Delhi views Munir as a hardliner; so it is expected the COAS may use all resources against India to tarnish India`s image through information warfare or other means to perpetuate friction.
On November 24, 2022, General Asim Munir was appointed as the 17th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan. Unlike the appointments of many COAS of the past, the appointment of the 11th Chief was embroiled in speculations and controversies before the baton was passed to Gen Munir.
The new COAS is known for his “impeccable” military record within the Pakistani military and has uniquely held positions in both ISI and Pakistani Military intelligence (MI). Gen Munir is the third former ISI DG to become a COAS, following Gen. Khawaja Ziauddin Butt and Gen. Ashfaque Parvez Kiyani.
However, his short stint as the 23rd Director-General of ISI (October 2018 and June 2019) is attributable to the friction with Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan, who was believed to be miffed over Lt Gen Munir`s intel on the involvement of Pakistan`s First Lady Bibi Bushra`s family in corruption. Imran Khan`s displeasure led to Munir`s removal as ISI-DG to being appointed to the XXX Corps (Pakistan) in Gujranwala (17 June 2019 to 6 October 2021). While commanding the XXX corps, Lt Gen Munir became a close aide of General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Munir was replaced by Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed as the ISI-DG. Lt.Gen Hameed has been a close confidant of Khan; so the appointment bore no surprise. Had Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) retained power, the choice for the next COAS would have been Lt. Gen Hameed.
In the past months, Imran Khan has alleged that the military and the former COAS, Gen. Bajwa, were responsible for the ousting his PTI government. Accusations of corruption against the former COAS and his family were raised. Gen Bajwa`s “interventionist policy” in politics and the cases of displaced and missing Baloch, Pashtuns and Sindhis were also raised. However, since 1947, the military has always been regarded as a competent and powerful entity compared to the civil leadership of Pakistan. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Gen. Bajwa goes unaccounted for his deeds.
Imran Khan, like Nawaz Sharif, was ousted by the military for trying to execute more power. The plan to formulate a “hybrid regime”, or a third political front using Imran Khan`s PTI, opposing the two fronts comprising of Bhutto-Zardari and Sharif, failed. This led to further disruption of the state`s economy and the breakdown of the civil institutions.
Over the past months, Gen Bajwa has defended the military's stance and tried to counter the charges against the military. The ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, too stepped up to the plate to counter Imran Khan`s claims about the military establishment and to also defend the military against the “speculation” of an attempted assassination of Imran Khan by the army.
Amidst the chaos, Gen. Munir got elevated as COAS. The appointment is viewed as a sanction by Nawaz Sharif (the brother of Shehbaz Sharif) to curb the Imran Khan “situation” in Pakistan.
The Hafize COAS, ISI and the Islamist terror angle
The appointment of Gen.Munir was welcomed by the scholars of Ulema, Mashayk and various other Islamic institutions. Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist outfit known for waging terror in Pakistan, welcomed the appointment of the new COAS. However, TTP called off cease-fire on Nov 28th, 2022, stating their demands were not met.
COAS as Hafiz-e-Quran
That Munir was Hafiz-e-Quran has been repeated in the media. Most clerics and Islamic organizations believe the appointment of a COAS well-versed in the Quran may lead to more unity in the Islamic fraternity in the region.
Since the exit of the Taliban from the war theatre, the ISIS Khorasan (ISK) has been struggling to monopolize jihad in the Indian Subcontinent. The outfit comprises discharged Afghan soldiers, intelligence officers and trained mercenaries. This has proved to be advantageous to the ISI which seeks to bleed India with a thousand cuts and ISI has milked the outfit for its benefit. Since the crackdown on Voice of Hind, an ISK magazine on jihadist narrative for potential recruits, there has been emergence of a publication called Voice of Khorasan in recent months. Both publications are funded and published by the ISI. Since the Pakistan ISI and the military are hand in glove with each other, it won’t be surprising if the COAS utilizes the ISK to wage psy-ops against India in the name of jihad.
Delhi views Munir as a hardliner; so it is expected the COAS may use all resources against India to tarnish India`s image through information warfare or other means to perpetuate friction. Like his predecessors, Gen Munir resumed his duty as COAS by making stern admonitions of retaliating against India in case of any "misadventures" on India`s part.
