Pakistan Names a New Army Chief, Amid Political Drama Centered on the Military
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a changing of the guard that some analysts say has come to be at least as crucial to Pakistani affairs as civilian political cycles, Pakistan on Thursday announced the rise of a new army chief, at a time of turmoil and debate over the military’s power in the country’s politics.
After weeks of intense speculation and backstage negotiations over who would lead Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military for at least the next three years, Prime Minister Shehbahz Sharif said Thursday that he had chosen Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir to become the new army chief.
Gen. Munir is the most senior most general in the country’s army, and formerly served as served as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the country’s intelligence wing known as the I.S.I., and the Military Intelligence. His tenure at the I.S.I. was cut short in 2019 by former Prime Minister Imran Khan after the general refused to do Mr. Khan’s political bidding.
Mr. Sharif made his choice from a short list sent to him by Pakistan’s powerful military command structure, at a time of intense political upheaval that has spilled over into street protests.
Mr. Sharif’s chief political antagonist, Mr. Khan, was ousted by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April that the former prime minister publicly accused the Pakistani military, the United States and his political rivals of aiding. Military officials, as well as Pakistani and American officials, have all denied the accusations by Mr. Khan, who is leading a cross-country protest movement to demand new national elections.
On Wednesday, the departing army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, warned that the military establishment was losing patience with Mr. Khan’s accusations. “A state of hysteria was created in the country on the pretext of a fake and false narrative,” he said during a military ceremony in Rawalpindi.
Still, he acknowledged his military’s central role in politics, saying that the army would remain apolitical from now on. “The time has come for all political stakeholders to set aside their ego, learn from past mistakes and move forward,” he said.
General Bajwa is leaving command after an eventful six years in power, made possible in part by a three-year extension announced by Mr. Khan in 2019 when he was newly prime minister. Much as his predecessors, General Bajwa left a large imprint on the country’s politics, enjoying strong popularity among the Pakistani public even as his military was accused of engineering an electoral and judicial environment that furthered its own aims.
His military establishment was accused both of winnowing the electoral field for Mr. Khan to rise to office in 2018 and of then quietly signaling the disapproval that led to his ouster this year. In both cases, military officials have denied those accusations.
“General Bajwa was the de facto ruler of Pakistan over the last six years,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The completion of his term, therefore, is more significant than a completed parliamentary term in Pakistan.”
The army chief also influences the foreign policy direction of the country and the surrounding region. It is to Pakistan’s military brass, long accused of nurturing Taliban militants in Afghanistan, that the United States appealed for decades for help reining in the Taliban insurgency and urging it to make peace — though the insurgents instead ended up seizing the whole country of Afghanistan in 2021.
The military also controls a huge industrial conglomerate worth billions of dollars, which encompasses agricultural and construction staples, as well as banking and real estate holdings.
Mr. Sharif’s older brother — the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — was a vocal champion of curbing the military’s influence. He appointed four army chiefs, including General Bajwa, during his stints in office, but eventually fell out with all of them.
Now, it has been Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s turn to manage a government under the military’s gaze. But even beyond Mr. Sharif’s angry challenge, his government has faced huge crises, including an ailing economy and devastating flooding across vast swaths of the country.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Christina Goldbaum from Doha, Qatar.