The change of guard is unlikely to alter Pakistani military’s political role

The change of guard is unlikely to alter Pakistani military’s political role

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The finale of a messy process has surprisingly been smooth. After weeks of speculation, the prime minister has picked General Asim Munir to succeed outgoing army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. The change of army command has ended the months’ long controversy over the critical appointment. But the challenges for the new incumbent of what is believed to be the most powerful office in the country are daunting.

By appointing the senior most officer, the prime minister has defused the apprehension that he was looking for a favorite man for the top security job. A former intelligence chief General Asim Munir has a reputation of an upright soldier with a strong religious bent. He was serving as quarter master at the army headquarters before his new appointment.

Earlier, General Munir had commanded a corps and served as the head of Military Intelligence (MI). He briefly headed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2018 before he was removed from the post by the then prime minister Imran Khan. It was widely suspected that his appointment would be opposed by the ousted leader. But it didn’t happen. The president who belongs to the PTI gave his approval to the appointment after consultation with the former prime minister.

General Munir is taking charge in the midst of a serious political crisis that has polarized the country. A major challenge for him is to keep the military out of the political fray and restore public confidence in the security forces. The security establishment has been facing unprecedented public criticism over its political role. The loss of credibility has a huge impact on the morale of the forces raising questions about the military’s professionalism. The growing public distrust has also been a factor that has made the appointment of the new army chief controversial.

What makes the matter more complex is that the military leadership is now facing criticism for its ‘neutrality’.

Zahid Hussain

Notwithstanding the belated claim of “neutrality,” it will be hard for the security establishment to completely pull out from the political power game. In his farewell speech last week, the outgoing army chief said that the military command has taken a conscious decision not to get involved in politics any more.

General Bajwa admitted that the army’s interference in politics for 70 years has been unconstitutional. “This is why in February last year the army, after great deliberation, decided that it would never interfere in any political matter. I assure you we are strictly adamant on this and will remain so,” General Bajwa delared.

Notwithstanding the General’s solemn declaration, the security establishment remains the most powerful political force in the country. Its stepping back from power politics appears to be a tactical move and doesn’t signify a complete abdication. It is more a matter of changing alignment.

With the ongoing political confrontation and increasing polarization in the country, the balance of power remains with the military. It is apparent that the security establishment not only determines national security and foreign policy but also continues to play the role of arbiter in domestic politics, despite its weakening control over fast-changing political events.

What makes the matter more complex is that the military leadership is now facing criticism for its ‘neutrality’. Each player in the political divide, in fact, wants the military on its side rather than sitting on the fence. While a weak civilian government looks toward the military to counter Imran Khan’s growing popularity, the former prime minster wants the military to return to supporting him.

There is no struggle for supremacy in a democratic civilian authority; rather, it is a ruthless power struggle. Political confrontation and polarization have further weakened the country’s democratic institutions and will strengthen the military’s role as arbiter. It’s merely an illusion that the establishment has distanced itself from politics.

It may be an end to hybrid rule but there is no indication of the military withdrawing from politics. The change of guard within its ranks is not likely to change the present power matrix and the institution’s predominance. The worsening political crisis and Imran Khan’s refusal to work within a democratic framework, however flawed it may be, has pushed the country toward a political dead end.

Indeed, it will be good for the country and the security institution if the military keeps itself out of politics. But that is not likely to happen with the political forces fighting each other.

It will be a daunting challenge for the new army chief to deal with the multiple problems faced by the institution. It is not just the future political role of the security establishment but also how to restore the public trust in the security establishment. It may not be easy for the new commander.

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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