Pakistan Former spy chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir was named the South Asian country’s army chief on Thursday, ending weeks of speculation over a nomination that comes amid intense debate on the influence of the army on public life.
Munir, the country’s highest-ranking general and former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, will succeed Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwawho will retire on November 29 after six years in what is normally a three-year post.
His promotion, ratified by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and endorsed by President Arif Alvi on Thursday, means Munir will now oversee Pakistan’s nuclear weapons operations.
Pakistan’s military is often accused of meddling in the politics of a country that has seen many coups and been ruled by generals for long periods since its formation in 1947, so the appointment of new army commanders is often a highly politicized issue.
Munir’s appointment could be controversial with the ex-PM’s supporters Imran Khanwas ousted from office in April after losing support from key political allies and the military amid accusations he had mismanaged the economy.
Election Commission of Pakistan last month disqualified Khan from holding political office five years for being involved in “corrupt practices”.
Munir was removed from his ISI position 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 proof – of planning his assassination.
Pakistani military and US officials have denied Khan’s claims.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party praised Munir for his appointment in a statement on Thursday that also accused the military of playing an outsized role in the democratic process.
“The people of Pakistan expect that their armed forces, while facing an array of external threats, will remain outside the politics of internal affairs and that the rights of political parties will not be infringed,” the statement said. .
The statement also reiterated the PTI’s demand for early elections. Khan is due to hold a rally in the town of Rawalpindi on Saturday to repeat that call in what would be his first public appearance since he was shot.
Khan aside, the new army chief will have a lot to do, taking office at a time when – in addition to an incipient economic crisis – Pakistan is dealing with the consequences of the the worst floods in its history. He will also have to navigate the country’s notoriously difficult relationship with neighbor India.
On Wednesday, outgoing army chief Bajwa said the army was often criticized while it was busy “serving the nation”. He said one of the main reasons for this was the military’s historic “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 “resolved” to stick to that position.
Pakistan, a nation of 220 million people, has been ruled by four different military rulers and has experienced three military coups since its inception. 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 institution “has lost so much of its reputation” and the new leader has many battles ahead.
“In historical terms, an army chief needs three months to settle into his role, the new chief might not have that privilege,” Younus said. “With the ongoing political polarization, there could be the temptation to intervene politically again.”