General Asim Munir is many things – a 'Sword of Honour' winner, a 'Hafiz-e-Quran', a former head of Pakistan's notorious spy agency, ISI, the man who locked horns with ex-prime minister Imran Khan, and a close aide of General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
But his latest mantle may be the most challenging yet – the head of the Pakistan Army.
The new chief not just takes the charge of the 600,000-strong Pakistan Army but also inherits the raging political turbulence in the country.
In this two-part article, The Quint explores what Munir's immediate challenges are and what his appointment means for India.
Political Challenges for the New Army Chief
Munir's appointment comes at a crucial time when the Pakistan Army is trying to shed its image as an institute meddling in the political affairs of the country.
On 23 November, outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa admitted that the army had "unconstitutionally interfered in politics" for seven decades but will not do so in the future following a decision taken in February last year.
For Munir, staying away from politics may not be a choice considering the current political scenario in Pakistan.
Michael Kugelman, the Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, thinks that it would be impossible for Munir to simply close himself off from all the political churn in the country.
"Even if Munir wants to follow Bajwa's plea for a lower army profile in politics, it's going to be impossible for him to just stay out of it especially because of the high level of polarisation, this deep level of tension between the government and Imran Khan."Michael Kugelman to The Quint
The upcoming general election in Pakistan, scheduled for 2023, would be the biggest challenge for Munir.
“Simply by virtue of his position, Munir would be a significant player in the calculus surrounding the next election just because the army chief continues to be arguably the most powerful political position in Pakistan,” Kugelman says.
Since being ousted, Khan has called for early elections, a demand rejected by the Shehbaz Sharif government. Munir could play a role here and bring the government and the PTI chief to some type of agreement, but only if he thinks it serves the army's interests, Kugelman adds.
Ajay Darshan Behera, a long-time watcher of Pakistan, and a professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, argues the army will not be going out of politics just because Bajwa said it will not interfere.
"They will not probably jump into the situation, but they will watch. Some way they will keep the channel open to Imran, they will keep the channel open to Shehbaz Sharif, and other leaders that 'whatever you do, don’t create a volatile situation.' The army is like a referee in Pakistan."Ajay Darshan Behera to The Quint
Analysts say that Munir – described by many as an "outstanding officer” – is apolitical in his approach and will not take sides in a political battle between Imran Khan and Sharif.
Handling Imran Khan’s Popularity
However, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s popularity may become a huge challenge for Munir.
“He will also have to handle the political turbulence of Imran Khan who continues to be popular irrespective of what he has done. He will have to take on much more challenging political turmoil,” says Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana, a New Delhi-based Global Strategic and Defence Analyst.
Despite his “apolitical” image, Munir’s ISI stint, when he crossed swords with Imran Khan, may come to define the support he gets from the public, particularly the PTI supporters.
“Given his stint as head of intelligence was shortened by prime minister Khan, after both reportedly fell out, PTI believes, Munir could be tilted against them,” Muhammed Faisal Khan, an Islamabad-based security analyst, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera.
Munir was appointed the director general of Military Intelligence in early 2017 and was made the head of the ISI in October 2018. His tenure as the ISI chief, however, was short-lived as he was removed from the post in June 2019 at the insistence of then-PM Imran Khan.
Reports claimed that Munir was removed eight months into the job after he had apparently alleged to Khan that his wife Bushra Bibi was involved in corrupt practices.
Some argue that his clash with Imran Khan was a testament to his apolitical and independent approach. Writing for The Quint, senior Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari said that as ISI chief, Munir demonstrated independence by investigating Imran Khan's wife's corruption and he is going to be nobody's man – not Imran Khan's, not Sharifs'.
Restoring Public Trust in the Army
Munir, who won the prestigious 'Sword of Honour' – given to the best performing cadet – when he graduated in 1986 from the Officers Training School programme in Mangla, is taking charge of the military when the trust in army is arguably the lowest it has ever been.
The Pakistan Army has been lately seen as being against the PTI and Imran Khan, and that is significant considering a large chunk of the Pakistani population still supports the former prime minister.
The public bickering between the army and the PTI leaders has further damaged the army’s reputation. Last month, the ISI chief, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, even held an unprecedented press conference to call out Imran for referring to Bajwa as “traitor.”
Restoring trust in the army is one of the major challenges facing Munir.
"…he needs to focus on steering trust public trust in the army so he would not want to do anything to risk angering the public and particularly Khan supporters anymore. So, it's just very delicate terrain that Munir will have to navigate as he figures out what role he and maybe the army will play moving forward."Michael Kugelman to The Quint
Asthana says this is the first time that the army is facing so much of opposition from the public.
“There is no doubt that he will have to face tremendous amount of challenge because it never happened in Pakistan.”Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana to The Quint
Besides political challenges, Munir will also have to deal with rising security threats on the Afghanistan border as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gains strength.
“Relations with Taliban in Afghanistan have taken a tumble as there have been some serious differences over border issues and TTP issue and I think that's a really big challenge for Munir in the sense that TTP is posing a rising threat to Pakistan.”Michael Kugelman to The Quint
“Who knows Munir would have that type of capacity as army chief to try to figure out a way to reduce the terrorism Pakistan is facing," Kugelman adds.
Retired Pak Army official Muhammed Zeeshan, a junior of Munir in the force, told Al Jazeera the new army chief’s career postings show he was groomed for senior positions throughout his career.
“Based on his postings and the results of his courses, it is pretty evident that he proved himself worthy of where he is today,” Zeeshan, currently the director general of the Centre for Peace, Security and Developmental Studies think-tank in Islamabad, said.
A recipient of Hilal-i-Imtiaz – the second-highest civilian award given to both civilians and military officers – Munir is the senior-most general in the present crop of three-star officers.
Munir commanded troops in the Force Command Northern Areas as a brigadier when Bajwa was the Commander of the elite X Corps.
Foreign Policy Challenges
Considering that the Pakistan Army plays a significant role in foreign policy, Munir will have to deal with the foreign allies as well. Munir briefly served in Saudi Arabia, a close Pakistan ally, as part of the army's close defence cooperation. It is there that he memorised the Quran, earning the title of 'Hafiz-e-Quran'. That experience and his religious background may help him deal with close Islamic allies.
But the biggest challenge would be to build on the repairing of the relationship with the West that Bajwa undertook in his last year of tenure following Imran Khan’s exit. Improved relations with the US and the European Union would help Pakistan in trade relations and lessen the severity of economic crises.
“The foreign policy has often been in the remit of the military, so I think that he would want to focus on continuing what Bajwa had tried towards the end, to get past the damage and improve relations with the West that had taken hits when Khan ramped up his anti-West rhetoric during his last few months in power.”Michael Kugelman to The Quint