Five Key Issues Facing Pakistan’s New Army Chief
Domestic politics, strategic stability in South Asia and the U.S.-China rivalry will immediately test Asim Munir as he takes the helm of Pakistan’s army.
Pakistan just underwent a major military transition. Last week, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif appointed General Asim Munir as the new chief of the country’s powerful army, succeeding Qamar Bajwa who held the position for six years. Munir is a former chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and before that the head of the country’s military intelligence. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, with the world’s fifth largest military and a history of military rule, the army chief tends to be the most powerful leader — at times even perceived as the de facto leader due to significant influence over Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies.
The army chief is also the main interlocutor for most external powers, including the United States. Thus, Munir now becomes the most powerful individual in the country, although his policies and actions will be shaped by the military establishment.
As Munir takes the helm as army chief, there are five core issues awaiting him which have significant implications for Pakistani domestic politics and foreign policy — as well as for U.S. national security interests.
1. Domestic Politics
Munir takes charge amid continued political and economic turmoil in Pakistan. Since former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s removal from power in a vote of no-confidence this past spring, Khan has accused the military of having colluded with the U.S. government to remove him from power. Khan continues to be widely popular in Pakistan and is agitating for early general elections. Munir’s own appointment also comes amid significant political jostling and controversy between the PML-N-led ruling coalition, Khan and outgoing army chief Bajwa.
Khan sought to influence the appointment of the army chief, seemingly in favor of a general who would extend behind-the-scenes support to help him regain power. It was widely alleged that Khan wanted Faiz Hamid, another former ISI chief, and did not want Munir, who he had removed as ISI chief in 2019, to be elevated.
Days after the announcement of the new army chief, Khan held his first public rally after an assassination attempt against him earlier this month. The public speech was held in Rawalpindi (seat of the powerful Pakistani military) and declared an end to Khan’s long march across the country. But he announced that his party members will resign from provincial legislatures, in what appears to be a bid to force the current government — and perhaps the new army chief — to call an early election. Khan is popular among the military’s core constituencies and appears to calculate that he has enough public support on the back of his anti-corruption and anti-American political platform to sweep the next election.
Over the last few months, Bajwa and ISI chief Naveed Anjum — both of whom pulled the military and intelligence’s behind-the-scenes support for Khan’s government in the spring before the opposition coalesced to topple Khan — remained defiant in the face of Khan’s public protests calling for an early election. However, a new army chief’s appointment, despite it not being Khan’s choice, may offer a small opportunity for Khan to seek accommodation with the military establishment, if not wholesale reconciliation.
But it is unlikely that Munir will change course and concede to Khan’s demands.
Khan and Munir fell out when the former removed the latter as ISI chief and Khan attempted recently to block Munir’s ascension. That may be why PML-N has appointed him, hoping that the bad blood will shield them in case Khan ramps up agitation to secure an early election.
If Munir can hold out against Khan’s pressure tactics, this may allow the army chief to alleviate the political crisis. For one, Munir will not be subject to the kinds of political attacks that Bajwa has faced from Khan — including the charge of being a traitor, at least immediately. Second, he may use the range of powers as army chief to check internal challenges to the military’s cohesion, which Bajwa was not able to do. Finally, realignments by politicians and parties currently aligned with Khan, many of whom take their cue from where the army stands in domestic politics, are possible due to the perception of Munir’s differences with Khan.
Ultimately, the big domestic political call Munir will make is on the army’s position and involvement in the next general elections scheduled for late 2023 — and whether to block Khan, stay neutral or back him in the elections, as the army did in 2018. Civil-military relations have been greatly tarnished under Bajwa’s six-year tenure, and Munir may try to telegraph a “back to the barracks” approach to shield the military from criticism and restore its public image.
2. Ties with the United States and China amid Strategic Rivalry
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a shifting American focus to an Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China, Pakistan finds itself in a policy seam. Navigating the growing strategic competition between its two biggest benefactors will be Munir’s most pertinent national security task.
