A Change of Command and Political Contestation in Pakistan
A Change of Command and Political Contestation in Pakistan
Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who was appointed as the new Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan, meets with President of Pakistan Arif Alvi, at the President House in Islamabad, Pakistan November 24, 2022.
Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who was appointed as the new Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan, meets with President of Pakistan Arif Alvi, at the President House in Islamabad, Pakistan November 24, 2022. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS
Commentary / Asia 14 minutes

A Change of Command and Political Contestation in Pakistan

The Pakistani military is getting new leadership amid political turmoil centred around former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who refuses to accept the current government as legitimate. The generals promise not to get involved, but if the dispute turns violent, they may feel compelled to intervene.

On 29 November, Syed Asim Munir took over as chief of army staff, the senior-most post in the Pakistani military, ending General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s six-year tenure (2016-2022). Munir has assumed command of the army, the country’s most powerful institution, at a time of mounting economic challenges, resurging Islamist militancy and deep political polarisation. Upon his departure, Bajwa insisted that the institution would no longer involve itself in politics, focusing instead on its constitutional responsibility to safeguard the country’s security. Yet as scheduled elections approach in 2023, the military might be dragged into the political fray should contestation degenerate into conflict.

At the heart of the political turmoil is former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was dismissed in April through a constitutional mechanism, a no-trust vote in parliament. Khan maintains that the current coalition government, headed by his successor Shehbaz Sharif, is illegitimate, saying it was “imposed” on the country through a U.S.-devised conspiracy. He demands snap elections. The government, for its part, is adamant that the polls take place in October 2023, within 90 days of the end of the lower house of parliament’s five-year term in August, as the constitution provides. The disagreement has become a standoff, with few signs of compromise on either side.

Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have raised the stakes by holding huge anti-government rallies that at times have turned violent. The ex-premier has also repeatedly called on the military to back his demand for early elections. Bajwa refused to oblige while army chief. Khan is now making the same demand of General Munir, warning that otherwise, political and hence economic stability will be elusive. Sharif’s coalition government is hopeful that Munir will resist the temptation to meddle. Should the high command intervene, it would not only undermine the institution’s credibility but also shake up the country’s already unsettled politics.

Bajwa’s Legacy

On 23 November, in his last address as army chief before a military audience, General Bajwa said the high command would henceforth adopt a strictly apolitical role, in line with the constitution. The decision, he claimed, was taken in February, prior to the no-trust vote that removed Khan’s government. Bajwa called on Pakistani politicians to accept the voters’ will, so that the country would have an “elected government in the next elections rather than a selected or imported one”. Here, he was referring both to Khan’s characterisation of Sharif’s cabinet as “imported” and to the current coalition’s depiction of the PTI government as “selected” in 2018. Yet Bajwa failed to acknowledge the army’s role in making the 2018 outcome controversial. The military had backed Khan before he formed his government, leading the parties in the present coalition government, then in opposition, to claim that the generals had anointed him prime minister.

That support continued after Khan assumed office, when he headed what many Pakistani analysts described as a “hybrid” regime, a power-sharing arrangement in which civilian politicians had nearly free rein in the domestic domain while the high command retained almost absolute control of foreign and security policy. In November 2019, in a bid to retain the military’s good-will, Khan extended Bajwa’s tenure as army chief for three years. Khan and his ministers often emphasised that the PTI and the generals were “on the same page” with regard to policy objectives.

The generals were ... concerned that Khan’s anti-Western foreign policy was undermining the country’s – and the army’s – interests.

But the relationship became increasingly strained as Khan’s time in office went on. The prime minister angered the military by encroaching on its jealously guarded institutional autonomy. In October 2021, Khan refused to speedily sign off on the military’s nominee for the crucial post of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, preferring to retain Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who is reportedly a close confidant. Though he backed down in the end, assenting to the high command’s choice, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, the damage was done. The generals were also concerned that Khan’s anti-Western foreign policy was undermining the country’s – and the army’s – interests. The high command was particularly keen to mend relations with the U.S., a key strategic ally, and the European Union, Pakistan’s largest trading partner.

