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Asia Stream: Pakistan's New 'General Manager'

The most powerful man in Pakistan isn't the prime minister. It's the army chief. And there's a new chief in town.

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | YouTube

This episode, we discuss the appointment of Pakistan's new army chief. After months of drama and debate, Gen. Asim Munir has taken the helm of the world's sixth-largest fighting force and only nuclear-armed Islamic military. But what exactly is the big deal in a general taking charge? Well, considering that the army's ruled Pakistan for over three decades and continues to influence its governance from behind the throne, the most powerful man in the country is the army chief, not the prime minister. So when the Pakistani military's top gun changes, the world takes notice.

First, host Waj Khan and correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart discuss the profile of the new general and the challenges facing him. Then, Monica interviews The Atlantic Council's Uzair Younus about the dire economic climate in the country, as well as the political outlook over the coming months. Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart.

Related to this episode:

Pakistan nominates next army chief as incumbent blasts Imran Khan, by Adnan Aamir

Pakistan nears moment of truth in army chief sweepstakes, by Wajahat Khan


(Theme music in)

WAJ KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region.

I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City.

Today's episode -- and it's a special one, so we're jumping our usual two-week queue: Pakistan's New General Manager.

Since independence, the Pakistani army -- the sixth-largest fighting force in the world, and the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic military -- has earned many titles:

It's been called "a state within a state."

A "praetorian" force.

A "rogue" army.

An "Islamist threat."

In fact, many scholars often describe Pakistan using Voltaire's description of the Prussian military: Most countries have an army, but in this case, the army has a country.

The descriptions are well earned.

Since independence, the Pakistani army has played an outsized role in the country's political, military, economic, social and even cultural spheres.

Yes, its generals have conducted illegal coups, kicked off wars without approval, suppressed dissent violently, and bred proxy warriors.

But you knew that already.

After all, this is the military which didn't do a very good job of hiding its supportive relationship with the Taliban even as it played ally to the Americans for 20 years.

And this is an army which couldn't quite explain what Osama bin Laden was doing living peacefully near its academy before the U.S. Navy SEALs took him out.

Yet, this is a military which has played a pivotal role in global affairs over the past half a century.

Its peacekeepers secured nation after nation in Africa in the 1990s, its pilots helped Arab allies down Israeli jets in the 1960s, its intelligence officers helped the Americans send the Soviet Union's Red Army packing from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and its generals brokered the most important bilateral relationship in the world when they played interlocutors in the 1970s for the United States to open up diplomatic relations with China.

But this military has Janus' problem of two contradicting faces.

It both created the conditions for the onset of a bloody civil war that led to the independent nation of Bangladesh, and since then has held a dysfunctional state like Pakistan together.

And in this checkered history, it's fought floods, built roads, battled polio and tackled crime and terrorism.

But at a cost. A very high cost.

Political interventionism. Eating up the lion's share of the national budget. Running an intrusive police state. Developing one of the world's fastest-growing nuclear programs. And all with almost no accountability.

Perhaps those costs are too great to bear for a country that is dead broke, is awash with weapons and jihadists, has a very fat youth bulge, and resides in a very rough neighborhood.

That's why, when there is a change of the guard in the Pakistani army, the world stops to take measure.

Who is this new general? What are his intentions? What challenges confront him? And what will he do next to stabilize one of the world's most unstable, even dangerous countries?

Strap those boots on. It's time to march.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme music out)

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(Ceremonial music)

KHAN: That's some music from a ceremony held a couple of days ago in a city called Rawalpindi in northeastern Pakistan. But there's nothing remarkable about Rawalpindi, or Pindi, as the locals call it. Its overcrowded streets are filled with rickshaws and bicycles and kebab stands. Its shops sell the usual, cheap made-in-China ware found anywhere in urban South Asia. And yet, because Pindi is also the headquarters of the famous, or infamous, Pakistan Army, and this ceremony marked a change in command within the institution, the hourlong function held there on Tuesday was watched by millions of people on live television and not just in Pakistan.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Ladies and gentlemen, now the outgoing chief of army staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Nishan-e-Imtiaz Military, will formally hand over the Pakistan Army command to Chief of Army Staff-designate Gen. Syed Asim Munir, Hilal-i-Imtiaz Military.

