The Anarchist is Out and a General is In: What Next for Pakistan?

By Jay Rover
General retired Qamar Javed Bajwa.(Photo, courtesy ISPR)
Pakistan’s long wait for a new army chief is over. General Asim Munir is the new man in. But as was feared, his appointment was not free of controversy. It depends on whom you ask but everyone agrees that the appointment has possible legal questions given that the new army chief is picked amongst the senior-most generals recommended for promotion on the day when the outgoing chief retires. So the government’s critics are calling it a “bad decision” and say that General Munir’s retirement date (November 27), came two days before outgoing COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s November 29th. But the government supporters insist that he was promoted four days before his retirement, thus the entire process is legal and in order.

According to General (retd) Amjad Shoaib, the controversy around the key appointment could have been avoided if General Asim Munir was promoted to the rank of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, who retired on November 25, a day before Munir’s previously scheduled retirement and would have been a perfect fit because the outgoing CJCSC retired the same day.

The new military leadership thus would have the highly competent and respected General Sahir Shamshad Mirza as the COAS and General Asim Munir as CJCSC, with all appointments very much aligned with the law and Pakistan Army’s traditions. “But as far as I know General Asim Munir, he is a decent competent officer and hopefully will decrease the growing gulf between the military and the main street,” he said in his vlog.

Merits and demerits of the appointment aside, the relationship between the Pakistani on the street and the military has been badly damaged by the political role the latter has taken upon itself, uninvited. Rather than maintaining and strengthening Pakistan’s military, which we hope he will, General Asim Munir will have to repair the military’s damaged relationship with the people. The near-rupture has been caused by GHQ’s assertive and vindictive political role over the past six years under General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s watch. Bajwa himself confessed to this unconstitutional interference in civilian affairs during his farewell speech at the martyrs’ day in Rawalpindi.

General Bajwa said that armies around the world are seldom criticized “but our army is often subjected to criticism”.

“I think (the) reason for that is the army’s involvement in politics. That is why in February, the army decided not to interfere in politics,” Dawn reported quoting Bajwa as saying. Gen Bajwa said the army had started its process of “catharsis” and expected that political parties would follow suit as well and reflect on their behavior.

Bajwa’s admission came days after, an investigative journalism website run by Ahmad Noorani, published the tax returns of the Bajwa family. According to the explosive report, the General’s family amassed billions of rupees worth of property since he assumed office six years ago. Bajwa’s speech, in which he heaped all the blame for the events that lead to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, has been widely objected to. His comments invited more criticism than appreciation as commentator after commentator challenged his claim on historical grounds.

The General’s interpretation of history aside, one cannot disagree with him on the fact that the Army should be apolitical. In fact, common sense and democratic statutes demand that while the military resets its role under a new chain of command, it must clean the mess General Bajwa and his associates created. General Asim Munir will do no favor to Pakistan if he just walks away from the military-instigated political crisis and the subsequent economic meltdown, all in the name of being “apolitical”. He has to clean the mess.

It is important for him to restore people’s trust in the Pakistan Army, which is the lifeline of the nuclear-armed nation’s national security. A politically-compromised national security establishment that is not trusted at home will never maintain the respect it deserves abroad. So the first order of the day for the new COAS could be to not only dismantle the fascist state apparatus that is acting more like the boss of all and answerable to none. In a nutshell, he will have to bring the berserk sections of the military establishment under civilian control.

Of course, saying that is easier than done because General Asim Munir will have to take disciplinary action against the erring officers within his own ranks who are now being openly accused of heinous crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and gross human rights violations and suppressing the voices of dissent, especially in the media.

Pakistan ranks 157th on the press freedom index list of 180 countries. The list is released by the Reporters Sans Frontiers each year. Last year, it was ranked 145 on the list. One of the country’s celebrated investigative journalists, Arshad Sharif, was brutally assassinated on October 23 in Kenya in a targeted killing while several others, including Sabir Shakir and Dr. Moeed Pirzada, have been forced to leave the country because of threats to their lives. Journalists in Pakistan have been complaining of facing unprecedented curbs on media, with journalists, like Imran Riaz Khan, being regularly targeted by the state apparatus and none of these incidents were free of the military establishment’s footprints.

That’s why General Asim Munir has a monumental task in front of him. He has to put to rest the rumors and suspicions among the masses and will have to make at least four most consequential decisions.

