After at least a month of trepidation, Pakistan finally got their new Army chief. Lieutenant-General Syed Asim Munir was selected by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif against the wishes of his political opponent Imran Khan. The former PM hated the idea that the new general would stand by the political government and further expose his financial mismanagement or misuse of public assets. There could be more toshakhana stories that would come out and weaken his reputation among his supporters and certainly within the Army.
Lt Gen Munir is already popular as being against Imran Khan ever since the latter removed him from ISI chief’s post following warnings about the First Lady’s alleged corruption.
But this only means that Munir is equally capable of watching over the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) government and not being their man either. Nawaz Sharif, who played a major role in Munir being the government choice, doesn’t expect total loyalty either as long the new Army chief doesn’t tilt towards Imran Khan and ensures that his Pakistan Army shifts back to a central position on treating the two political parties. This factor alone could create the political space for PMLN to push its way back into Pakistan’s political arena. The only problem is that the Army may not want the PMLN to dominate in Punjab either. The next general election shouldn’t be an easy pass for Imran Khan or the Sharifs.
But can Munir take on Bajwa?
As far as loyalty goes, Lt Gen Asim Munir is a protégé of his predecessor, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. The latter had appointed him as the head of Military Intelligence, a service critical for the Army in terms of keeping a watch inside the organisation, and then promoted him to head the ISI. This means that Munir will protect his former boss to ensure that the PTI crowd doesn’t engage in abusing Bajwa as it did in the past. This also means helping Bajwa fulfill the promise he made to his colleagues of not running away abroad to avoid a fearful PTI crowd and staying in Pakistan for at least a year.
Though some, like senior journalist Mariana Baabar, seem impressed with Munir ‘taking on corruption’ even when he wasn’t the Army chief, it will be a challenge for him to support any action against Bajwa. Sources in Islamabad have suggested that it was the leaking of data regarding Bajwa’s declared wealth that led to him agreeing to PMLN’s choice for Army chief. Like his predecessor General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani (retd), there may be more stories about Bajwa waiting to come out, especially because of his association with Sabir Hameed alias ‘Mithu,’ a Lahore-based businessman known for his links with the land mafia. Mithu and Bajwa came together in the late 1990s when military officers were desperately trying to build contacts with local trader-merchants and businessmen to increase their earning. Sources say the two have remained friends and business partners since. Even though with Gen Pervez Musharraf’s takeover in October 1999 have Pakistani military a substantial rise in pay, it didn’t stop military personnel’s search for more resources.
The Pakistan Army’s biggest scandal remains its appropriation and sale of land in the name of welfare and providing housing for its officer cadre. The Defence Housing Authority (DHA) is not just a sought-after housing development scheme among the civilian and military, but also a highly scandalous affair where officers tend to make a fast buck by presenting all acquisitions as legal. This is also where connection within the Army becomes important for land grabbers. According to my ‘back of the envelope’ estimate, it’s because of the DHA business that a corps commander owns land worth over a billion rupees. A three-star rank official, who can’t make it to the corps, is worth around PKR 700 million.
This housing scheme is a racket since the Army’s power is critical in its development. For instance, because of the DHA scheme in place, revenue officers in Bahawalpur do not issue documents for private land, which forces people to negotiate with DHA officials and barter their land—two plots per acre. The lower rank officers also suffer at the hands of top management. A Border Administration Committee headed by a brigadier can give junior officers a run for their money and extort from them. Furthermore, it remains a secret as to what extent the DHA is dedicated to Army officers and what land could be sold to civilians. The corps commanders and the Army chief sit on top of the distributive formula where most make their ‘legal’ money.
Army withdrawing from politics?
Lt Gen Asim Munir is certainly not likely to question the wealth of individual Generals or even challenge this distributive system. The chief’s ability to provide resources to military men based on their rank is now a major part of the institutional strength and source for building a sense of allyship. In fact, in his last speech as the Army chief at the Defence and Martyrs Day ceremony on Wednesday, one of the things that General Bajwa assured his fraternity, which not just includes serving men but also their families, was the promise to keep providing for their welfare.
I was reminded of psychologist-researcher Maria Rashid’s book Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army, in which she lays out how the Army uses ‘effect’ to build militarism. Such events in the military are choreographed “down to the last detail and planned for effect” to build the essential relationship “between soldiers, families, and the institution of the military”. I would argue, and Rashid would surely agree with me, that it’s not just a game of emotions any more. Financial remuneration and other resources go a long way in strengthening the ‘effect’. The families of war veterans and martyrs share the echelon’s dream of stopping civilian corruption but they also expect the top Generals to put more on their plate.
Lt Gen Asim Munir will surely have to hold himself back if he wants to stand any chance ofbringing the institution together which appeared to fall apart during the Bajwa-Khan battle. He will have to keep a good eye on Generals like Faiz Hameed and Asif Ghafoor, who will continue to sit on the table as corps commanders. He may need to pull them back to the General Headquarters where they can be less troublesome. Of course, the other usual thing would be to wait and watch as politicians make mistakes and then benefit as the media pushes the idea that ‘it’s the Army that controls Pakistan’. In his last speech, Bajwa reached out to the military fraternity by trying to project that it was Imran Khan, and not him, who tried to bring a bad name to the service and so the PTI leader must be rejected. As far as Bajwa and the Army were concerned, he promised they both would continue to play a higher political role like solving the Riko Dik copper mine contract issue or getting money from Qatar or mending fences with foreign countries that politicians couldn’t do.
Yet, he wanted his audience to think that the Army had decided to withdraw from politics.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)