published on SADF.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.