ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has named the country’s former spy chief the head of the army, the information minister said Thursday, ending months of speculation about the new appointment.
Historically, the military has wielded great influence in Pakistan, ruling it for half of its 75-year history and also overseeing its nuclear program. Like neighboring China and India, Pakistan has nuclear arsenals and a missile system, aimed primarily at arch-rival India.
Asim Munir, who has been promoted to four-star general and whose planned retirement has been postponed, replaces General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose extended six-year term ends on November 29.
Munir begins his new role amid the dispute between Sharif and his predecessor, former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The former prime minister publicly accused Bajwa of playing a role in his ouster, a charge the outgoing army chief has denied.
Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, was ousted in a vote of no confidence in parliament in April. She is now in the opposition and has been demanding early elections, claiming that her ouster was illegal and orchestrated by Sharif, with the help of the US government. Sharif and Washington have dismissed the allegations and the current government says the next election will take place as scheduled in 2023.
According to Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb, Sharif has also appointed Lt. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, replacing Gen. Nadeem Raza, who is retiring this week.
President Arif Alvi later on Thursday endorsed the appointments and congratulated Munir and Mirza on their promotions to four-star generals, according to a presidential statement.
Munir was in charge of Inter-Services Intelligence during Khan’s tenure, but was fired without explanation from the then prime minister.
Earlier Thursday, Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif told reporters that Munir’s appointment was “based on merit, law and in accordance with the constitution.”
Thursday’s appointments, Asif said, “would help our country and the economy to get back on the right track as everything is at a standstill right now.”
According to constitutional experts, Alvi, a former member of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, was required to approve the appointments. However, he had the option of delaying his approval for 25 days, said a senior expert, Aitzaz Ahsan.
Azim Chaudhry, a senior political analyst, told The Associated Press that Munir held key posts under Bajwa, including as head of military intelligence. He said he hoped Munir would keep the military out of politics, in keeping with Bajwa’s policy.
Bajwa, in a recent televised speech at an army meeting, called Khan’s conspiracy allegations a “false narrative.”
“There is a limit to patience,” Bajwa said on Wednesday, apparently a veiled warning to Khan.
Alvi has arranged at least one meeting in the capital Islamabad between Khan and Bajwa in a failed effort to reconcile them.
In late October, Khan launched a protest march from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad, but stopped personally leading the convoy after a gunman wounded him and opened fire on the former prime minister’s vehicle. One of Khan’s supporters was killed and 13 wounded in the attack. The gunman was arrested.
Since then, Khan’s protest march has moved towards Islamabad in convoys without him. However, his party announced on Thursday that Khan would rejoin the Rawalpindi march on Saturday, with beefed up security. Sharif’s government says it has alerted Khan’s party about threats to his life.