KHAN: The new man in charge of the army is Gen. Asim Munir. He's taking over at an interesting time. Pakistan's hyperpolarized right now. Its most popular man, opposition leader and recently ousted PM Imran Khan, who just survived an assassination attempt, wants snap elections. Just last week, the local branch of the Taliban declared war on the state, following up with a suicide bombing this week. The country is still reeling from devastating floods, where about a third of the land mass was underwater and a fifth of the population was washed out of their homes. Economically, the country faces default.

And as if all of that weren't enough, the rough neighborhood Pakistan lives in carries on being, well, a rough neighborhood. India is arming itself to the teeth and has recently threatened to attack territories claimed by Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban are ruling over a fast-failing state, triggering a humanitarian calamity. And the Iranians are fighting their own fires of civil unrest and sanctions. Meanwhile, things are tepid with former ally America, lukewarm with current ally China -- and barely functional with the Saudis, who are the patrons of the military.

Clearly, Pakistan's seen better days. And we're here to assess the next steps, because if modern history's taught us anything, what happens in Pakistan doesn't stay in Pakistan.

In a little bit we're going to be joined by Uzair Younus, a friend of the pod and the director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He will talk to us about the economic crisis facing Pakistan -- a job that Gen. Munir didn't sign up for but one he will be expected to solve.

But first, to discuss the broader context of this "army with a country" -- rather than a country with an army, as it usually goes -- we have Asia Stream correspondent, and the producer of the show, Monica Hunter-Hart, in here in the studio with me. Hi, Monica.

MONICA HUNTER-HART, CORRESPONDENT: Hello. So I actually want to flip the script a little bit today. Oh, no, no. OK. Well, normally, we sit here and you ask me questions, as we catch listeners up on the basics of whatever topic we're discussing that day. But that really doesn't feel appropriate today, because that is, but that really doesn't feel appropriate today, because this is your area of expertise! Pakistan, of course, but even more specifically, the Pakistan Army. You've been embedded with, like almost 100 of their units, I think? You've done some crazy front-line stuff with them. It seems to me like you know these guys better than anyone.

KHAN: It's a poison chalice, poison chalice. But you flatter me, Monica. Thank you.

HUNTER-HART: Well, basically, I'm hoping to actually ask you the questions today. And I do have quite a few of them. Does that sound OK?

KHAN: I didn't sign up for this, but, but nor did Gen. Asim Munir. So, yeah, sure, go for it. Go for it. Let's do this.

HUNTER-HART: So, first of all, I just want to understand why this is the story that everyone is talking about right now. Almost every country has an army, and every army has a chief, or a general. So what is such a big deal here?

KHAN: Right. The big deal here is the army itself, right? So this is not a typical army, typical armies, you know, either fight wars once in a generation, or once every five years if you're Russia, right? But once in a generation or two, you'll fight a war. Maybe there'll be a skirmish, if you're in a rough neighborhood. You usually train most of the time, you know, come to schools, maybe recruit some people, do push-ups, and jump off planes the rest of the time. This is what most armies do, right? In this army's case, this is a mega-superstructure, this is not a mere military, right? Besides doing all of the things any other military does, this military is also the largest business conglomerate of the country. It builds roads, it holds bicycle races, it selects the cricket team.


KHAN: It makes movies. Yeah, it makes TV dramas.


KHAN: It's, it's a, it's, it's got a super-, super-duper presence in pretty much every aspect of national life. But besides that, besides the social bits are the economic bits, it also drives policy. The army chief is also the de facto foreign minister. In fact, the last army chief -- and I did a story on him for Nikkei a few months ago, it's one of our best-read stories this year, I'm very proud of it. The, the army chief was also the finance minister, he's sort of calling up American officials in the summer when Pakistan was facing default, asking for the U.S. to bail Pakistan out by giving the IMF the green light. So in a way, this is not just some guy who's gotten here after, you know, doing a few command courses and riding a few tanks and running it out in his early days. Sure, yeah, the typical stuff remains, but there's a larger aspect about foreign policy, economic policy, social policy, national policy.

