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Five challenges Pakistan’s new army chief faces

Islamabad, Pakistan – General Asim Munir has arguably the most powerful position in the country after taking charge of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed army last week.

The 57-year-old former spy chief can now exert significant influence over the country’s internal and external affairs.

Munir has taken the helm at a time when Pakistan is facing multiple crises: a vociferous opposition demanding immediate elections, an economic collapse and historic floods that have submerged a third of the country this year.

Here are the five biggest tasks for Munir as he begins his tenure:

internal politics

Analysts say the main challenge facing the new army chief is the chaos and instability that has engulfed politics since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office.

Khan lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in April this year, a defeat he says was orchestrated by the United States in collusion with its political rivals and the powerful military.

Both Islamabad and Washington have repeatedly denied the allegations.

In a turnaround last month, the head of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party said he no longer blames the US for his removal, insisting he wants good relations with Washington if and when he returns to power coming.

While Khan continues to fiercely criticize the military for meddling in politics, the cricketer-turned-politician has previously asked the military to bring forward elections, which were otherwise due to take place at the end of 2023.

Lahore-based political analyst Majid Nizami says Munir’s term will be closely watched after what his predecessor Qamar Javed Bajwa said in his farewell speech last month.

Addressing the military’s top ranks, Bajwa said that the military has decided to stop interfering in political affairs as such interventions, which he said have happened in the past, would be unconstitutional.

“He (Munir) must first prove his credibility as a truly neutral army chief so that he is unquestionably acceptable across the political spectrum,” Nizami told Al Jazeera.

Mosharraf Zaidi of Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab says the military’s frequent meddling in politics and control of the media must end.

“Under a new chief, the military must resist the urge to exploit the vast extra-constitutional and illegal influence and power the military has over the judiciary, civilian administration across the country and the news media,” he said.

Military image

Which brings us to Munir’s second biggest challenge: the image of the military among the Pakistani people.

The military has directly administered Pakistan for more than 30 of its 75 years as an independent nation and is considered the country’s main arbiter in internal affairs, whether in power or not.

Retired army general Omar Mahmood Hayat says strengthening the morality of the army’s rank and file should be a priority for Munir.

“We’ve seen in the past that with a professional approach it doesn’t take long to adjust the picture,” he told Al Jazeera.

Asif Yasin Malik, former defense minister and retired army officer, thinks “perception management” will be a challenge for Munir.

“The first challenge for him is to manage the perception of the military regarding its involvement in politics. This is the first thing he should go after and correct it. This harms the military’s operational mindset,” he said.

“She [soldiers] should be able to see what is happening in the world and what is being said on WhatsApp or social media, but their focus should be on their mission and professional orientation.”

The TTP threat and Afghanistan

Abdul Syed, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera that one of Munir’s biggest challenges would be to contain the growing threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) armed group.

Last week, the TTP, which is ideologically aligned with Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, broke a ceasefire agreed with the Pakistani government in June — a deal brokered by Kabul.

In the statement announcing the end of the ceasefire, the TTP ordered its fighters to carry out new attacks “across the country”. Two days later, three people, including a police officer, were killed in a suicide bombing claimed by the TTP during a polio vaccination campaign in the southwestern city of Quetta.

According to data collected by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based research organization, the TTP has launched more than 70 armed attacks this year alone, leaving dozens dead.

Pakistan is demanding that Kabul act against the TTP leadership, which Islamabad says has taken refuge in Afghanistan, while the Taliban maintain that their territory will not be used to launch attacks against any other country.

“It is quite clear that the Pakistani Taliban have found refuge in Afghanistan. Pakistan now has two ways to solve this problem, one is political and the other is military,” Syed said.

“If Pakistan opts for military action, it will inevitably damage relations with the Afghan Taliban government and hinder its strategic objectives. On the other hand, Pakistan can try to find a non-military solution to pressure the Afghan Taliban to control TTP and to ensure that they do not launch attacks in Pakistan.”

India

India has historically been Pakistan’s main rival, involving the militaries of both nations. The two nuclear powers have fought two of their three full-scale wars over Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between the two countries but claimed in full by both.

Both countries regularly blame each other’s military intelligence for armed attacks on their territory.
In early 2019, they were on the brink of another war after India blamed Pakistan for a deadly attack in Indian-administered Kashmir and responded with an airstrike across the border.

Relations deteriorated and all diplomatic ties between them froze later that year after India’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status and launched an unprecedented security crackdown in the valley that lasted for months.

Frequent skirmishes along their Himalayan border ensued until March 2021, when the two countries decided to follow a ceasefire signed in 2003.

Days after taking office as army chief, Munir visited Pakistan-administered Kashmir, vowing to “defend every inch of our motherland”.

“The Indian state will never be able to realize its nefarious plans,” he said.

Balancing ties between the US and China

Pakistan has historically maintained close ties with both China and the US, and many observers say maintaining close ties with the two global rivals will be one of Munir’s main challenges.

But the last decade or so has seen an increasing reliance on its northeastern neighbour, with China investing billions of dollars in projects across Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Islamabad’s relations with Washington have been frosty, with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif now trying to mend ties that soured during Khan’s tenure.

Former army chief Bajwa visited both China and the US in the last months of his term in office.

“She [China] never dictated to us who to be friends with and who not to. But the Americans and Western countries seem to have a problem with that,” former defense minister Malik told Al Jazeera.

Islamabad foreign policy analyst Mohammed Faisal thinks Munir needs to find a way to balance the “competitive pressure” from Beijing and Washington.

“Pakistan is seeking military and economic aid from both countries, and it must find a way to get the necessary support from both major lenders,” he said.

Tabadlab’s Zaidi, however, said the military should “fully support the government’s foreign policy commitment and resist the urge to direct or conduct foreign policy itself.”

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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