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'New Pak army chief won't want trouble with India for now'

By ARCHANA MASIH
Last updated on: December 01, 2022 09:11 IST
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'The last thing he would want is new tensions with India.'

IMAGE: Lieutenant General Asim Munir, after being appointed as Pakistan's new chief of army staff, meets with President Dr Arif Alvi, at President House in Islamabad, November 24, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via Reuters

General Asim Munir will take command of the Pakistan army today, November 29, 2022, bringing to end General Qamar Javed Bajwa's six-year tenure chief of army staff.

What makes him stand out from his predecessors is he is the only COAS who has served earlier as director-general of the Inter Services Intelligence, the ISI, and also headed the army's department of military intelligence.

"Munir was ISI chief when members of a terror group historically sponsored by Pakistani intelligence carried out the attack in Pulwama. That's not to suggest what direction Pakistan's policy toward India may take with Munir as army chief, but it is an important historical context," Michael Kugelman, South Asian Institute Director at the Wilson Center, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih in an e-mail two-part interview..

Kugelman's areas of expertise at the Wilson Center, the Washington DC-based think-tank, are India, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

"Let's be clear: Beyond the immediate term, Munir, keen to restore public support for the military, and knowing how the army's legitimacy has often been advanced by pitching itself as Pakistan's protector from the threat of India, could well recognise the benefits of the Pakistani State resuming its sharp rhetoric and hard line on India. But that would be later, not now," adds Kugelman.

 

You have observed Pakistan over the years, how does Pakistan's new army chief Chief General Syed Asim Munir compare with previous army chiefs?

On one level, he's very much like many of his predecessors: A highly respected and decorated senior officer, well respected within the ranks, who hasn't shared much about his personal and political views.

But what makes him stand out from many of those that came before him is that he previously served as spy chief, and he also headed military intelligence.

Few of his predecessors have headed both intelligence branches. And not only that, he also had a very short tenure as ISI chief.

Even though we don't know exactly why he was let go, it's clear that his role in such a senior post, and for such a short time, makes him a politicised figure -- even though he won't want to be seen that way.

The appointment of any new Pakistan army chief holds implications for India. In that context, what can India expect from General Munir?

The key data point here is that Munir was ISI chief when the Pulwama attack took place.

Even without making any assumptions about what type of role the Pakistani State may have played in that attack, the big takeaway here is that Munir was spy chief when members of a terror group historically sponsored by Pakistani intelligence carried out the attack in Pulwama.

That's not to suggest what direction Pakistan's policy toward India may take with Munir as army chief, but it is important historical context.

I imagine that Munir won't want any trouble with India, at least during his initial weeks as chief. His core focus will be on reducing political instability at home, as well as dealing with the economic crisis and the resurgent terror threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban.

The last thing he would want is new tensions with India.

This suggests to me that at least initially, we will see continuity between Bajwa and Munir, with the new chief picking up where his predecessor left off and trying to avoid any escalations in tensions with India.

IMAGE: General Qamar Javed Bajwa's six-year tenure as Pakistan army chief ends today, November 29, 2022.

General Munir is known to be religious, someone who knows the Quran by heart. It has been said he is an Islamist hardliner and has around him a clique of Islamist loyalist officers. What bearing is this likely to have on the Pakistan army and Pakistan at large?

If this characterisation is indeed true, it would be something else that sets Munir apart from his most immediate predecessors.

From Musharraf on, recent Pakistani army chiefs haven't been known for being terribly religious.

Munir doesn't appear to be as Westernised as his predecessors, which could help explain his high level of religiosity, if true.

I don't think we should read too much into this, though. Munir's goals domestically will be focused in great part on restoring unity and trust within the military -- both of which have suffered thanks to the sharp anti-military sentiment expressed by Imran Khan and his large support base in recent months.

It's a sensitive moment for the military, and for Munir, and so I doubt he would want to embark on some new phase of Islamisation in the country.

What we should watch, however, is what happens with the prominent Islamist political parties and other key religious actors of the moment.

Munir's successor at ISI, Faiz Hameed, became very adept at negotiating with Tehree-e-Labbaik Pakistan, and he also was involved in talks with the Taliban.

Munir, because of his reported strong religious views, may be seen as someone who can engage with such actors. But then again, if Munir is under pressure -- from himself or the army on the whole -- to step back from politics, then such a role wouldn't make much sense.

IMAGE: Security personnel inspect the spot where a Central Reserve Police Force convoy was attacked by Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists in Awantipora, Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, February 14, 2019. Photographs: Umar Ganie for Rediff.com

General Munir was the ISI chief when the Pulwama attack took place in February 2019 (he was removed at the behest of Imran Khan after a few months as ISI chief) -- do you think he will be a hardline chief, if so, how will it manifest itself towards India?
Or will he seek better ties with India considering he is seen as being close to eneral Bajwa who resumed the ceasefire along the LoC in February 2021?

Here, I think we need to keep Pakistan's domestic politics in mind. The arrival of the new army chief has removed a key source of uncertainty and hence restored some political stability.

But the political environment remains unsettled, and until it stabilises more, Munir is unlikely to be focusing extensive attention on India.

Imran Khan continues to demand early elections, and until this matter is settled -- either through the government agreeing to them or the government giving some clear indication that it will carry on until regularly scheduled elections next year -- the army chief will remain focused on politics at home during his early weeks and months in his new post.

To the extent that Munir focuses initially on foreign policy, it will be Afghanistan that takes up the lion's share of attention.

The Taliban's unwillingness to curb the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan], which is based in Afghanistan and recently formally ended a ceasefire, even after terror attacks in Pakistan increased by 50 percent between August 2021 and 2022, is a major concern for Pakistan, and for good reason.

Bajwa's steps to lower tensions with India have brought Munir some breathing room, in that India is not currently a crisis that requires immediately attention.

Does this mean that Munir will want to open up trade with India, push for closer engagement, and move on from the Kashmir issue? Don't count on it.

And let's be clear: Beyond the immediate term, Munir, keen to restore public support for the military, and knowing how the army's legitimacy has often been advanced by pitching itself as Pakistan's protector from the threat of India, could well recognise the benefits of the Pakistani State resuming its sharp rhetoric and hard line on India. But that would be later, not now.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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