Pakistan Names a New Army Chief, Amid Political Drama Centered on the Military

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a changing of the guard that some analysts say has become at least as crucial to Pakistani affairs as civilian political cycles, Pakistan announced the emergence of a new army chief on Thursday amid turmoil and debate over the power of the army in the politics of the country.

After weeks of intense speculation and behind-the-scenes negotiations over who would lead Pakistan’s nuclear-armed army for the next three years, Prime Minister Shehbahz Sharif said on Thursday he had chosen Lt. Gen. Asim Munir to be the new army chief.

General Munir is the highest ranking general in the country’s military and was formerly the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the country’s intelligence agency known as the ISI, and Military Intelligence. His tenure with the ISI was cut short in 2019 by former Prime Minister Imran Khan after the general refused to comply with Mr Khan’s political orders.

Mr Sharif selected from a short list sent to him by Pakistan’s powerful military chain of command at a time of intense political unrest that has spilled over into street protests.

Mr Sharif’s main political opponent, Mr Khan, was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April as the former prime minister publicly accused Pakistan’s military, the United States and its political rivals of complicity. Military officials, as well as Pakistani and US officials, have all denied allegations made by Mr Khan, who is leading a nationwide protest movement to demand new national elections.

On Wednesday, outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa warned that the military establishment was losing patience with Mr Khan’s accusations. “A state of hysteria has sprung up in the country under the pretext of false and false narrative,” he said at a military ceremony in Rawalpindi.

Still, he acknowledged his military’s central role in politics and said the military would remain apolitical from now on. “The time has come for all political stakeholders to put their egos aside, learn from past mistakes and move on,” he said.

General Bajwa leaves command after an eventful six years in power, made possible in part by a three-year extension that Mr. Khan announced in 2019 when he was the new prime minister. Like his predecessors, General Bajwa left a major mark on the country’s politics and enjoyed strong popularity with the Pakistani public, even though his army was accused of creating an electoral and judicial environment that furthered its own goals.

His military establishment has been accused of both winnowing the electoral field for Mr Khan to come to power in 2018, and then quietly signaling the disapproval that led to his ouster this year. In both cases, military officials have denied those allegations.

“General Bajwa has been the de facto ruler of Pakistan for the past six years,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The completion of his term is therefore more important than a completed parliamentary term in Pakistan.”

The army chief also influences the foreign policy direction of the country and the surrounding region. It is to the Pakistani military, long accused of harboring Taliban militants in Afghanistan, that the United States has for decades asked for help in containing the Taliban insurgency and urging them to make peace. — although the insurgents ended up taking the entire country of Afghanistan instead. 2021.

The military also controls a huge multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate that includes not only agricultural and construction products, but also banking and real estate holdings.

Mr Sharif’s elder brother – the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – has been an outspoken advocate of curbing the military’s influence. He appointed four army chiefs, including General Bajwa, during his tenure, but eventually fell out with all of them.

Now it is Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s turn to lead a government under the eyes of the military. But even aside from Mr Sharif’s angry defiance, his government has faced massive crises, including an ailing economy and devastating floods in large parts of the country.

Salman Masood reported from Islamabad and Christina Goldbaum from Doha, Qatar.