Military officers never outgrow the bonds made in the foundational years of their military training school. Along with their regimental ties, the 'academy days’ remain the most flexed emotion.
However, being a brilliant cadet, although not from a premier institute, is a lifelong burden to bear.
Asim Munir, the Pakistani Army Chief, is not from the famed Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Abbottabad. All Pakistani Army Chiefs who were commissioned after General Zia-ul-Haq – post its formation in 1947, have graduated from this institution. Instead, Munir is from the lesser-known Officers Training School at Mangla – albeit a 'Sword of Honour’ from his 17th Course! His uninterrupted journey of having to prove himself began early.
Munir's 'Minority' Status
Munir is a Shia - neither from the stock of garrulous Punjabi Rajputs (eg, Generals Tikka Khan, Raheel Sharif, Asif Janjua, etc.), nor the hardwired Pathans (Generals Ayub Khan, Abdul Waheed Kakar, etc.) who typically adorn the Pakistani Generalship.
In the deeply sectarian cauldron of Pakistan, being a ‘minority’ is a call to prove oneself, or go the extra mile. The two other Shia Army Chiefs – General Musa Khan and General Yahya Khan – both led the Pakistani Army into fatal wars with India in 1965 and 1971 respectively.
Cursed into a ‘minority’ status from a ‘martial’ lens, the two Mohajir Chiefs, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf – had to demonstrate a certain intransigence, and maintain a constant brawl with India to legitimise their own muscularity in the Pakistani narrative. Munir’s own unique tryst with subtle minoritism also has much to prove!
Hailing from a non-military and middle-class family from the nondescript Dheri Hassanbad in Rawalpindi, Munir’s rise to the apex of the Pakistani establishment is reflective of an obviously sharp mind, that is well aware of the rough terrain and subliminal challenges that exist. Munir is both a survivor and achiever, who announced his arrival in the traditions of his Frontier Force Regiment, the motto being 'Talbiyah' in Arabic, or 'I am here'. He arrived cautiously and rather successfully, despite the odds stacked against him.
Steady Growth in the Establishment
The fleetfooted ‘Piffer’ (as those from Frontier Force Regiment are called) who joined the Pakistani ‘establishment’ in 1986 at the height of General Zia’s project of 'Shariazation' of the relatively secular institution, would have known that being a Hafiz-e-Quran (one who can recite the Quran by rote) would have raised eyebrows – it is worth noting that Munir unusually completed a religious course from a seminary as a Colonel.
His lack of familial credentials did not hinder his steady growth. In fact, he saw a rare exposure to two significant roles: Director General of Military Intelligence, and also Director General (DG) of the shadowy Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI).
His tenure as DG-ISI may have taught him two invaluable lessons for the future: firstly, the invariable consequences of a ‘Pulwama’ misadventure; as he was the DG in February 2019 at the time of the attack, and secondly, the ways of politicians, by pointing a finger at ‘Pinky Peerni’ (Bushra Bibi, the wife of then Prime Minister, Imran Khan) as he was immediately shunted out from DG-ISI thereafter. A case of twice-bitten and thrice-shy.
Certainly, in managing unhinged politicians, he has outwitted the hyper-ambitious Pathan from Mianwali, Imran Khan, with some old-school ‘establishment’ tactics of coercion, suppression, and sheer intimidation. The verdict on how he will manage the patent ‘India card’ remains to be seen.
Munir's Calculated Moves
Preferring to stay in the shadows with minimal media engagement and letting the Inter-Services Public Relations Division (ISPR) take the spotlight, Munir is keeping everyone second-guessing over his next move.
He knows that his nemesis Imran Khan enjoys mass public support as opposed to the discredited dispensation of the day. Therefore, if he were seen to be tilting openly in favour of the government, it would be counterproductive. Instead, he is squeezing Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) silently – with an old-fashioned tightening of the noose, which has led to a ‘voluntary’ exodus of over 100 PTI lawmakers.
Ostensibly, Munir has no role in PTI’s implosion, except everyone knows better. On the political front, he has been accurate with his promise to punish the ‘planners and masterminds’ of the 9 May violence.
Counterintuitively, publicly allowing the attack on the ‘establishment’ wherewithal by PTI’s supporters on 9 May might have truly been a masterstroke by Munir, as it opened the door for legitimate countermoves. Munir always had a point to prove about the supposed ‘neutrality’ of the military (after it was ridiculed in Qamar Bajwa days) and the 9 May incident might have afforded that opportunity.
Munir’s calculated gambit against Imran’s arrogance, and against some rough Pakistani Military Officers such as Lt Gen Faiz Hameed (former DG-ISI who had cavalierly landed in Kabul to have tea with the Afghan Taliban, as American troops were retreating), who has since been forced out, will help Munir build bridges with the Americans.
He can posture the change of stance towards Washington DC as he takes on the Afghan Taliban, as it shields its co-ideologists in the Pakistan-facing, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This development could also help the ‘establishment’ curry favour towards securing desperate doles from IMF et al, where the United States applies asymmetric pressures to extend or deny the same – should Munir succeed and be seen perceptively to have played a key role in securing the life-sustaining financial aid, the ‘establishment’ under Munir could re-earn its proverbial 'stripes’, in the bargain.
Pulwama Saga and the LOC
Having lived through the Pulwama saga and tenanted command along the Line of Control (LOC), Munir would know the governance impulse from across the LOC better than the time-serving and inward-looking politicians in Islamabad.
He would know that given the 2024 General Elections in India, the government in Delhi will simply not allow the repetition of an attack adjacent to Pulwama to go unretaliated.
Given the myriad problems already besetting the ‘establishment’ – why would Munir stir the pot, aware of his own constraints and guaranteed embarrassment? He will however persist with rote and perfunctory sabre-rattling in guest lectures, settling for nothing less. With the ensuing political dissonance and insurgent mood within the country, specifically along the Durand Line and Baluchistan, Munir has enough on his plate.
If anything, peace along the LOC will enable Munir to shift focus on the restive Durand Line (to take on TTP elements in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and in protecting the ultra-vulnerable China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) imperatives with its already dedicated Pakistani Army’s Divisions; currently, even the Chinese would not mind such rearrangement.
Many Points to Prove
Munir has many personal, institutional, and sovereign points to prove, and above all – has the credibility of the ‘establishment’. The ideal tactic would be to lie low and selectively pull the strings, as per the limitations of what he can handle.
The beleaguered Imran Khan is desperately seeking an appointment with Asim Munir, conceding that the “real decision maker and power is concentrated” within the "establishment", and not with the supposed civilian government. This appears to be true, and therefore, Munir is giving him the cold shoulder.
It is the worst kept secret about the rightfully mocked ‘neutrals’ in Pakistan and as the providential head of the ‘establishment’, Asim Munir could go down in history as one who survived against personal odds, revived the cause of his ‘establishment’, and above all, made Pakistan survive against unimaginable odds.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)