The challenges facing Pakistan's new army chief are multiplying quickly

Deadly clashes with the Afghan Taliban are only the start of his woes

Residents gather after Taliban forces fired mortars at Pakistan's border town of Chaman on December 11, 2022. AFP
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Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff, Gen Asim Munir, assumed his post on November 24, succeeding Gen Qamar Bajwa, who served in the top job for six years, including a three-year extension. Gen Munir was selected by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif from a short list prepared by Gen Bajwa and the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.

As a consensus candidate, Gen Munir is believed to represent continuity rather than change in terms of the army’s preferences. That means a strong desire for the kind of domestic and regional stability that will give Pakistan’s economy a chance to recover, or even perform. But between Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party on the one hand and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban on the other, stability is likely to prove elusive.

Gen Munir ticked many boxes to win the confidence of his predecessor (under whom he had previously served) and the military as an institution. In addition to his seniority by date of commission, he had held a series of high-profile commands, including Director-General of Military Intelligence and Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This record of accomplishment stretched back to his officer training course, when he was formally recognised as the outstanding officer cadet of his batch.

But none of this was as important to Mr Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government as the fact that Gen Munir had been abruptly dismissed from his post as DG-ISI by former prime minister Mr Khan. Media accounts suggest that Mr Khan turned against Gen Munir when he passed on reports about financial corruption. It’s likely that the PML(N) leadership reasoned that this history of antagonism would reduce the chances of any restoration of the once-close ties between the army and PTI leadership.

However, despite this, both Mr Khan and Gen Munir appear to be consciously avoiding antagonising each other, and even seeking some kind of modus vivendi. Each institution could do real damage to the other. On the one hand, Gen Munir has a reputation for punishing those who speak against the military, and the PTI could suffer badly if it ever faced the full weight of the military’s repressive capabilities. On the other hand, Mr Khan and the PTI’s strongest support base are among the urban middle class in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that is most likely to support the army and to supply it with officers.

This truce is likely to have very real limits though. While the army leadership is clearly keen to avoid conflict in its ranks, the breach with Mr Khan and the PTI is far too severe to ever return to business as usual. Were the PTI to win the next general elections and form a fresh government, they would have to essentially leave the army to run itself. Many Pakistani prime ministers, especially those with strong mandates, or with an unhappy history with military intervention, find it impossible to avoid the temptation to exercise their constitutional rights. And if the PTI cannot engineer snap elections, or win them, its history suggests that it is highly likely to engage in a pattern of political escalation.

Gen Asim Munir, left, was appointed Pakistan's new Chief of Army Staff on November 24, 2022. Reuters
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Imran Khan and Gen Munir appear to be consciously avoiding antagonising eachother

But Gen Munir’s challenges don’t just come from politics; there’s a number of actual shooting conflicts he must face, most of which are intertwined. Domestically, both the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA) have significantly increased the pace and the lethality of their attacks on Pakistani security forces over the past year. Both insurgent groups have benefited from the vast number of US-supplied weapons that entered the regional black market after the fall of the Afghan republic last year, and both groups have a deep sense of grievance against what they see as an illegitimate Pakistani state.

What is especially hard for Gen Munir and the Pakistan Army is that the TTP has continued to receive logistical and diplomatic support from the Afghan Taliban government in Kabul, despite numerous pointed requests from Islamabad and Rawalpindi to cease and desist. But the key tension between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan runs deeper, and revolves around the status of the border between both countries.

The Afghan-Pakistan border is often called the “Durand Line” by the Pakistani establishment, named after the imperial civil servant who negotiated the line of demarcation with the Afghan emir. As a successor state to the British Indian empire, Pakistan has since Partition in 1947 treated Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line as existentially vital to its national security. The Taliban on the other hand, with its deep streak of Afghan nationalism, regards itself as the inheritor of popular Islamist forces in Afghanistan and India that resisted the British Indian empire.

Given how seriously both sides take their inheritances, a security conflict between both governments is difficult to avoid. As Pakistan increasingly works to fence and control the Durand Line to weaken the TTP, the Afghan Taliban has been determined to contest this, even to the extent of firing on Pakistani border posts and personnel, and publicly suggesting that they might turn towards India for training. Pakistan for its part has conducted air strikes on Afghan soil, attacking TTP camps. In short, despite decades of aid and shelter, Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban is increasingly coming to look as bad as those of any previous Afghan government in Kabul.

Just like Mr Khan, the Afghan Taliban was once a close ally of the Pakistani army. And as is the case with the Khan-Munir relationship, the Taliban leadership and the army seem keen to manage the conflict rather than let it spiral out of control. But once again, the depth of the conflict between both governments’ interests makes it unlikely that things will simply wind down. In fact, Gen Munir’s status as a “hafiz” (someone who has memorised the entire Quran) could be very useful when he has to handle damaging rhetorical attacks from both the Taliban and Mr Khan questioning the Pakistani state’s Islamic credentials.

Amid all of this, Gen Munir will probably try to maintain the almost two-decade-long ceasefire with India along the “Line of Control” in Kashmir. And like all of his predecessors, Gen Munir has signalled his intention to try to maintain a close defence relationship with the US and China, something the Biden administration seems willing to stomach.

Given India’s preference to concentrate on its border troubles with China, and the US focus on Eastern Europe, it is possible that Gen Munir will be able to maintain the status quo in both cases. Given the way that the risks of escalation in the conflicts with the Taliban movements, the PTI and the Baloch nationalist movement are likely to grow, Gen Munir’s tenure is nevertheless likely to be among the most challenging of recent history.

Published: December 14, 2022, 1:59 PM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 8:50 AM