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Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif. Photo: AFP

Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif’s fate lies with his new appointed army chief General Asim Munir

  • Appointment of new chief of staff has been focus of months of politicking between military’s high command – PM’s coalition government – and opposition leader Imran Khan
  • Analysts have pointed out that no elected PM has completed a full five-year term due to the political machinations of army chiefs they appointed

Pakistan’s government has appointed a new army chief, with the knowledge that the nation’s political fate will be determined by General Asim Munir who gets the job rather than the prime minister who appoints him.

While typically a landmark event because of the military’s traditionally dominant role in Pakistani politics, the appointment of a new chief of staff later on Thursday has been the focus of months of Machiavellian politicking between the military’s high command, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government, and opposition leader Imran Khan.
“The army chief is widely perceived to be the de facto ruler of Pakistan, and this perception only deepened” under the outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, said Asfandyar Mir, a senior South Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace.

“So the political jostling and controversy over who gets appointed is in fact about who and how Pakistan will be ruled,” he said.

Can Imran Khan win over Pakistan’s military to become prime minister again?

Though it is constitutionally a democratic federation, Pakistan is perceived – domestically and internationally – as a nation of 230 million people controlled by generals.

The army has directly ruled the country for half of its 75-year history. Despite the restoration of the democratic process in 2008, the army’s dominance over national security policy has expanded to the economy, diplomacy and the media.

Analysts say the military’s political role peaked during the campaign for the 2018 general election, when the military and judiciary engineered the victory of Imran Khan’s PTI party as a means of sidelining the older political parties it had long jostled for power with.

Imran Khan and outgoing Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (pictured) fell out over the PTI government’s poor economic governance and mishandling of relations with Pakistan’s key allies. Photo: AP

“Pakistan’s military has, for as long as one can remember, meddled in politics. Even by those standards, what happened before and after the 2018 elections was without parallel. Everyone was pretty open about it and even the supporters of that set-up called it a hybrid regime,” said Abbas Nasir, a London-based analyst and former Asia-Pacific executive editor for the BBC World Service.

Khan and outgoing army chief Bajwa fell out over the PTI government’s poor economic governance and mishandling of relations with Pakistan’s key foreign allies the US, China and Saudi Arabia.

The breaking point came last November when Khan tried to block a routinely scheduled change in the leadership of the military’s dreaded Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

His failed attempt to retain the services of Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed was seen by the military leadership as an attempt to split its ranks, and viewed by opposition parties as a conspiracy to rig the next elections in the PTI’s favour.


Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan charged with terrorism, supporters gather to block his arrest

Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan charged with terrorism, supporters gather to block his arrest

The army leadership subsequently announced it would assume an “apolitical role”, clearing the way for the opposition to remove Khan in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April.

“What happened to that is public knowledge but the public falling out of the military and the former prime minister brought the can of worms into full public view,” Nasir said

Six lieutenant generals were in the running, but Sharif’s multiparty coalition has made no secret of its opposition to the candidacy of ex-ISI chief Hameed, who is widely seen as the leader of former prime minister Khan’s substantial support base within the military.

PTI did not want the job of army chief to go to General Munir because he was removed as ISI chief in 2019 by then-PM Khan, reportedly for investigating corrupt practices by Khan’s wife, and is seen as a potential opponent to his campaign to force a snap general election before it is scheduled in late 2023.

Tensions between Imran Khan, Pakistan military threaten to erupt into chaos

Khan has timed the conclusion this weekend of a weeks-long march by thousands of PTI activists towards Islamabad, aimed at bringing down the government, to coincide with the appointment of the new army chief of staff.

They will stop first on Saturday in the adjoining city of Rawalpindi, home to the army’s headquarters, in an apparent attempt to pressure generals to back Khan’s campaign for early elections, which the PTI is expected to win.

It is widely feared that the PTI march could end in destabilising violence, requiring the army to once again intervene.

But history shows that both Sharif and Khan are attempting to run a “fool’s errand”, analysts said, because no elected prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term in office due to the political machinations of army chiefs they appointed.

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan attend the protest march on November 19 as it continues following its resumption days after an assassination attempt on Khan halted the rally. Photo: EPA-EFE

Irrespective of which of the six generals became Pakistan’s army chief of staff, they would invariably act in the military’s institutional interest, and thus independently of the interests of any political government, the analysts said.

Ultimately, Sharif followed advice to pick the most senior general, Asim Munir, to be the army chief of staff to “be done with it”, analysts said.

“The idea of a prime minister picking someone further down the list on the assumption that person will be beholden to him/her in the future is a fool’s errand,” said Robin Raphel, a former US ambassador to Pakistan who currently works as a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.