Marriyum Aurangzeb, Pakistan’s Information Minister, announced the appointment of Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir Shah as the new Chief of the Pakistani Army on Twitter. He will take charge over the incumbent, General Qamar Bajwa, after a stalemate over the new selection. His appointment comes at a time when Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, has survived an assassination attempt, relations between the civil-military are at an all-time low, and the morale of the Pakistani Army is the lowest.
One of the questions that comes up is will the rise to the helm of Lt. Gen. Munir, also known as “Mullah General”—known for his ability to recite the Holy Quran by heart—change Pakistan’s chronic civil-military relations? Will his selection lead to ensuring stability in India-Pakistan relations? Or does his religious fundamentalism affect decisions made in terms of the Pakistan Army? Thus, it is essential to understand this before analysing this appointment.
former ISI chief
It is rare for someone who has served as an ISI chief to become an Army Chief in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani, who was the Army Chief from 2008 to 2013, is perhaps the only other. Lt. Gen. Munir Shah previously served as the Chief of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier intelligence gathering agency. He was at the helm of affairs when the Pulwama terrorist attacks killed 44 CRPF personnel and during the negotiations to release fighter pilot Group Capt Abhinandan Varthaman.
Due to a disagreement with former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Lt. Gen. Munir’s tenure as Directorate General ISI was cut short. He had played a key role in bringing to light the corrupt practices that led to his ouster, making him the shortest ISI Director General in the history of Pakistan. But he is known to be friendly with General Bajwa and the most senior officer in the running, which helped him get the job. Lt. Gen. Munir, unlike other senior officers and appointees who have risen to the rank of Pakistan’s ISI chief, did not get any training from the United States or the United Kingdom. He has previously served as the defence attaché to the diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia.
It would be interesting to see how he will act with the pro-Imran Khan factions since his appointment comes at a rough political time and the Pakistani Army’s morale is at the lowest. During his time in office, General Bajwa did a lot of important things for India, like negotiate a ceasefire at the Line of Control and reduce cross-border violence, though that was compensated through drones bringing in weapons and drugs.
Some significant challenges for Lt. Gen. Munir Shah would be the continued terrorist activities within Pakistan by TTP (Tehreek-i-Taliban) and other freedom fighting groups in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. They have been garnering support from the local public, leading to the Pakistani Army being on the back foot in these states.
On the Afghan border, the Taliban’s victory has not reaped the dividend it expected Pakistan would. Moreover, the Taliban’s refusal to acknowledge the Durand Line has opposed Pakistani activities along the fence, leading to more challenges to the Pakistani Army in the region. It is called one of the most dangerous borders in the world from a geopolitical and geostrategic point of view. Due to these fault lines, there have been frequent skirmishes between Taliban-led Afghanistan and Pakistan on the borders.
There is barely any warmth in the connection and almost little communication between the two sides at the moment like previously when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Lahore to meet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. Now, the communication between both parties is purely strategic, professional, and void of any sentiment.
Historically speaking, India and Pakistan have had intense engagement in the past—discussions, Pakistan enabling terror attacks, breakdown of discussions, new government; and repeat. This led to New Delhi understanding that talking to Pakistan for permanent peace is a fool’s errand and with the rise of India in the subcontinent, the priority for India is China—which has been hostile in its actions.
Therefore, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir Shah comes with ambiguity for India, having served as Commander of the ‘Northern Forces’; both these posts were focused on India. With him at the helm, it would be doubtful if he would keep the words of his predecessor of tactical restrain against India and respecting the ceasefire brokered at the LoC or ramp up terror activities in the neighbourhood.
Even with his closeness with General Bajwa, one cannot presume that he shares his predecessor’s view on India-Pakistan relations since General Bajwa’s tenure was a mixed bag for India. With the important landmark of brokering a ceasefire deal with India, it is said that Lt. Gen. Munir had coordinated with his counterpart on the Indian side, NSA Ajit Doval.
Finally, it has been an Indian experience that having religiously minded men at the helm of such positions in the Pakistani Army has “not been good” for India. Given the current situation in Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Munir cannot afford to look soft on India; he will be a hardline chief to the core. Therefore, with time, we will know how the appointment of Lt. Gen. Munir plays out for India and how his religious affiliation affects the already strained relations between India and Pakistan.
Arpan A. Chakravarty is a Research Officer at The Peninsula Foundation, a research-based think tank in Chennai. His research interests include law, national security and foreign affairs.