The final rupture in the relationship came when Bajwa declined to side with the prime minister as he faced the no-trust vote in parliament. In late March, as momentum behind the no-confidence vote grew, Khan launched a counter-offensive, claiming that the opposition was conniving with Washington to oust him. He cited a cable sent by Pakistan’s then-ambassador to the U.S after meeting with a top State Department official. But the army chief refused to endorse Khan’s conspiracy theory, including in meetings of the national security committee.

After parliament voted to oust him on 10 April, Khan resigned, along with his party’s lawmakers in the National Assembly, and they all took to the streets. Rejecting Sharif’s coalition, spearheaded by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Khan called on his supporters to resist “foreign-imposed regime change”. Addressing rallies countrywide, he hoped to build mass opposition to Sharif’s government, so as to force it to hold elections well ahead of October 2023. Khan urged the army to support his gambit, which he insisted was the only way out of the impasse. Knowing that his ties with the military had frayed, he was careful to avoid a head-on collision with the institution. He called off a protest in May, for instance, due to the risk of confrontation between PTI activists and soldiers guarding sensitive locations in the capital Islamabad. But as Bajwa kept rebuffing the overtures, Khan turned openly against him, accusing him of complicity in the supposed conspiracy to remove him and questioning his loyalty to the state. At the same time, he insisted that he did not mean to disparage the military as an institution, repeatedly calling it a pillar of national security.

Khan’s talk of “regime change” seems to have found ready takers among a public attuned to anti-Western rhetoric. His claim that Sharif’s government is mismanaging the economy also resonates with many, as the cost of living rises. Stepping up his campaign for snap polls, Khan also accuses the Election Commission of Pakistan of bias. The apex elections body had found him guilty of “corrupt practices” for “false statements” about his assets and held the PTI responsible for violating legal restrictions on foreign funding.

On 3 November ... Khan was wounded in a failed assassination attempt in Wazirabad.

In late October, Khan once again launched a march from Lahore to Islamabad, hoping to force the government to accede to his demand. On 3 November, the seventh day of the march, Khan was wounded in a failed assassination attempt in Wazirabad, a city in the populous Punjab province. The would-be assassin was apprehended by PTI supporters on the spot. He insisted he had acted on his own, out of anger at the ex-premier’s “blasphemous and anti-religious words”. Khan, however, accused Prime Minister Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and ISI counter-intelligence head Major General Faisal Naseer of conspiring to kill him, claiming that the shooter was a mere pawn in the plot. In a 4 November press release, issued on the day Khan first made this charge, the military condemned Khan’s “baseless allegations … against the institution and a senior army officer”.

Relying on the PTI’s clout in Punjab, where it is the senior party in provincial government, Khan demanded that police include Major General Naseer’s name in their investigative report on the 3 November attack. But Punjab’s chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, though he leads a party allied with the PTI, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam, would not risk the military’s ire by instructing police to do so. The police report contains only the apprehended shooter’s name. Meanwhile, Khan kept up his strident criticism of General Bajwa in the days leading up to his retirement. He also implied that ISI had played a role in torturing two PTI leaders and killing a senior journalist in Kenya in October.

Changing of the Guard

With Bajwa’s tenure due to end in late November, Khan widened the breach with the military with statements that politicised the pending army leadership change. On 4 September, he accused the PML-N and PPP of opposing snap elections in part to ensure their own control of the transition. He said the government wished to prevent a “strong and patriotic” general from succeeding Bajwa. The military said it was “aghast at the defamatory and uncalled-for statement”. The army chief is chosen from a short list of senior corps commanders, and the generals were incensed at the implication that any of them might be unpatriotic. The military struck back in a press conference on 28 October, a day before Khan embarked on yet another anti-government march. ISI chief Anjum disclosed that, while still prime minister, Khan had offered Bajwa an “indefinite extension”, which the general declined, in return for the army’s backing “through illegal and unconstitutional means” in the parliamentary no-trust vote.