At the time of the Pulwama attack on February 14 2019, Gen Munir was overseeing the operations of the ISI. The terror attack consumed the lives of 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and was claimed by the Jaish-e- Muhammed (JeM).
Post Pulwama attack, when the military tensions soared between India and Pakistan, Lt Gen. Munir, at the behest of the ISI, implemented all the decisions. In retaliation to the Pulwama attack, air airstrikes were carried out by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan’s Balakot, eliminating the training camps of the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
ISI's jiahdi alliances
It is vital to mention the origin of the ISI- JeM alliance to understand the influence the new ISI DG turned COAS can wield and the implications it will have on India.
Firstly, it is an open secret that JeM was the brainchild of the ISI; secondly, it was created to counter Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and later utilized for carrying out the ISI objective of fighting in Kashmir.
The ISI initially aligned closely with the Deobandi Islamic jihadists associated with Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Soon after the open declaration of waging jihad as a dimension of Pakistani foreign policy, Harkat-Ul-Mujahideen was set up with ISI aid. The motives of both entities found common interest. Harkat aimed at annexing Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan while the ISI remained determined to carry Gazwa-i- Hind against India. The ISI's involvement with the Harkat operatives further came to light during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814. The flight from Katmandu to Delhi was hijacked by Harkat members and diverted to Kandahar. While in Afghanistan, the passengers were in the care of the ISI and the Taliban. Only upon the release of three Harkat operatives imprisoned in India were the passengers released. The handover was done to the Pakistani ISI. This was followed by Masood Azhar becoming the head of JeM and was being escorted around Pakistan by the ISI for a JeM fundraiser.
JeM`s nefarious activities include the 2001 Indian Parliament attack in New Delhi; the possible murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi; the plotting of Rahul Gandhi's kidnapping in exchange for 42 militants imprisoned in India; the plotting of bombing in a New York City synagogue as well as a plan to use Stinger missiles to take down a US military aircraft; Uri attack in Kashmir (2016); and Pulwama attack (2019), to name a few. It Is important to establish that none of the above activities were planned and orchestrated without the blessings of ISI. Even though JeM was banned in Pakistan as early as 2002, the blatant operations of the outfit and its free mobility in the state seem of no consequence to Pakistan.
Pakistan's national security
The links between ISI, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, JeM, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Haqqani network, and even the councils on jihad, are not strictly confined to each other but have always looked for opportunities to connect with similar networks that tend to monopolize jihad in a certain region and also those who are desperate to seek donors/sponsors for their “spectacular acts of terror”.
Being a powerful Intel agency of a nation, it is easy for ISI to fund such outfits which more often aligned on similar interests, not to mention even provide safe havens to some infamous terrorists and criminals such as Osama bin Laden and Dawood Ibrahim, to name a few. With Pakistan is now removed from the FATF list, the possibilities of exploring new venues to export terror or use terror-criminal hybrid networks may well be expected.
Gen Bajwa maintained strong ties with the Taliban. However, with the US exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban in power, it appears that Pakistan may not entirely be happy with the Taliban. The Taliban favours the TTP and its allies. This poses a challenge to the national security of Pakistan. Failing to comply with Pakistan`s demand to restrain TTP from the Afghan border, a conflict has erupted between the two. If Gen. Munir is to deal with the TTP, Pakistan would have to take the Taliban`s suggestions to accommodate TTP with few concessions. Besides TTP, Gen Munir has to deal with Baloch, Sindhi and the Pashtun insurgents who Pakistan believes would hamper the progress of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Cooperation) project.
The symbiotic relationship between the civilian-military community in Pakistan remains strained since the ousting of Imran Khan and Gen Bajwa`s clamp-down policies.
In the case of Pakistan`s strategic orientation, Gen. Munir will be forced to find the balance between both its benefactors, US and China. The growing competition between US and China, and the US looking for an Indo-Pacific alliance to curb China, could spell a re-evaluation of Pakistani policies.
Gen. Bajwa, during his tenure, made three conciliatory gestures aimed at India. One was to restore a cease-fire around the LOC; the second was to keep Pakistan out of India-China affairs, and lastly to revive trade between India and Pakistan. One wonders if Gen. Munir would employ a hawkish policy against India and reverse what has been set in motion by his predecessor.
(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in the AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be reached at email@example.com)