Pakistan has a strong military and economic partnership with China, but Pakistan’s military (and other elites) want a relationship with the United States — and some may argue need one to balance their ties with Beijing. U.S.-Pakistan ties have deteriorated over the past many years due to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and its growing alignment with China.
Bajwa remained committed to Pakistan’s long-standing support for the Taliban — which resulted in the United States cutting security and development assistance during the Trump administration — but responded to U.S. asks on persuading the Taliban for a political settlement. At the same time, China-Pakistan military ties expanded even as Bajwa criticized China’s exploitative practices as part of the Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan. He parted from Khan on Russia’s war in Ukraine and privately regretted Khan’s presence in Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion. Bajwa also publicly pushed back against Khan’s anti-American conspiracy theories. Ultimately, even as Bajwa tried to repair ties with the United States, Pakistan’s dependence on China grew.
Munir may also attempt Bajwa’s balancing act of seeking an improved relationship with the United States on the one hand and engaging China on the other. However, with Pakistan’s unending economic challenges, he is likely to seek more Chinese assistance, which could compel him to revisit the current balance of Pakistan’s ties — if not by choice, perhaps due to China strong-arming Pakistan. There are signs that the Chinese government is looking to drive harder bargains with Pakistan, including by increasing its security footprint in the country. In case Munir goes for a closer Chinese embrace on Chinese terms, Beijing may obtain greater military access in Pakistan — which will pose a significant challenge to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and add to U.S.-Pakistan tensions.
To maintain relations with the United States, Munir will need to make the case to Washington — where policy attention toward Pakistan is minimal — as to why Pakistan can be a swing state rather than a country that is already in China’s corner.
India is often the defining national security priority for Pakistani military leaders, and Munir will likely have to sketch out his India policy early in his tenure. Bajwa took a conciliatory approach to India. Through a backchannel, Bajwa sought to lower hostility after relations hit rock bottom in 2019, indicating, at times, a willingness to accept the current territorial status quo between the two countries as final. However, many in the military and political establishment, Khan among them, were more cautious in seeking rapprochement from what they described as an increasingly Hindutva-aligned Indian government. They also argued that Bajwa pushed too fast to improve relations with Pakistan’s eastern neighbor.
Bajwa put in effect three conciliatory policies towards India: He agreed to restore a cease-fire along the Line of Control (LoC); he tightened the leash on anti-India militants in Pakistan; he also kept Pakistan out of the India-China border dispute in 2020 when there was a concern that Pakistan might open a second front for India in support of Chinese incursions. Even after the Modi government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood in August 2019, he appeared willing to meet the Indians more than halfway. Ultimately Bajwa’s desire for major rapprochement by reviving India-Pakistan trade and getting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Pakistan were stymied by Khan, who was not willing to provide domestic political cover for bold conciliation.
Munir is being described by analysts as hawkish on India, and some in India appear to be reading his memorization of the Quran as a sign of fundamentalism. Munir will also likely face pressure from his own establishment to present a strong and even chauvinistic response to India, especially during a crisis. But given Pakistan’s economic challenges and Munir’s experience in the intelligence backchannel in the aftermath of the 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack, he will likely stick to Bajwa’s broad positions on India. When India conducted airstrikes in Pakistan and a military standoff ensued in 2019, Munir as ISI chief communicated on the backchannel with the Indian intelligence chief — initially over Indian threat of using conventional missiles in Pakistan, and subsequently to de-escalate the crisis. Munir will also have incentive to keep the cease-fire with India along the LoC, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) continued attacks against the military on the western border will demand both resources and attention.
