Pakistan on Thursday killed former spy chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir as chief of the South Asian country’s army, ending weeks of speculation about an appointment amid intense debates about the military’s influence on public life.
In a Twitter post, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said Munir’s appointment would be confirmed once a summary sent by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif was signed by the country’s president.
Munir, a former head of the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), succeeds army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who will retire on November 29 after six years in a normally three-year post.
The Pakistani military is often accused of meddling in politics in a country that has seen numerous coups d’etat and has been ruled by generals for an extended period since its founding in 1947, so appointing new army chiefs is often a highly politicized matter.
Munir’s appointment could prove controversial among supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from office in April after losing the support of key political allies and the military over allegations that he had mismanaged the economy.
Munir was removed from his office at the ISI during Khan’s tenure, and the former prime minister has previously claimed – without evidence – that the Pakistani military and Sharif were conspiring with the United States to remove him from power. After being injured in a shootout at a political rally in early November, Khan also accused – without evidence – a senior military intelligence officer of plotting his assassination.
Both the Pakistani military and US officials have denied Khan’s claims.
Khan is yet to comment on Munir’s appointment, although his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), tweeted on Thursday that he would “act in accordance with the constitution and the law.”
Khan aside, the new army chief will have a busy schedule and will take office at a time when Pakistan is facing the aftermath of the worst flooding in its history, on top of a looming economic crisis. He will also have to manage the country’s notoriously difficult relationship with its neighbor India.
On Wednesday, outgoing army chief Bajwa said the army had often been criticized even though it was busy “serving the nation.” He said a key reason was the army’s historic “interference” in Pakistani politics, which he described as “unconstitutional.”
He said that in February this year the military establishment “decided not to get involved in politics” and was “relentlessly” sticking to that position.
Pakistan, a nation of 220 million people, has been ruled by four different military rulers since its inception and has endured three military coups. No prime minister has ever served a full five-year term under the current 1973 constitution.
Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the military institution had “lost so much of its reputation” and that the new boss had many battles ahead.
“Historically it takes an army chief three months to settle into his role, the new chief may not have that privilege,” Younus said. “If political polarization persists, there could be a temptation to intervene politically again.”