Five challenges Pakistan’s new army chief faces

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Islamabad, PakistanGeneral Asim Munir has what is arguably the most powerful position in the country after he took charge of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military last week.

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

Munir has taken over at a time when Pakistan faces multiple crises: a voluble opposition demanding immediate elections, an economic meltdown, and historic floods that submerged one-third of the country this year.

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

Domestic politics

Analysts say the foremost challenge the new army chief must tackle is the chaos and instability engulfing 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 alleged was orchestrated by the United States in collusion with his political rivals and the powerful military.

Both Islamabad and Washington repeatedly denied the charges.

In a U-turn last month, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party said he no longer blamed the US for his removal, stressing that he wants good relations with Washington if and when he comes back to power.

Even though Khan continues to fiercely criticise the military for its intervention in politics, the cricketer-turned-politician has previously asked the army to advance elections, otherwise due in late 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 army’s top brass, Bajwa said the military has decided to no longer meddle in political matters, because such interventions, which happened in the past according to him, would be unconstitutional.

“He (Munir) must first establish his credibility as a truly neutral army chief so that he is acceptable across the political spectrum without question,” Nizami told Al Jazeera.

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

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

Military’s image

That brings us to Munir’s second biggest challenge – the military’s image among the Pakistani people.

The army has directly ruled Pakistan for more than 30 of its 75 years as an independent nation and is considered the country’s chief arbiter in domestic matters, whether in power or not.

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

“We have seen in the past that with a professional approach, it doesn’t take long for the image to be corrected,” he told Al Jazeera.

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

“The first challenge for him is to manage the perception about army regarding its involvement in politics. This is the first thing he must go after and rectify. This is hurting army’s operational mindset,” he said.

“They [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 towards their mission and professional orientation.”

The TTP threat and Afghanistan

Abdul Syed, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera one of Munir’s main challenges would be to contain the growing threat of 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 launch new attacks “in the entire country”. Two days later, three people, including a police officer, were killed in a suicide bomb blast claimed by the TTP during a polio immunisation campaign in the southwestern city of Quetta.

According to the data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based research organisation, the TTP has launched more than 70 armed attacks this year alone, killing dozens.

Pakistan is demanding that Kabul act against the TTP leadership, which Islamabad alleges has taken refuge in Afghanistan while the Taliban maintain their territory will not be used for carrying out attacks on another country.

“It is quite evident that Pakistani Taliban has found refuge in Afghanistan. Pakistan now has two avenues to resolve this issue – one is political, and other is military,” Syed said.

“If Pakistan chooses military action, it will inevitably harm relations with Afghan Taliban government and will hamper its strategic objectives. On the other hand, Pakistan can try and seek a non-military solution to pressurise the Afghan Taliban into controlling TTP and to ensure they do not launch attacks in Pakistan.”

India

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

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

The relations worsened 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 clampdown in the valley that lasted for months.

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

Days after he took over as army chief, Munir visited Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where he pledged to “defend every inch of our motherland”.

“The Indian state will never be able to achieve her nefarious designs,” he said.

Balancing US, China ties

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 key 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 icy, with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif now seeking to mend ties soured during Khan’s tenure.

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

“They [China] have never dictated us who to be friends with and who not to be. But the Americans and Western countries seem to have an issue with that,” former defence secretary Malik told Al Jazeera.

Islamabad-based foreign policy analyst Mohammed Faisal thinks Munir must find a way to balance “competing pressures” from Beijing and Washington.

“Pakistan seeks military and economic assistance from both countries, and it must find a way to secure requisite support from both the major lenders,” he said.

Tabadlab’s Zaidi, however, said the military should “fully support the government’s foreign policy engagements and resist the urge to lead or run the foreign policy themselves”.



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