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Countdown to February 8: Why Gen Asim Munir is key to ensuring Nawaz Sharif’s comeback and Pakistan regaining US trust

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Countdown to February 8: Why Gen Asim Munir is key to ensuring Nawaz Sharif's comeback and Pakistan regaining US trust

While 2024 would reveal how far US and Pakistan go to revive their relations it is clear that the General Munir visit shows that the former is serious about stabilising its ties with Pakistan

Vivek Katju December 21, 2023 09:03:35 IST Countdown to February 8: Why Gen Asim Munir is key to ensuring Nawaz Sharif's comeback and Pakistan regaining US trust

Pakistan Army chief General Asim Munir. AP

It is now almost certain that elections will be held for the Pakistan National Assembly (NA) as well as the country’s four Provincial Assemblies on 8 February. The Election Commission confirmed the election date after the Supreme Court cleared objections raised by the Lahore High Court against the appointment of civil servants as returning officers for the polls. The Supreme Court has also brushed aside specific grievances with the delimitation exercise. It held that as the election date has been announced these objections cannot be entertained.

After the delimitation exercise the strength of the NA is 336. Of these 266 are to be general seats, 60 seats will be reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims. The women and non-Muslim seats will be allotted to the parties on the basis of their performance in the general seats.

The allocation of general seats on a provincial basis is thus: Punjab—141, Sindh—61, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—45, Baluchistan—16 and the Federal Capital area—3. This election, as those in the past, will be won or lost on the basis of the performance of the parties in the general seats. Also, as in the past, Punjab has more seats than the combined number of the other three provinces and the Federal Capital Area; thus, the party which controls Punjab controls Pakistan. This is a permanent feature of Pakistan’s political life.

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Army chief General Asim Munir will seek to make sure that former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) does not succeed in the elections. The events of 9 May when the PTI workers and supporters attacked army installations and the monuments of martyrs have ensured that the gulf between Khan and Munir cannot be bridged. Khan has been in prison since May because he has been charged in a number of cases and the courts have not given him bail. Munir has also purged a large number of senior officers who were believed to have sympathies for Khan. The army is, therefore, firmly under his control.

There have been desertions of leaders from the PTI. As of now, it appears that the army’s desire to finish off the PTI electorally will prevail. With that, the PML(N) of the Sharifs should succeed in the Punjab. Its chances have increased with the return of its leader Nawaz Sharif two months ago from London where he has been since 2019. However, Nawaz Sharif, thrice prime minister in the past is a shadow of the political leader he was. He looks infirm and without vigour. Instead of rousing his supporters and others by giving out a firm programme which will seek to resolve Pakistan’s myriad problems, beginning with its grave economic situation, he is obsessed with the past injustices he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have had to face. He is railing against his past adversaries, including the army, which manoeuvred the 2018 national elections in favour of Imran Khan.

Nawaz Sharif is relying on Munir to create conditions which will tilt the electoral field in PML(N)’s favour in the polls. It was he who had insisted that Munir should succeed the former army chief General Qamar Bajwa in November 2022 even though there were technical difficulties in his elevation to head the army. Obviously, Nawaz Sharif feels that Munir nurses great grievances against Khan going back to the period when Khan, as prime minister, had pressured Bajwa to oust him from the DG ISI’s post and place Faez Hameed in his place. And, now after the 9 May events there is no way that Munir will countenance the PTI in power. That leaves PML(N) as the only alternative.

The political scene will get heated in the coming weeks. The traditional parties, Bhutto’s PPP, PML(N) Maulana Fazlul Rehman’s JUI(F), and others will go to the electorate to maintain their bases. In this context, Khan’s PTI too will seek to hold on to at least its KP base. In the midst of all this, the army’s position as the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan’s destinies will not be denied. If a recognition of this fact of Pakistan’s national life was needed it has been provided by Munir’s tour of the US which began on 12 December. This visit is significant for Pakistan, of course, but it has implications for India and the region as well.

During his week-long US visit, Munir met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathon Finer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown and the head of the US Central Command General Michael Erik Kurilla. He also interacted with US think tanks and members of the Pakistani diaspora. Munir travelled to New York to meet UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Clearly, by giving Munir such extensive access the US was intent on sending a message that it considered Pakistan as an important player in the region. It also showed that it had decided to put behind its period of unhappiness with the duplicitous role that Pakistan had played in Afghanistan through its support for the Taliban. That role was responsible, among other reasons for the US’s strategic defeat at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

During Munir’s visit US spokespersons maintained that their country would deal with whoever the Pakistani people chose as their leader in the coming elections. However, the fact is that there is a coincidence of US and Munir’s interests on Imran Khan. In March 2022 a besieged Khan had blamed the US for wanting him to be ousted from the prime minister’s chair because he had refused to be dictated by US choices regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other foreign policy issues. Earlier, Khan had been especially vocal against the US role in Afghanistan and had hailed the departure of US forces from that country. He had said that the Taliban had broken the chains of slavery. This history between Khan and the US would make it difficult for the US to deal with Khan. Hence, US decision makers would certainly be happy that Munir is trying to ensure Khan’s political demise and driving the PTI to the fringes of Pakistan’s politics.

There have been no public comments on Munir’s conversations with his US interlocutors on Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan and China. Pakistan-Afghan Taliban relations have reached a low point. Pakistan is unhappy that the Afghan Taliban have not restrained the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) from targeting the Pakistan Army. Indeed, on the day Munir reached the US, a group aligned with the TTP attacked a Pakistani army base in Dera Ismail Khan killing 23 Pakistani soldiers. On its part, Pakistan launched a drive to push Afghan refugees without papers—and therefore illegals—into Afghanistan despite the protests of the interim Afghan government.

Neither the US nor Pakistan want an anarchic Afghanistan which becomes a conducive area for terrorist groups to have a free run. Yes, Pakistan wants the Afghan Taliban to allow space for the activities of terrorist groups that are instruments of the Pakistani State but not for those which are, like the TTP, against Islamabad. Ideally, the US and Pakistan would like an ‘inclusive’ government in Kabul but this is unlikely because the Taliban is not willing to cede or share power with any group. It is therefore likely that Munir and his US interlocutors would have agreed for greater bilateral intelligence cooperation on Afghanistan. This will not be easy though because it will be difficult for US intelligence to trust Pakistani intelligence on Afghanistan because of its past track record and the continuing closeness between Pakistan and China.

Notwithstanding the continuing Sino-Pak nexus it is in the US interest to not allow the Chinese to have a free run in Pakistan. it would, at least, like some pockets of influence within the Pakistani establishment and political class. Munir also seems to have reached the conclusion that China alone or along with Pakistan’s traditional Arab donors cannot really pull its economy out of the deep hole in which it finds itself. Hence, a benign US role in putting Pakistan’s economy on an upward trajectory –as distinct from continuing to be on a drip—is needed. It remains to be seen how much the US and Pakistan can cooperate in the economic and commercial areas in view of the inroads that China has made in the Pakistan economy, including through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

While 2024 would reveal how far US and Pakistan go to revive their relations it is clear that the General Munir visit shows that the former is serious about stabilising its ties with Pakistan. The elimination of Imran Khan’s PTI from the Pakistan political scene would help in that process. Unless the Pakistani electorate throws up surprises in the 8 February elections and General Munir, is unable to control the situation, 2024 will witness US-Pakistan ties moving in a positive direction. That will naturally have implications for India.

The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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