General Asim Munir was appointed as the new head of Pakistan’s military this week — a position often viewed as the de facto leader of the country. Amid a fraught political environment, Munir’s “first job is going to be figuring out what the civil-military balance is in Pakistan,” says USIP’s Tamanna Salikuddin.
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Julie Mason: I'm Julie Mason. Tamanna Salikuddin is director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She oversees the Institute's work in Pakistan and broader South Asia. How are you?
Tamanna Salikuddin: I'm doing well. Happy belated Thanksgiving to you.
Julie Mason: Indeed. Happy Cyber Monday, I guess. Pakistan seems to be in a bit of turmoil at the moment.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yes, well, while we were all eating turkey, Pakistan had a lot of activity going on over the weekend. There was a big military transition in Pakistan last week, the Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed a new chief of the army in Pakistan, General Asim Munir. And while that might not sound like a big news story here, in Pakistan, which has a very powerful military, fifth largest in the world, and nuclear weapons, the army chief tends to be the most powerful leader. And so, people have been waiting for this appointment for some time, especially in the fraught political atmosphere there.
Julie Mason: What are the implications of this appointment? Why is it significant?
Tamanna Salikuddin: Well, I think it's significant in several ways. One, obviously, the military is the most powerful institution in Pakistan. So, often it's seen as the military chief, the army chief, is seen as the de facto leader of the country. And so, he wields significant influence both over domestic and foreign policy, but he's really in charge of all the things that the United States cares about when it comes to Pakistan and the region. So, nuclear weapons, counterterrorism, relations with India, with China, with Afghanistan, counterterrorism. So, for U.S. foreign policy, he's pretty important. But I think interestingly, for Pakistanis, the last year has really been about former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his agitation to get back his prime ministership and to call for early elections. He has been having a lot of friction with the military. And so, I think, general Asim Munir's first job is going to be figuring out what the civil military balance is in Pakistan. You know, throughout Pakistan's history, the military has either directly been in charge through military dictatorships or has been pulling the strings often from behind the scenes.
Julie Mason: Do the people in Pakistan want Imran Khan back?
Tamanna Salikuddin: Imran Khan, I would argue, is probably the most popular politician right now, you know, among the population. So, a lot of people do want him back. I think he's very popular among certain classes of people, urban folks, middle class, upper middle-class folks. He even has a following in, you know, former military families and some people in the military. So, I think people do want him back. There is definitely a sizable amount of people who don't feel that he delivered either economically or politically, governance wise in his first four years as prime minister. But it doesn't really matter too much what the people want. Often, it has to do with how a politician gets along with the military, whether they signal…even in 2018, most people would say that Imran Khan came to power because the military wanted him to come to power. So, whenever the next elections are, and they'll likely be, you know, they have to be by next fall. It depends if he can eke out some sort of rapprochement with the government or some sort of understanding, but he's trying his best and a lot of people are behind him.
Julie Mason: He got shot earlier this month.
Tamanna Salikuddin: He did in a rally. So, he you know, since he got out, since he was ousted in a no confidence motion he's been really agitating politically. He's had this series of long marches and rallies, bringing together his supporters and earlier this month, he was shot in the leg, you know, hurt fairly badly. And the crazy thing here is he directly blamed the prime minister, the interior minister and the intelligence services a part of the military. So it just furthered his sort of martyrdom story and his hero story. It also furthered his conflict with the military establishment.
Julie Mason: He's such an interesting character. He was like a sports hero in Pakistan. Very dashing. He dated like all these famous women, including possibly Liz Hurley.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yeah, he was. He definitely lived the Playboy sort of lifestyle. He was known for his dashing good looks and for, you know, helping Pakistan win a cricket world cup, so he was really a hero for Pakistanis, especially in the 90s. He changed, you know, into a politician and became sort of a born again, populist Muslim leader touting very, you know, religious tropes and right-wing populism and trying to bring the population together in a very anti-corruption, anti-Old Guard message. You know, in the aughts. And for the last 20 years, he hasn't done so great as a politician. But since 2013, and then definitely in 2018 with the military's help, he has come to power and built a really strong support base across the country.
Julie Mason: So, this Munir who is leading the military now, or the army, is he, Lieutenant General Asim Munir, he someone the U.S. should be concerned about? Is he quite belligerent? What's his position?
Tamanna Salikuddin: No, I don't think the U.S. will be necessarily concerned. I think the army chief is cut from the army chief cloth, right? Every army chief sort of represents military establishment and general Asim Munir is no different. He worked for the previous army chief, he was a three-star general before. He, you know, commanded a corps. He is going to be somebody who obviously puts first and foremost Pakistani national security interests. And at times, those don't converge with the U.S. and so we have to be worried about that. But I think any army chief right now, the establishment wants to repair relations with the U.S. which suffered under Prime Minister Imran Khan's sort of conspiracy theories about the U.S. So, I think he is going to do some outreach towards the United States. I think, outside of domestic politics, Asim Munir's biggest challenge in this new world of global competition will be how does Pakistan balance its relationship with China on one hand, which has a very strong economic security military relationship with Pakistan and the U.S. on the other hand, where they have decades long history of relationships that have been good and bad. But they definitely, you know, the military establishment wants a relationship with the United States. So, I think threading that needle is going to be tough for General Asim Munir, especially as the U.S. is really focused on its Indo-Pacific strategy [and] on India. Asim Munir is going to have to decide does he continue sort of his predecessors’ policies of a ceasefire with India with policies to try to make peace with India? Or does he face a domestic internal need to be more chauvinistic towards India. So, that will help determine what he's going to choose to do but really importantly, the army chief is in charge of all the things you know, that really matter to us. So, it will be important. I think this is an opportunity for the U.S. to engage with a new army chief and see are there areas of convergence between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Julie Mason: Really, really interesting. Always an interesting relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Tamanna Salikuddin, thank you so much for joining me this morning.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Thank you so much. Have a happy Cyber Monday.