Pakistan has a new army chief but will there really be any difference is the question many Pakistanis, including civilian politicians are asking. Will General Syed Asim Munir Shah be any different from any of his predecessors or will he be just the same? That is a question which many of Pakistan’s leaders – from Nawaz Sharif to Asif Ali Zardari and even Imran Khan – must be asking themselves.
According to a recent piece by Dr Mohammad Taqi, while many politicians may still believe that choosing their favorite army officer would make a difference, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif does not believe that. “The elder Sharif, sitting calmly in cold London made it clear to both his brother and the outgoing army chief that he won’t compromise on the civilian government appointing the new COAS and that he wants the senior-most officer to be promoted. Unlike in the past, when PMs tried to pick a weak or pliable chief, Nawaz Sharif went for neither. In private conversations, the elder statesman is very candid about his previous picks. He clearly says that he has handpicked five or so chiefs and each one undermined him and did what the army as an outfit wanted to do. Nawaz Sharif has no illusions about the next chief being any different from his previous picks.”
According to Taqi, Nawaz Sharif’s “calculus was straightforward: let the senior-most officer, who also happens to be disliked by Imran Khan, take the job. It would instantly take the wind out of Imran Khan’s long march sails, get the brass off the coalition government’s back for the foreseeable future and bring a modicum of calm in the political turmoil. This would allow his party-led coalition government to work on an economic recovery to provide relief to the public, and also allow the return of some old-fashioned patronage politics in preparation for the general elections next year. Nawaz Sharif also appears to have assigned his trusted confidant and the incumbent finance minister Ishaq Dar to buttress PM Sharif, who was seen by the brass as the weakest link. The elder Sharif’s instincts were right and the timing perfect. Imran Khan, who had built his protest narrative around the outgoing army chief ditching him and timed his protest march to impact the choice of the new one, found himself outmanoeuvred.”
In conclusion, Taqi noes, that “despite the outgoing COAS and the incumbent DG ISI’s pronouncements about the army becoming apolitical, no dramatic shift in the civil-military power imbalance is expected. In the end analysis, it does not matter whether the COAS is a hard-drinking womaniser like General Yahya Khan or a religious man General Zia-ul-Haq or General Asim Munir, who is said to have memorised the Quran, their conduct at the helm serves the institutional imperatives that the army has at that particular time to preserve and perpetuate its preeminence. In the foreseeable future, the Pakistan army seems to be heading towards reverting to a tutelary role after the abject failure of its hybrid regime experiment. It is not about to relinquish control over policy and power. For now, it seeks to repair its tarnished image without compromising on the fundamentals of the power equation. A change of guard in Rawalpindi heralds a mere restraint, not reset.”