As the date for the change in army command drew near, Khan denied allegations that he wanted to influence the appointment himself, saying he would accept any senior general the government chose. Yet on 23 November, a day before Prime Minister Sharif made his choice public, Khan accused Shehbaz’s brother Nawaz, a former premier who is the PML-N’s top leader, of picking a candidate who would be willing to “push the PTI against the wall”. This was likely a reference to Lieutenant General Munir, the man whom the government eventually nominated. Khan had insisted that Munir be removed as ISI chief mere months into his 2018 appointment, after the general reportedly informed the prime minister of corruption in Khan’s innermost circles.

Prime Minister Sharif insisted that seniority would be the sole criterion for [the army commands] appointments.

Prime Minister Sharif insisted that seniority would be the sole criterion for appointments. Munir was the senior-most general on the list sent by the defence ministry. He has headed both of the military’s premier intelligence agencies, Military Intelligence beginning in early 2017 and ISI starting in October 2018 (though, thanks to Khan, his time in that post was short), and commanded troops at the front along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Sharif nominated Munir to be army chief and the second senior-most officer, Sahir Shamshad Mirza, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a largely ceremonial post.

Khan might have played the spoiler, though probably could not have stopped the appointment. Munir was due to retire soon after Bajwa, and Khan could have instructed the president, a PTI loyalist, to drag his feet signing off on Munir’s appointment until the general left the army. But he would merely have delayed the inevitable, since the government had the option of extending Munir’s army tenure by promoting him to four-star rank. Khan also likely realised that opposing the nomination would poison his relations with the man set to serve as army chief for the next three years.

Having spent months decrying Sharif’s cabinet as illegitimate, he still felt he needed to show that he was part of such an important appointment. Minutes after the prime minister’s nomination became public, Khan took to Twitter. If the prime minister could consult an “absconder”, he tweeted, referring to the self-exiled Nawaz Sharif, on the appointment, “then the president can consult with me as I am party chief”. The president obediently first met Khan in Lahore on 24 November, leaving shortly thereafter for Islamabad, where he signed off on Munir’s appointment. Five days later, Munir took over from Bajwa.

Though he now holds Bajwa largely responsible for his removal as prime minister, Khan is trying to mend ties with the new high command, including by disbanding another of his anti-government marches, this one in Rawalpindi, on 26 November, again citing the fear of violence. “If riots take place, then things will get out of everyone’s hands”, he said. The risk of confrontation between his supporters and soldiers guarding the Red Zone, where mass gatherings are banned, was certainly high; the administration had extended the zone to cover almost the entire city. In a 30 November tweet, Khan expressed the hope that the “new military leadership will work to end the prevailing trust deficit that has built up in the last eight months between the nation and the state”.

Still, it is unlikely that the institution will take kindly to Khan’s continued attacks on Bajwa or his charge that a serving general was involved in a plot to assassinate him.

Security Risks, Economic Challenges and Political Frictions

The tensions between Khan and the army simmer against the backdrop of several other unfolding crises.

Though General Munir is taking over the army at a time when relations with neighbouring India are tense, his attention will more likely be trained on threats along the western frontier, which have mounted since the Afghan Taliban returned to power in 2021. The Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of Islamist tribal militants, are making a comeback. They have taken advantage of Afghan havens, with the Afghan Taliban ignoring requests from Pakistan to crack down. Islamabad’s failed bid, mediated in Kabul by the Afghan Taliban, to reach a peace deal with the Pakistani group also emboldened the militants, giving them a firmer foothold in regions from which the army had previously dislodged them. Since September, militant attacks have spiked, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s merged tribal districts on the border with Afghanistan, killing and injuring scores of soldiers.

The country ... faces major economic challenges.

The country also faces major economic challenges. The catastrophic floods of mid-2022 may end up costing more than $30 billion in damages and production losses. GDP growth is low, the current account deficit is unsustainable, foreign exchange reserves are fast depleting and inflation rates are soaring, due partly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions on Moscow. Fuel and food prices have gone through the roof.

These challenges are compounded by continued political instability. Still intent on compelling the government to accept early polls, Khan and his party have repeatedly appealed to the new military leadership to back that demand. Even before Munir took command, the PTI issued a statement to that effect: “Free, fair and transparent elections are the only solution to the prevailing crisis in the country”.

