Pakistan’s Former Spymaster Takes Command of Powerful Military

Pakistan’s new military chief, General Asim Munir, took command Tuesday of the country’s nuclear-equipped armed forces amid renewed threats of terrorism and growing calls for him to take the powerful institution out of politics.

The former head of the country’s main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assumed his three-year stint as army chief at a nationally televised ceremony in the city of Rawalpindi, where the military is headquartered.

Munir received the symbolic baton of command from his predecessor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who retired after an extended six-year term marred by controversy.

The military has played an outsized role in the governance of the South Asian nation of about 220 million people. It has orchestrated the removal of elected governments in collusion with political allies and directly ruled Pakistan for about half of its 75-year history.

Munir is the 17th army chief of the country since it won independence from Britain in 1947, compared to about 30 prime ministers during the same period.

Last week, Bajwa admitted in a televised speech that the military had been indulging in “unconstitutional” interference in national politics for 70 years, exposing the institution to severe public criticism from time to time.

The 62-year-old outgoing general went on to assure the Pakistani nation that early last year, the military, under his leadership decided after internal deliberations, it would “never again interfere in any political matter in future.”

Analysts swiftly dismissed the claims and remain skeptical about whether Munir can deliver on pledges by his predecessor or the chances of Pakistan’s military becoming an apolitical institution.

Bajwa’s claims stemmed from sustained widespread criticism of the military under his leadership. Former prime minister Imran Khan has accused him of colluding with the United States and opposition parties to plot Khan’s removal from office in April of this year.

The ousted cricket-star-turned politician has not produced any evidence. The military has denied any involvement in Khan’s ouster and so did Washington.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party celebrated Bajwa’s exit Tuesday, sharing messages on social media sharply critical of the former army chief, tweeting images of handing out sweets or cutting cakes.

Shireen Mazari, a central PTI leader and former human rights minister, urged the military to abide by its constitutional oath of not interfering in politics.

Bajwa’s controversial career received a serious blow earlier this month, when an online Pakistani investigative website, Fact Focus, revealed that the military chief’s immediate and extended family members have accumulated assets worth more than $56 million since he took office in 2016.

The news outlet claimed — citing leaked tax records and wealth statements submitted to the Federal Board of Revenue — that Bajwa’s wife has increased her assets from zero to nearly $10 million during the period in question.

The report prompted Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to order an immediate investigation into what he denounced as the “illegal and unwarranted” leak of the confidential tax records of the army chief’s family in violation of tax laws, though he did not question the authenticity of the leaked documents.

Dar recently told local media the FBR had traced the identities of the officials behind the leak, but he shared no other details.

On Sunday, the Pakistan military’s media wing, for the first time, refuted the claims of unusual increases in wealth for Bajwa and his family as “misleading” and exaggerated.

Munir took command a day after an outlawed alliance of militant groups waging terrorism in Pakistan announced it had ended a “cease-fire” with the government and ordered fighters to resume nationwide attacks wherever possible.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, said in a statement Monday the violence was being unleashed in response to sustained government military operations against the group in breach of the truce.

Pakistani officials dismissed TTP claims as “lame excuses” and vowed to prevent any attempt by the militants to regroup or reorganize anywhere in the country.

The Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks since emerging in Pakistan in 2007.

The TTP is widely believed to be an offshoot of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and its leaders are currently based in the neighboring country.

The Afghan Taliban brokered and hosted several rounds of talks between Pakistan and the TTP, leading to the cease-fire. But officials in Islamabad say the truce was never honored by the militants, citing a spike in deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan in recent months. The Taliban government in Kabul denies it is allowing the TTP to launch cross-border attacks.

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