The axe has fallen. Bets won and lost. Three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has prevailed and Lt General Asim Munir has been named as the next Army Chief of Pakistan, and General Sahir Shamshad Mirza as the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a game of nerves and, therefore, a question of who blinked first. Sharif didn’t.
Imran Khan’s seven months long gambit to create enough pressure to be able to have a say in the naming of the next army chief lies in tatters. In a last bid at face saving, President Arif Alvi arrived at Imran Khan’s residence in Lahore to give the impression that he acted in accordance with Khan’s advice.
Pakistan's Tug-of-War Over Army Chief's Appointment
But this tug-of-war was a complex and multi-layered one—it wasn’t just between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. The one between these two may be over, but the one within the army will go on interminably. Imran Khan’s brazen, relentless, and unprecedented anti “neutrals” campaign had supporters within the army—he was not acting alone.
That he attempted to illegally block the vote-of-no-confidence, spook the IMF into suspending the ongoing programme and cause a default, and exploit the split within the armed forces to incite a rebellion—all with no apparent consequences—was because of strong enough support within the army to keep him going.
This support group played a reckless gamble to win and consolidate its power at any cost. Imran Khan was merely a tool. In this game, General Bajwa was the weak link who played both sides and with both sides, depending on which one was winning at any given moment in time. A strong army chief firmly in command of his forces does not need the army’s spokesperson to appear on television to say that there are no divisions and that “sipah salaar jiss taraf dekhta hai, saath lakh fauj uss taraf dekhti hai” (the seven hundred thousand strong army looks in the direction in which the chief looks).
What Will Pakistan Army Do Now?
Imran Khan the puppet’s game may be over, but the power centres in the army fighting each other for supremacy remain in the ranks. These warlords fight together to defeat the strongest contender, and if that is achieved they turn upon the next one and so it continues. Together, they gambled dangerously enough to risk plunging the country into complete anarchy, and therefore are not expected to give up just yet.
To beguile the time, they will look like the time. Sycophantic statements in high praise of General Asim Munir have begun to pour in from them and from their tentacles in the wider state and society. And therefore, the Uriah Heeps will continue to sharpen their knives as they bide their time.
It remains to be seen, then, whether the new army chief General Asim Munir will be able to successfully consolidate his power, or whether he will become a lamb at their hands just as the outgoing chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa did within six months of taking charge.
Gen Asim Munir Has Demonstrated Independence By Investigating Imran Khan's Wife's Corruption
What might provide some clues to this question are a couple of known interactions between him and Imran Khan. Just eight months into his job as the Director General Inter Services Intelligence (DG ISI), he is reported to have presented intelligence and evidence of corruption of the then Prime Minister’s wife Bushra Begum to him. It is another matter that he was moved out of that post the same day, but the act speaks of unspeakable guts. Imagine telling your boss, the company’s chief executive, that he’s on the take through his wife—knowing full well the CEO has the entire board of directors behind him.
And yet he survived. He moved to the position of Corp Commander Gujranwala. This incident also indicates that he is likely among the rare tribe within the army that is financially clean. Were he not, he would not have walked into the PM’s office with a dossier on his wife and her front men and women.
Fascinating also is the fact that at the time, the event did not make it to the news. He did not play politics over it, did not attempt a media trial or a power play, choosing to live to fight another day. Indeed, as DG ISI his was not a household name—a rare phenomenon for Pakistan.
Why General Asim Munir Will Likely Be Nobody's Man
In previous incidents, he defied the then PM Imran Khan outright, refusing his orders to put opposition leaders behind bars, reportedly telling him that that wasn’t in his job description. His successor, of course, complied leaning on the NAB, the courts, and other government departments.
Holder of the Sword of Honour, and known as a straight shooter, General Asim Munir is said to speak his mind in plain, un-couched language even when disagreeing with his boss General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The PDM coalition government, therefore, is likely not expecting him to be “their man” either.
For whatever it will be worth, this is the man for whom former PM Nawaz Sharif chose to stare down threats from GHQ. Threats of causing a collapse of his government, then of imposition of martial law, then of retiring his candidate prematurely, then of just not raising a summary, and in the end of having the President sit on the Prime Minister’s advice and triggering a constitutional crisis via a legal challenge against their senior most officer! Apparently, Mian Nawaz Sharif correctly assessed that the GHQ stood to lose more than him if it undertook any such adventure.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)