Pakistan on Thursday appointed former spy chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir as chief of the South Asian country’s army, ending weeks of speculation over an appointment that comes amid intense debate over the military’s influence on public life.
Munir, the country’s most senior general and former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, takes over from Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwawho retires on November 29 after six years in a normally three-year position.
His promotion, ratified by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and approved by President Arif Alvi on Thursday, means Munir will now oversee Pakistan’s nuclear weapons operations.
The Pakistani military is often accused of meddling in politics in a country that has seen several coups and been ruled by generals for long periods since its formation in 1947, so the appointment of new army chiefs is often a highly politicized issue.
Munir’s appointment may prove controversial with supporters of the former prime minister Imran Khanwho was displaced from office in April after losing the support of key political allies and the military over allegations that he had mismanaged the economy.
Election Commission of Pakistan last month disqualified Khan from holding political office for five years for being involved in “corrupt practices”.
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 conspired with the US to remove him from power. After Khan was injured in a gun attack at a political rally in early November, he also accused a senior military intelligence officer – without evidence – of plotting his murder.
Both the Pakistani military and US officials have denied Khan’s claims.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party congratulated Munir on his appointment in a statement on Thursday that also accused the military of having an overriding role in the democratic process.
“The people of Pakistan expect that their armed forces, while dealing with a range of external threats, will stay out of domestic politics and that the rights of political parties will not be violated,” the statement said.
The statement also reiterated PTI’s demand for early elections. Khan is due to hold a rally on Saturday in the city of Rawalpindi to reiterate the call in what would be his first public appearance since he was shot.
Apart from Khan, the new army chief will have a lot on his plate, coming in at a time when Pakistan – in addition to a burgeoning economic crisis – is facing the consequences of worst floods in its history. He will also have to navigate the country’s notoriously rocky relationship with its neighbor India.
On Wednesday, outgoing army chief Bajwa said the army was often criticized despite being busy “serving the nation.” He said a major reason for this was the army’s historical “interference” in Pakistani politics, which he called “unconstitutional.”
He said that in February this year the military establishment had “decided not to interfere in politics” and was “firm” in sticking to that position.
Pakistan, a nation of 220 million, has been ruled by four different military rulers and seen three military coups since it was formed. No prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term under the current 1973 constitution.
Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the military establishment “has lost so much of its reputation” and that the new chief had plenty of battles ahead.
“In historical terms, an army chief needs three months to settle into his role, the new chief may not have that privilege,” Younus said. “With ongoing political polarization, there may be the temptation to intervene politically again.”