ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has appointed the country’s former spy chief to head the military, the information minister said on Thursday, ending months of speculation about the new appointment.
The army has historically wielded great political influence in Pakistan, ruling it for half of its 75-year history and also overseeing the country’s nuclear program. Like neighboring countries China and India, Pakistan has nuclear arsenals and a missile system aimed primarily at India.
Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir replaces Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who ends his six-year term on November 29. Munir begins his new role amid bitter feuds between Sharif and former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan has publicly accused Bajwa of playing a role in his ouster, an accusation the outgoing army chief has denied.
Khan wants early elections and Sharif’s resignation. Sharif, who replaced Khan by a no-confidence vote in parliament in April, has dismissed the demand, saying the next elections will be held in 2023 as planned.
There was no immediate comment 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 “on merit, law and in accordance with the constitution.” He hopes that Alvi will not make the most important appointments “controversial” and agree to Sharif’s decision immediately.
“It will also help our country and economy get back on track as everything is at a standstill at the moment,” he said.
Azim Chaudhry, a senior political analyst, told The Associated Press that Munir held key positions under Bajwa, including head of military intelligence. He said he hopes the new army chief will keep the military out of politics, in line with Bajwa’s policy.
Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb also said Sharif had appointed Lt. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to replace Gen. Nadeem Raza, who is retiring this week.
It’s not clear if President Arif Alvi will immediately approve the appointments, as he is a former member of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Alvi and Khan met in Lahore on Thursday to discuss Munir’s nomination. Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party did not comment on the meeting. Alvi was due to make a statement on his meeting later on Thursday.
According to constitutional experts, Alvi had to approve the appointments.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior constitutional expert, said Alvi could delay approving the appointments by 25 days.
Also on Thursday, Home Secretary Rana Sanaullah Khan said Sharif promoted Munir to the rank of four-star general on Thursday and Munir will not retire this week even if Alvi delays confirming his appointment as army chief.
Khan extended Bajwa’s term in 2019 amid rising tensions with India. But Khan later developed differences with Bajwa over appointing the country’s new spy chief in place of Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. These differences persisted until Khan was ousted.
Since then, Khan has accused Bajwa of conspiring with the US to force the overthrow of his government – an accusation Washington, Sharif and the military have repeatedly denied.
Bajwa called Khan’s claims a “false narrative” in a recent televised address at an army rally.
“If there were a foreign conspiracy, would we remain silent? That would be a great sin,” he said, without naming Khan.
Bajwa on Wednesday said the military had so far shown restraint but issued what appeared to be a veiled warning to Khan.
“Remember that patience has a limit,” Bajwa said.
Alvi has hosted at least one meeting between Khan and Bajwa in the capital, Islamabad, in an attempt to reconcile them. But government and military officials say Alvi’s efforts have failed as Khan continued to face allegations against Bajwa.
The former cricket hero started a protest march from the eastern city of Lahore on October 28 before surviving a gun battle that killed one spectator and wounded 13 others. Since then, Khan’s protest march has been moving in convoys without him toward Islamabad.
Khan is expected to lead the protest march from the city of Rawalpindi on November 26.