On 26 November, the day Khan called off his march on Islamabad, he announced that PTI lawmakers would quit all provincial legislatures, saying he had decided to opt out of the “current corrupt political system”. He also announced his intention to dissolve the PTI-dominated legislatures in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which, by the constitution’s terms, would necessitate provincial elections within 90 days in two of the country’s four federal units, setting up those polls by March 2023. A ruling coalition parliamentarian mused that Khan was trying to strong-arm the high command “so that they, in turn, pressure the government” to hold snap elections. On 2 December, Khan gave the government an ultimatum: either “give a date for the general elections” by the end of March 2023 or the PTI “will dissolve the assemblies”.

But Sharif’s government refused to blink. To justify sticking to the October 2023 date, federal ministers cited the challenges posed by post-flood reconstruction and a new census due in March or April. In response, Khan announced on 17 December that both assemblies would be dissolved in six days. As the dissolution date drew closer, the Sharif government hit back. On 19 December, Punjab’s governor, the federation’s representative, ordered the Punjab chief minister, PTI ally Elahi, to obtain a vote of confidence in the legislature. PPP and PML-N lawmakers submitted a separate call for a vote of no trust in the chief minister. The Punjab assembly speaker dismissed the governor’s order as “illegal” because the legislature is still in session. But the governor then termed the speaker’s ruling regarding the vote of no confidence “unconstitutional”. He dismissed the chief minister, dissolving his cabinet, on 22 December for failing to obtain the vote of no confidence that day. On 23 December, ruling on Elahi’s petition, the Lahore High Court reinstated the chief minister and his cabinet, but on the assurance that the provincial legislature would not be dissolved at least until after 11 January, when the court would resume hearing arguments as to the legality of the governor’s orders.

Until Punjab’s constitutional crisis is resolved, the legislature’s dissolution is on hold, as is that of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa legislature, which Khan has apparently linked to Punjab’s. Meanwhile, tempers on both sides have grown even hotter. Neither the government nor the Khan-led opposition is in any mood to bargain.

The coalition government seems confident that the new military leadership will not pressure it to knuckle under to Khan’s demands. In a 1 December televised interview, PPP leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari said: “I don’t think there is a possibility of the establishment forcing early elections”. For his part, Khan has renewed his calls on the military to force the government to accept early polls, citing the dire economic conditions in the country. In a televised interview on 10 December, he said: “Political stability is essential for the revival of the economy which could only come through early elections”. In another interview the next day, Khan pleaded: “The new regime … should think about the country, for God’s sake”. An editorial in Dawn, a major daily, commented: “Khan needs to give it a rest. His expectation from the armed forces that they should be ‘guiding’ the government toward an early election is quite embarrassing. It gives the impression that he has learnt little from his years in power”, a reference to the hybrid regime in which he was the military’s junior partner.

As Khan keeps inciting his followers, launching a new mass campaign in December, the potential for political, including elections-related, violence remains high.

As Khan keeps inciting his followers, launching a new mass campaign in December, the potential for political, including elections-related, violence remains high. Regardless of when provincial or national elections are held, Khan’s rejection of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s neutrality, including calls to dismiss the commission’s head, means that his party will only accept results where the PTI wins, and reject, possibly violently, his adversaries’ victories.

On 23 November, General Bajwa told those gathered at army headquarters that the military was “strictly adhering” to its decision to stay out of politics. Admitting that it had “unconstitutionally interfered” before, opening itself to criticism, he added that the “army had started its catharsis”, expressing the hope that politicians would also learn from their past errors. In an interview the day before he retired, referring to the PTI’s verbal attacks, Bajwa said the military’s “institutional resolve to remain apolitical will remain steadfast” despite its “undue vilification … through mass propaganda and meticulously crafted false narratives”.

Yet should violence spin out of control, causing death and destruction, Munir and his corps commanders might just decide that circumstances require the military to intervene once again. A coup is not on the cards, but the high command could assume a hands-on role in the political contestation, seeking to shape the outcome in the military’s favour. That would take Pakistan back to square one, destabilising nascent democratic institutions and fuelling rather than dampening political frictions.

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