Lieutenant-General Syed Asim Munir was the shortest serving head of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s infamous spy agency. He was appointed the ISI head in October 2018 by the Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. But eight months later, he was replaced with Lt.Gen. Faiz Hamid on the insistence of then Prime Minister Imran Khan. The cricketer-turned-politician, who came to power a few months earlier, was still enjoying warm ties with the military establishment, which could not overlook his wishes. While there was no official word on why the ISI chief was fired, an alleged audio clip of Aleem Khan, a former leader of Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), surfaced earlier this year in which he accused the former Prime Minister of sacking Lt.Gen. Munir for exposing corruption of his wife, Bushra Bibi.
In three years, the tables have turned. Mr. Khan, who fell out with the military, was ousted from power in April through a no-confidence vote. As he is trying to make a comeback through political mobilisation across the country, Lt.Gen. Munir has been appointed the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), arguably the most powerful position in Pakistan.
It was hardly a secret that Mr. Khan’s PTI was steadfastly opposed to Lt.Gen. Munir’s appointment. But Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his brother and former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif (who is in exile in London), had their way in picking the successor of Gen. Bajwa, who would retire on November 29 after six years at the top. “We hope that the new leadership of the armed forces of Pakistan will play its constitutional role… and stay out of the politics of domestic affairs…,” Mr. Khan’s party said in a statement about Lt.Gen. Munir’s appointment, without congratulating the next COAS.
Little is known about what Lt.Gen. Munir thinks of the critical challenges Pakistan is facing — from civil military relations to tackling ties with India, managing Afghanistan and balancing between the U.S. and China. All these years, he has kept a low profile, avoiding public comments and controversies. But he has held several key posts in the military, an indication that the top brass has been grooming him for leadership roles. He entered the service through the Officers Training School programme in Mangla, where he won the prestigious Sword of Honour, an honorary sword given to best performing cadets. He started his military career as a Second Lieutenant in 1986 when the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was ruling Pakistan.
As a Brigadier, he commanded the Pakistani troops in the Northern Areas, which includes Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, under Gen. Bajwa. After Gen. Bajwa became the Army chief in November 2016, Lt.Gen. Munir rose through the ranks quickly. He was appointed the Military Intelligence Director-General in 2017 and became a (three-star) Lieutenant-General in September 2018. In the same year, Gen. Bajwa promoted him as the ISI Director-General, but his fallout with Mr. Khan cost him the job. However, Lt.Gen. Munir survived Mr. Khan’s ire. He was posted as Gujranwala Corps Commander for two years and then moved to the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi as a Quartermaster General, in charge of supplies.
Among the names that did the rounds for the COAS, which also included Lt.Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Lt.Gen. Azhar Abbas, Lt.Gen. Nauman Mehmood and Lt.Gen. Faiz Hamid (who was said to be Mr. Khan’s favourite), Lt.Gen. Munir was the senior most. His four-year term as a Lt.Gen. was to end on November 27 (Sunday). But two days later, he would become a four-star General, beginning a three-year term as the COAS.
Pakistani media term him a “devout”, “clear-headed” soldier committed to protecting the interests of the military and the state. There were instances of Lt.Gen. Munir acting swiftly to protect the military and the ISI from public criticism. In July 2018, Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui criticised the ISI, saying the agency was manipulating judicial proceedings to get favourable decisions. Justice Siddiqui was sacked in October that year by President Arif Alvi on a recommendation from the Supreme Judicial Council for misconduct, a few days after Lt.Gen. Munir became the ISI chief. Political analyst and author Shuja Nawaz writes in his book, The Battle for Pakistan, that the Supreme Court’s decision was an example of Lt.Gen. Munir’s “overreach”. Mr. Nawaz writes that Lt.Gen. Munir has the “reputation of a hardliner” and “a tough officer rooted in Islamic tradition”. Lt.Gen. Munir is also called a Hafiz-e-Quran, who memorised the holy book during his posting in Saudi Arabia as a Lieutenant-Colonel.
Lt.Gen. Munir takes over the 6,00,000-strong military with nuclear weapons at a critical time for Pakistan. Gen. Bajwa’s six-year term has seen mixed results for the country. With regard to India, relations took a massive hit after the post-Pulwama clashes (Lt.Gen. Munir was the ISI chief when the Pulwama attack took place in February 2019 in which 40 Indian personnel were killed). But two years later, India and Pakistan agreed to renew a ceasefire that was in tatters. Under Gen. Bajwa, Pakistan oversaw the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan, which seemed to have given a strategic victory to the establishment. But the Taliban’s return also posed new security and strategic challenges for Pakistan, with the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) gaining momentum from their Afghan brothers’ triumph and ramping up attacks. At home, the military, which has always remained the power behind the throne, faced a credibility crisis after Mr. Khan, who was earlier backed by the Generals, accused them of plotting his ouster from power. With Mr. Khan travelling across the country mobilising thousands of people and publicly attacking the military and his political rivals, the establishment has got a popular rival in the political class.
Amid a host of challenges, Lt.Gen. Munir will have to get his priorities right. “I expect continuity between Bajwa and Munir on India policy. Bajwa sought to limit tensions, as evidenced by the new border truce last year and his focus on more regional trade and connectivity, as well as Pakistan’s muted response to the errant Indian missile that landed in Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director at The Wilson Center, Washington DC. “With Munir and the Army on the whole wanting the main policy focus to be on stabilising Pakistan politically and economically, the last thing they’ll want is a fresh crisis with India. So I expect Munir, at least initially, to endorse Bajwa’s efforts to keep tensions down in the relationship with India, and focus on getting things in better order at home.”
Finding ways to stabilise domestic politics, where Mr. Khan remains what Pakistani journalist Abbas Nasir calls a “cornered tiger”, would not be an easy task. “If Munir concludes that political stability is more likely with early polls, and he presses the government to agree to them, that could inject tensions into what have been smooth civil-relations in recent months, post-Khan ouster. That said, given the reports of past differences between Khan and Munir, Munir likely isn’t about to do Khan any favours, at least not initially. And we can’t rule out him endorsing efforts by the state to try to undermine Khan’s electoral prospects,” Mr. Kugelman told The Hindu. Challenging days are ahead for both the military and Mr. Khan.