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November 29, 2022 7:54 pm

Not Just a Bajwa Protege

Outgoing Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa hands over the baton of command over to the newly appointed Army Chief General Asim Munir (L), during a ceremony at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on 29 November 2022 | ISPR/handout via Reuters

During General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term, Pakistan largely adopted a non-combative policy towards India. The key question is whether new Army chief General Asim Munir will change that

THE appointment of General Asim Munir as Pakistan’s new Army chief has generated a lot of media buzz in South Asia. And understandably so. His appointment follows a contentious tenure of his predecessor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa which saw Imran Khan’s ousting as Pakistan’s prime minister in its final year. General Munir has inherited a country which seems at war with itself with Imran Khan leading a nationwide protest. What is more, Khan is now at the peak of his popularity and his party is tipped to sweep the general elections whether they are held in the near future or on their scheduled time in October next year.

An Army chief is considered the sole sovereign in Pakistan’s political structure, so General Munir holds the power to sort out the ongoing turmoil in the country. But how  he would seek to achieve this has become the subject of intense media and political speculation. More so, when General Munir is believed to hold a grudge against Khan: He is said to have been shunted out by the latter as the Director General of the ISI after a short stint of eight months.

So, there are two scenarios that can play out. One, General Munir would work to hold fresh elections which could end the current political instability in Pakistan. And second, the elections are held at their scheduled time which would mean a continuation of the current turbulence for a little more time, as by March the country would already be in an election mode. This may be why Khan has given up the demand for elections and instead sought to resign from all assemblies in a bid to force early polls. For now, Khan’s priority seems to be to keep his vast support base mobilized.

In any case, current turmoil in Pakistan has an expiry date. It can, however, prolong if the elections are not seen as free and fair by Khan and his party is denied power.  A lot of how the situation turns out depends on how General Munir handles it as part of his internal challenges.

On the external front, it would be interesting to see how the new Army chief deals with India, particularly in regard to Kashmir. During Bajwa’s term in office, Pakistan largely adopted a non-combative policy towards India. This despite the fact his term witnessed the 2019  Pulwama attack that killed over 40 security personnel leading to the first aerial dogfight between the two neighbours in 48 years. Earlier in 2016, Pakistan didn’t respond when India carried out a surgical strike across the LoC.

What is more, Pakistan balked at militarily escalating the situation when in August 2019  New Delhi revoked Article 370 that granted J&K an autonomous status under the Indian constitution – albeit, it did raise diplomatic ante which, in turn, achieved nothing. Pakistan also didn’t escalate militancy in Kashmir, as many analysts had warned. Instead, a year after Kashmir’s merger with India, Pakistan engaged in a back-channel dialogue with India and by February 2021 the two countries re-affirmed the 2003 ceasefire agreement along Line of Control.

There was suddenly a brief spell of bonhomie between the two countries. Both the then Pakistan prime minister Khan and General Bajwa called for dialogue and resolving Kashmir in a peaceful manner. Bajwa even made a pitch for the two countries to “bury the past,” and move on. He also called for “geoeconomics” to replace geopolitics as Pakistan’s worldview to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. India, however, remained cool to these overtures.

Would General Munir review his predecessor’s internal and external policies? He might very well do so. It remains to be seen whether he takes steps to resolve the current crisis in Pakistan and order elections ahead of their due date, as desired by Khan. But considering he was removed as DG ISI by Khan, it seems unlikely he will take the side of Khan in the ongoing political tussle in the country. And this is also why he is believed to have been selected by the prime minister Shahbaz Sharif in the first place. In such a situation, the current  instability in Pakistan is likely to linger on.

General Munir’s approach towards India will be keenly watched. There is some apprehension in New Delhi that he might reverse General Bajwa’s policy. But considering the tough geopolitical and the economic situation Pakistan is in, there seems little room for the country to return to its earlier belligerent approach towards India. But the Pakistan Army is known in India to be traditionally unpredictable and adventurous, so General Munir’s moves will be closely monitored, particularly so, in the weeks and months to come.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer