Can a New Army Chief Pull Pakistan Out of Crisis?
Amid Pakistan’s multifaceted crises, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has appointed Lt. Gen. Asim Munir as the country’s new army chief, one of the most powerful positions in the country.
Pakistan has experienced political instability throughout history, owing to its dispersed political parties, ethnic divisions, and, most importantly, proactive military involvement in civilian affairs. These factors have significantly impacted Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies. Amid Pakistan’s multifaceted crises, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif appointed Lt. Gen. Asim Munir as the country’s new Army chief for a three-year term.
When Munir assumed command of the Pakistani Army on November 29, he inherited the sordid history of his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose six-year, extended term damaged Pakistan’s political image more intensely than any other time in the country’s history by undermining Pakistan’s credibility both domestically and internationally. The new incumbent will face a difficult task in dealing with Pakistan’s complicated uncertainty.
Internal Political Turmoil
Pakistan’s unstable political system has resulted from the military’s dominant interference in Pakistani politics, which has seen it overthrow civilian governments three times and impose long periods of military rule over the years. The current heightened political polarization is primarily due to the Pakistani military’s long-standing influence over politics and, more specifically, the 2018 elections, in which the military reportedly attempted to intervene twice. First, it was accused of installing the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Then, in April 2022, the military was accused of removing Khan from power through parliament in a vote of no-confidence and instead installing the Shehbaz Sharif-led Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government. The opposition calls Khan’s government a “selected” one and Sharif’s an “imported” one.
Meanwhile, political schisms tarnished Pakistan’s military when Khan publicly accused military institutions of colluding with the United States after his ouster and staged massive protests for early general elections in Pakistan. This boosted his popularity in Pakistan, where he won by-elections with a majority in two influential Pakistani states, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, just days after Munir’s appointment, Khan called off the long March in his first public appearance in Rawalpindi following his assassination attempt and announced that his party would resign from state assemblies, ostensibly to avoid "chaos" in Pakistan. Nonetheless, the facts suggest that political instability will likely persist even after the new military transition, with political parties exploiting Pakistan’s economic downturn for political gain.
Munir, who was at odds with Khan and was deposed from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in 2019, was replaced by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid as the ISI’s new spymaster, a comparable figure to him. As a result, one of the most difficult challenges for the new military leadership will be to either distance itself from politics or restore the military’s lost trust in public opinion. This will also raise questions for the PDM and the PTI about how the military, led by Munir, will handle the ongoing political complexity. As such, normalizing military-civil ties will be Munir’s priority when working to repair the army’s damaged image, which was tarnished during Bajwa’s six-year tenure. This will only be possible if the military does not interfere with the upcoming elections in late August 2023.
A Challenging Recession
Pakistan’s economy is less reliant on domestic resources compared to the past. Instead, it requires foreign debt and financial assistance each year to avoid economic instability. Because of dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the value of its national currency of rupees against the dollar, high global inflation, energy and food shortages, and recent floods and heavy monsoons, Pakistan’s socioeconomic environment has deteriorated more profoundly than at any other time in the country’s history.
For the time being, Pakistan is on the brink of economic collapse, and the country cannot meet its debt obligations to creditors. As a result, foreign creditors are hesitant to provide additional relief loans to help stabilize the economy. Furthermore, the national currency, the Pakistani rupee, is deteriorating against the dollar. To that end, Pakistan’s fragile economy is at risk of default. All of these factors have impacted socioeconomic development, and neither the military nor the civilian government will be able to address the crisis in the short term.
Mounting Security Instability
In addition to political and economic crises, emerging security threats are likely to continue to pose a serious threat to national security. Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), founded in 2007, is a banned group of Pakistani Taliban that has fought for years against Pakistan’s security forces to impose Sharia law. The TTP has ordered its fighters to resume nationwide attacks in retaliation for ongoing military operations following the appointment of Munir. Moreover, the TTP called for an end to a five-month unilateral ceasefire with the Pakistani government.
The Afghan Taliban’s military victory in 2021 greatly inspired the TTP. Shortly after, the TTP began armed attacks on Pakistani security forces in tribal areas and other parts of the country. According to the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, the TTP was responsible for 250 attacks between August 15, 2021, and August 14, 2022, representing a 51 percent increase in the number of attacks in the year after the Taliban takeover. Furthermore, the failure of peace talks between both parties established mistrust, contributing to the intensification of military clashes in Pakistan.
Other armed groups, such as the Baloch freedom movements, have clashed with Pakistani security forces in restive Balochistan this year, either targeting Chinese assets in Pakistan or posing a persistent threat to security. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) is another active group that launches attacks in Pakistan, primarily targeting the Shia minority and government-affiliated targets. For instance, ISIS-K recently claimed responsibility for an attack on Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul. Overall, TTP attacks will empower ISIS-K to launch similar attacks in Pakistan, putting the new army chief’s ability to address the country’s mounting security threats and other crises in jeopardy.
Masom Jan Masomy is an Assistant Professor at the Regional Studies Center, Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. He frequently writes about Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Asia. His Twitter is MasomJan28