If Munir were to explore a more hawkish India policy — such as by stepping back from the LoC cease-fire or by changing Pakistan’s approach to the India-China border conflict — this would increase the risk of military escalation between India and Pakistan in times of crisis. It would also complicate U.S. efforts to balance two national security interests in South Asia: preventing conventional or nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan while deepening partnership with India to counter-balance China as a primary facet of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
4. Nuclear Weapons
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remain on the minds of U.S. policymakers. While Bajwa provided some assurances on tactical nuclear devices to the Trump administration, the issues of longer range, modernized missiles, the size of Pakistan’s arsenal and possible sea-based capabilities remain unresolved. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Ely Ratner has identified nuclear security to be a U.S. interest in Pakistan alongside counterterrorism, and President Biden recently described Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations in the world” with “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”
While Munir will not technically be in-charge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex, he will wield decisive influence over it. He can continue Bajwa’s path and exercise restraint on nuclear growth — in particular due to Pakistan’s economic challenges. Wrangling the vast Pakistani nuclear bureaucracy will be a challenge for Munir and perhaps an early test of his influence. Still with Pakistan’s nuclear bureaucracy growing powerful and India’s nuclear modernization, which may accelerate in response to China’s nuclear expansion, he may face pressure to take a different approach — and if he does, it will invite U.S. policy scrutiny, perhaps even sanctions.
5. Afghanistan — and Counterterrorism
Munir inherits a strategic outcome that his predecessors since 9/11 worked to achieve: A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, but perhaps too dominated for Pakistan’s tastes. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is proving less favorable to Pakistani interests. The Taliban are challenging the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, including Pakistan’s multi-million-dollar border fencing, as well as supporting anti-Pakistan militants of the TTP. In response to Pakistani demands that the Taliban restrain TTP militants, the Taliban have asked Pakistan to accommodate the TTP with concessions. On the international stage, the Taliban remain isolated amid Western and regional criticism of restrictive social policies targeting girls and women, lack of political inclusion of their government, and heightened counterterrorism concerns particularly since the discovery of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.
Munir briefly dealt with the Taliban as ISI chief in early 2019, which was the high-point of U.S.-Taliban negotiations. Some sources in the Taliban suggest that they had challenges with Munir, who exerted pressure on them to negotiate with the United States. This time, however, Munir will inherit a policy of Pakistan publicly seeking the Taliban’s international rehabilitation while privately pressing them — in particular Taliban Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani — on Pakistani concerns. The U.S. government will hope that Munir will not impede over-the-horizon U.S. counterterrorism activity and use Pakistan’s leverage to push the Taliban on international concerns.
The main near-term challenge for Munir will be dealing with increasing Pakistani losses at the hands of the TTP often from Afghan soil. Under Bajwa, Pakistan oscillated between talks and cease-fire with the TTP and selective kinetic activity, including air strikes in Afghanistan in April. Munir will decide whether to double down on Taliban-mediated political engagement with the TTP or to counterpunch militarily, especially in light of the recent TTP announcement of renewed attacks across Pakistan.
What Does this Mean for the United States?
Munir represents continuity in Pakistan’s military establishment and will likely deal with the United States as many other army chiefs have done — in view of what they believe is in Pakistan’s national interest. But what those interests are is probably less clear-cut than in the past due to economic and political turmoil, intensified U.S.-China competition, and Taliban’s control of Afghanistan. For its part, the Biden administration’s recently announced National Security Strategy (NSS) doesn’t directly mention Pakistan but suggests that the United States needs to right size post-9/11 patterns of engagement with Pakistan, and implies the significant interest of dissuading Pakistan from undermining its broader Indo-Pacific priorities. For now, however, U.S. policy on Pakistan remains in flux.
Pakistan’s military transition is a good opportunity for policymakers to end the flux. They should assess American stakes in the country under the NSS carefully, determine which Pakistani policy directions are acceptable for U.S. Indo-Pacific goals, and what levers of influence are available to them over Pakistan. Policymakers should not boost Munir’s political profile any more than the influence he will muster on Pakistani domestic politics and foreign policy on his own. Yet, to the extent Munir is in-charge, U.S. policymakers should proactively engage with him on the implications of his major foreign policy choices, particularly on Pakistan’s security ties with China.