HUNTER-HART: I have to ask, are the movies that it produces any good?

KHAN: Oh, they're horrible. They're actually pretty bad. I mean, some of them are good. But listen, I mean, every state does propaganda. You know, Putin is doing his own thing, even despite the fact that he's losing this war. But listen, just the very fact that this music we were showing and the pomp we were showing from the ceremony earlier in the, in the episode. This ceremony was one general literally giving a stick to another general, you know. And they used to do this, you know, back in the day, they used to do this in an office and somebody would take a photograph and nobody would really see it. But the very fact that they've started making this a parade, they've started in the last decade or so showing this on national television. It gets more and more elaborate every time. There's song, there's dance, there's announcements, people are scr -- like, it's like the Super Bowl, except it's a couple of old dudes in uniform. And people from New Delhi to New York are interested because the stakes are high. And the army knows that. It, it makes sure that its outsized presence is projected. The fact that they've literally taken the ceremony and made it out of nothing adds to their machine. Their, their propaganda arm has done a remarkable job. Being someone who has reported on the army extensively, I can guarantee you that it's a very sophisticated propaganda arm, but it's these days, it's in serious trouble because of the one and only Imran Khan, whom I hope we talk about later in the show.

HUNTER-HART: So I'm really struck by something that I was reading, which is that, as far as Pakistan's prime ministers go, not one of them in the entire 75-year history of the country has actually completed a full term. Of course, the most recent example of that was Imran Khan being pushed out in April. And then on the other side of this, we actually have, so, 16 army chiefs of Pakistan since the founding, and only one of them has resigned voluntarily. So I just want to be super clear here. Gen. Bajwa, the outgoing chief, has left voluntarily, right?

KHAN: He has, and the numbers don't make sense. So prime ministers are elected for five years, right? And the very fact that this number doesn't make sense -- there's been 23 guys and gals -- one gal, 22 guys -- who have not completed their term, right? Versus 16 dudes -- all guys -- who have either completed term. Makes no sense over a period of 75 years. The math is wrong. And the math is wrong, because it's political. Because generals tend to stay on over their three years. Sometimes well over their three years. Most of them have outlasted their welcome. Four of them have ruled by decree, emergency or martial law. It's become fashionable for them to get extensions, multiyear extensions. These are supposed to be constitutional -- right now I'm using the quotation marks of my fingers, for those who cannot see me -- but Gen. Bajwa was three years past his official welcome, h -- his official tenure. And that added that propensity to just stay on in power longer, complicates not just the constitutional gap and disparity with the government in power, but also within the army. So here's one guy, he takes over as a general, yet during his tenure, he's not seen one, not two, not three, but four prime ministers. So the fact that even in this last six years when Gen. Bajwa was around, Pakistan has had one army chief and four prime ministers. Nawaz Sharif, kicked out. Imran Khan, kicked out. In the middle, there was this guy called Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, sort of caretaking after Nawaz Sharif. Seen off. And then of course, currently, Shahbaz Sharif Nawaz, Sharif's younger brother. The fact that one army chief has lasted as long as four prime ministers says that there's something wrong in the political math of the way civil -military relations balance out. Yeah.

HUNTER-HART: Truly. Yeah. So we've now brought up Imran Khan lots of times, so let's just talk about him for a minute. As I understand it, there's some definite friction between him and this new chief, Munir. At the end of 2018, Munir became the head of Pakistan's top intelligence agency, but Khan quickly removed him from power. It was only eight months later. Some say that was maybe one of the earliest signs that Khan was beginning to break with the military. And he definitely did break with the military, during his time in power, and also since. He seems to have kind of changed the game when it came to the public's relationship with the army. He's been criticizing them, confronting them, and I guess has sort of made it OK to do that, if that's right? How is that going to affect Pakistan in the long run? And is that kind of more confrontational attitude going to be any kind of a challenge for Munir?

