Pakistan on Thursday, former spy chief Lieutenant General Syed Asim appointed Munir as chief of the South Asian country’s army, ending weeks of speculation over an appointment that comes amid intense debate over the military’s influence on the public to live.
Munir, the country’s top general and a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, will take over from Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwawho will retire on November 29 after six years in what is normally a three-year position.
His promotion, endorsed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and approved by President Arif Alvi on Thursday, means Munir will now oversee Pakistan’s nuclear weapons operations.
The Pakistani military is often accused of interfering in the politics of a country that has seen numerous coups d’état since its foundation in 1947 and has been ruled by generals for extended periods of time, so the appointment of new army chiefs is often a highly politicized issue.
Munir’s appointment could be controversial with supporters of the former prime minister Imran Khanwho was expelled from office in April after losing the support of key political allies and the military amid allegations that he had mismanaged the economy.
Pakistan Election Commission last month disqualified Khan from holding any political office five years for involvement in ‘corrupt practices’.
Munir was removed from office in the ISI during Khan’s tenure and the former prime minister has previously claimed – without evidence – that the Pakistani military and Sharif conspired with the United States to remove him from power. After Khan was injured in a gun attack at a political rally in early November, he also accused – without evidence – a senior military intelligence officer of planning his assassination.
Both the Pakistani military and US officials have rejected Khan’s claims.
Khan’s Pakistani party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) congratulated Munir on his appointment in a statement Thursday, which also accused the military of playing an excessive role in the democratic process.
“The people of Pakistan expect their armed forces, while dealing with a range of external threats, to remain outside the politics of internal affairs and that the rights of the political parties will not be violated,” the statement said.
The statement also reiterated the PTI’s demand for an early election. Khan will hold a rally in the town of Rawalpindi on Saturday to reiterate that call in what would be his first public appearance since he was shot.
Apart from Khan, the new army chief will have plenty on his plate as he takes office at a time when – in addition to a burgeoning economic crisis – Pakistan is facing the aftermath of the worst flooding in its history. He will also have to navigate the country’s notoriously rocky relationship with neighboring India.
On Wednesday, outgoing army chief Bajwa said the army was often criticized despite being busy “serving the nation”. He said a major reason for this was the military’s historic “interference” in Pakistani politics, which he called “unconstitutional”.
He said that in February this year the military establishment had “decided not to get involved in politics” and was “adamant” sticking to this position.
Pakistan, a country of 220 million people, has been ruled by four different military rulers and has experienced three military coups since its inception. Under the current 1973 constitution, no prime minister has ever served a full five-year term.
Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the military establishment has “lost so much of its reputation”, and the new chief has a lot of fighting ahead of it.
“In historical terms, it takes an army chief three months to get used to his role, the new chief may not have that privilege,” Younus said. “With continued political polarization, there could be a temptation to intervene politically again.”