Asim Munir as Pakistan army chief: Why India, US should be worried

NEW DELHI: Any major change at the top levels in Pakistan calls for some recalibration and adjustments in India’s engagements with its western neighbour.
With Gen Asim Munir set to take charge as the chief of the Pakistan army, it might be no different.
It is no secret that the “establishment” (a sobriquet for the army) wields an oversized influence in Pakistan’s foreign policy. That might not change anytime soon, despite outgoing COAS Gen Bajwa’s public statement that the army will no longer interfere in political matters.
Issues that matter most for India
Irrespective of who is heading the government or army in Pakistan- the concerns for India don’t change.
Will the international border be peaceful? Will the fragile LoC ceasefire hold? Will infiltration of terrorists from across the border see a spurt? Will Islamabad’s attempts to foment trouble in the Kashmir Valley continue?
Will terror groups targeting India, like Lashkar and Jaish, that virtually have a free run in Pakistan, be reined in?
How will India’s engagements with Afghan Taliban evolve, given Pakistan military and intelligence’s perceived influence in that country?
The new boss in Rawalpindi will be factor in most of these.

Munir’s ‘grooming’ offers little comfort
New Delhi is seeing a “hardliner” in Munir, who could be more rigid than Bajwa in his approach towards India. One of the reasons- a lack of experience at military training academies in US or Britain, unlike three of his immediate predecessors- Gen Kayani, Gen Sharif and Gen Bajwa.
It is widely believed that Pakistani military officials who graduated from colleges in the West have a more holistic world view compared to those who received their training entirely on home soil.
Munir, on the other hand has served in conservative Saudi Arabia, and is seen by New Delhi as being close to the Saudi regime.
Albeit in a short stint, Munir also served as the chief of spy agency ISI- an organisation seen as intrinsically inimical towards India.
The Beijing-Washington balance
Gen Bajwa sought to balance ties with China and the United States. While Islamabad moved closer to Beijing, Bajwa also worked to thaw relations with Washington- helped by his experience and familiarity with the way things work in the US.
On this front, Munir might be starting from a point of disadvantage, with no exposure to Western institutions. And that can be a reason to worry for India, and US too.
Will Pakistan move even closer to China with Munir as army chief? That could mean Washington- sometimes a diplomatic conduit for New Delhi vis-à-vis Pakistan- losing some more leverage with Islamabad.
Washington can ill afford that, given its interests in the region- economic and strategic- and the growing unease in its relation with China.
Asim Munir is ‘Hafiz-e-Quran,’ one who has memorised the Quran. This points to his religious inclinations in personal life. A section of Pakistan media is already projecting his appointment as “a matter of pride for Pakistan in the Islamic world.”
However so far there has been nothing to suggest he has links to Pakistan’s seminaries- radical or otherwise.

Will the army be politically neutral?
The army has said it would no longer interfere in Pakistan’s politics. Whether the new chief stands by that commitment could be key to Pakistan’s democratic evolution.
Pakistan is in the midst of another bout of political uncertainty as PTI chief Imran Khan is leading country-wide protests in an attempt to force Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif into early elections.
Munir could potentially play a key role in lowering the political temperature as Pakistan attempts to survive an economic crisis and recover from historic floods.
A Nawaz appointee by proxy?
Asim Munir’s appointment is seen as having the sanction of ex-PM Nawaz Sharif- brother of incumbent Shehbaz Sharif. This raises hopes for a thaw in India-Pakistan ties, given the legacy of Sharif senior.
Nawaz’s personal equations with two Indian PMs- the late Atal Bihari Vajyapee and Narendra Modi- saw easing of bilateral relations during the periods.
However the Chagai nuclear tests, Kargil war, Pakistan’s domestic politics and Sharif’s eventual ouster ensured that the thaw in ties did not last long.
(With agency inputs)

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