1- He should review the functioning of intelligence agencies by disbanding their special sections that target the media and meddle in politics. The first step can be to remove the generals from their current positions who addressed purely political press conferences in recent weeks, and which directly targeted former prime minister Imran Khan. He should also review the promotion process within the military at the highest level and make merit and seniority the sole criteria for the promotion. If favoritism is or can be exercised in the appointment of an army chief, how will it be possible that it will not be exercised in other promotions? The military must make its institutional accountability process more effective and transparent. General Munir must completely ban extension in the service of any officer at any rank and must recommend to the government not to grant an extension to any army chief in the future by amending the relevant laws. Noted South Asia expert Michael Kugelman alluded to the scourge of extension in a tweet hours after Bajwa’s exit.

2- General Asim Munir should let the law take its course in the assassination of senior journalist Arshad Sharif Shaheed and the failed assassination attempt on former prime minister Imran Khan. It’s known to all and sundry that the Punjab police is unable to lodge an FIR at the request of Khan under military pressure.

General Asim should let the police include the name of Major General Faisal Naseer in the FIR that Imran Khan wants to register. Not just that, he must involve state assets to find the real culprits behind the two incidents. He must make sure that those who abused their authority and tortured and dishonored Imran Riaz Khan, Senator Azam Swati, Shahbaz Gill, and scores of others who have been victims of state oppression. The findings of these investigations must be made public and the culprits awarded exemplary punishment through civilian courts or the military courts (if so applicable).

3- He must restore people’s confidence in Pakistan’s fading quasi-democratic system by “convincing” the PDM government to hold early elections and make sure that the military is not interfering in the ballot and that power is transferred to the winner peacefully.

4- General Asim Munir must bring more transparency and accountability to the security establishment by investigating any officer who is accused of or is suspected of being involved in corruption, or wrongdoing or has acted beyond his constitutional mandate. Such officers must be brought to justice in order to reset the military’s own house in order.

A review of the political conduct of the entire rank and file of the army is the need of the hour. An apolitical military will remain a dream if it is not cleansed of “politicians in uniform”. The starting point can be an impartial investigation of the assets of General Bajwa, his family, and his close confidantes, especially after the FactFocus expose. Even though ISPR, the military’s media wing, has brushed aside the expose, terming it misleading, it did not give any evidence to support its denial and certainly warrants more investigation. FactFocus challenged the ISPR to correct its report by pointing out which properties were wrongly attributed to Bajwa’s family. Of course, the disgraced general who is now a private citizen is silent.

In a nutshell, General Asim will have to go after all the missteps of his predecessor, reverse them, bring in a merit-based transparent accountability process within the military and set the media, courts, and other institutions free of military influence. The calls from “unknown” people to journalists, judges, and politicians must be brought to an end.

Now the million-dollar question is, will General Asim Munir take these critical steps? It looks like a tall order but not an impossible one. If he can prove that he and his institution believe in the rule of law and are willing to implement it on everyone across the board, it can certainly go a long way in restoring people’s trust in the military. It will also make the dream of an apolitical military subservient to civilian authority a reality. Anything less than that will mean Pakistan descending into further uncertainty and chaos and he proved himself to be yet another political general which the country can ill-afford.

General Asim Munir can make the right decisions and go down in history as a savior of Pakistan who put it back on the rails after it was derailed by his predecessor, or join the ranks of General Bajwa, Musharraf, Ziaul Haq, Yahya Khan, Ayub Khan or Iskander Mirza – condemned by history and disliked by Pakistanis forever.

Pakistan’s military is the country’s biggest asset and its well-being or comment on it should no longer be just a military domain. Its hierarchy and conduct must be scrutinized more than ever before. Because it’s not about the prestige of a few men in uniform but the pride and trust of an entire nation.

One last word. Countries develop their doctrines to safeguard their territorial, economic and geostrategic interests. India developed the Pakistan-specific “Cold Start” Doctrine while  Pakistan saw the so-called “Bajwa Doctrine” which means nothing but the general’s lust for power. It was nothing but a doctrine to conquer Pakistan and its people. It’s time for Pakistan to match India’s inimical Doctrines with better ones, rather than plotting to conquer its own people.

Pakistan cannot complete its political reset, and consequently an economic reset, without upholding the law and the constitution. It will have to start by restraining sections of the GHQ from its assertive political role. Will General Asim Munir clean this mess by reversing policies that brought Pakistan to unprecedented polarization and economic meltdown, is anybody’s guess? But for now, the ball is in your court General. It’s time to deliver!


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