ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has named the country’s former spy chief as army chief, the information minister said on Thursday, ending months of speculation over the new appointment.
The military has historically wielded enormous political influence in Pakistan, ruling it for half of its 75-year history and also overseeing the country’s nuclear programme. Like neighboring China and India, Pakistan has nuclear arsenals and a missile system, which is mainly aimed at India.
Lieutenant General Syed Asim Munir replaces General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who completes his extended six-year term on November 29. Munir begins his new role amid bitter feuds between Sharif and former PM Imran Khan. Khan has publicly accused Bajwa of having played a role in his ouster, a charge the outgoing army chief has denied.
Khan wants snap elections and Sharif to resign. Sharif, who replaced Khan in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April, rejected the request, saying the next election would take place as planned in 2023.
There were no immediate comments from Khan about Munir, who was director general of Inter-Services Intelligence when Khan was in office. Khan fired Munir without explanation.
Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif told reporters on Thursday that Munir’s appointment as army chief was “based on merit, law and according to the constitution”. He said he hoped Alvi would not make the key appointments “controversial” and would approve Sharif’s decision without delay.
“It will also help our country and the economy get back on track, as everything is at a standstill right now,” he said.
Azim Chaudhry, a senior political analyst, told the Associated Press that Munir held key positions under Bajwa, including the head of military intelligence. He said he hoped the new army chief would keep the military out of politics, in line with Bajwa’s policy.
Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb also said that Sharif had appointed Lieutenant General Sahir Shamshad Mirza as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to replace General Nadeem Raza, who is retiring this week.
It is unclear whether President Arif Alvi will immediately approve the appointments as a former member of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party. On Thursday, Alvi and Khan met in Lahore to discuss Munir’s appointment. Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party did not comment on the meeting. Alvi was expected to release a statement about meeting him later Thursday.
According to the constitutionalists, Alvi was required to approve the appointments.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior constitutional expert, said Alvi could delay approving the nominations by 25 days.
Also on Thursday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said that Sharif on Thursday promoted Munir to the rank of four-star general and that Munir will not retire this week even if Alvi delays approving his appointment as army chief.
Khan extended Bajwa’s mandate in 2019 in the face of rising tensions with India. But Khan later developed differences with Bajwa over the appointment of the country’s new spy chief in place of Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed. These differences continued until Khan was ousted.
Since then, Khan has accused Bajwa of conspiring with the United States to force the ousting of his government, a charge Washington, Sharif and the military have repeatedly denied.
Bajwa, in a recent televised speech at an army rally, called Khan’s allegations a “false narrative”.
“If there was a foreign conspiracy, would we be sitting silent? It would be a great shame,” he said, without naming Khan.
Bajwa said Wednesday the military has shown restraint so far but has issued what appeared to be a veiled warning to Khan.
“Keep in mind that there is a limit to patience,” Bajwa said.
Alvi hosted at least one meeting in the capital, Islamabad, between Khan and Bajwa as part of an effort to reconcile them. But government and military officials say Alvi’s efforts have failed as Khan continued to level accusations against Bajwa.
The former cricketing hero began a protest march from the eastern city of Lahore on Oct. 28 before surviving a gun attack that killed a passerby and injured 13 others. Since then, Khan’s protest march has she moved to Islamabad in convoys without him.
Khan is expected to lead the protest march from Rawalpindi city on November 26.