KHAN: Right. So, OK, so first of all, Imran Khan is, he couldn't have gotten to the premiership without the army's blessings. But that's pretty much true for anyone who's ever led the country, right? Before Khan, the prime minister before Khan was Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif was in the 1980s and '90s, groomed by the military to become the man he is today. He eventually broke away with them, just like Khan has broken off with them. Before Sharif, it was the era of the Bhuttos and Benazir Bhutto's father, so Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was actually a foreign minister in a dictator's cabinet in the 1950s. Khan is just the latest one in a series of them. But Khan's different, because had they done their profiling on him -- and he is, he was, in his time, one of the world's most aggressive cricketers, and obviously, if we're talking about Pakistani politics, we've got to bring the great game in -- if they, if they knew what this guy was about, he's more dangerous outside than he is inside. So while other prime ministers have been sent off packing with their tail between their legs, or been executed like the Bhuttos, like like, Zulfikar Bhutto was, or jailed, or fined, or tried. Khan is on the loose and is also proven to be a liability. And he has through his protest movement, which has been ongoing for a better part of this year, he's really turned the tables on these guys. Like, what Khan has done in the last few months, no single politician, activist, protests- protester, writer, poet, filmmaker, revolutionary, dissenter has done in 75 years, collectively speaking. Imran Khan has made it OK for you to go on Twitter today and say whatever you want to say about the army, including four-letter words, and tweet it away, and make it go viral. He's made it OK for you to go to any one of his rallies, and there's multiple ones going on on any given day in Pakistan, and write anything you want on a placard, on your T-shirt, or on your flag, about the army and put it up. So he's made it OK for the army to be called not so OK. And that hasn't happened in a while. Now, he's paid a price for it. Just a few weeks ago, he survived an assassination attempt. He blamed, literally blamed, not just the prime minister, you know, for affording it. But also generals within the army. He named people in particular. So he's on a warpath with these guys. Now the very fact that you mentioned this new chap, Gen. Munir -- the details of his relationship with Khan, yes, they had a few months together. He was Khan's first intelligence chief. It was Khan's first few months in office when they met each other. The reports are hazy. But this is what we know: Khan wanted a loyalist in office. Him sacking Munir, the new chief, has less to do, I think, in, than his problems with Munir and more to do with him having a man crush on his loyalist Fazir Hamid. Who, by the way, has now been forced out by Gen. Asim Munir in one of the first moves he's made. So he's pushing Imran loyalists out of uniform.

HUNTER-HART: So much drama.

KHAN: It's a lot of drama. It's a lot of drama. And this is this is like a South Asian "Game of Thrones."

HUNTER-HART: It really sounds like that, yeah. Well, OK, so I don't want to go into too much depth here, because I want to bring on Uzair pretty soon, but just, can you just tell us a little bit more about Munir himself? I'm just curious, is this like, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" kind of situation? Or Is he really going to shake things up, maybe?

KHAN: You know, the profiling has been interesting about him. The Indians have -- the Indians watch the Pakistani military like New Jersey watches New York, right, with disdain, right, and keen interest -- but the idea is that one thing which has been going around is the fact that General Munir is a scholar of the Quran, he's a Hafiz-e-Quran, that means you see that you can, he can shoot off any any para, verse or word at a, you know, he's memorized it. Some folks in the Western press, as well, think that is a sign of his fundamentalism. But the military is pretty good at weeding out the crazies, especially at this level. The fact that the last four jobs he had before this one over the last decade were all pretty important, to one degree or the other. He's the first general to have held the leadership positions in two of the country's most important spy agencies -- military intelligence, as well as the ISI. In a place like Pakistan being spymaster of not just one, but two agencies, is a pretty big deal, considering this as an agency state. This is an intelligence-run police state. So the fact that he ran the MI as well as the ISI, and then the fact that he's, his last few years on the ground have been focused on military formations, which are really on the radar right now. He's commanded an area where Indian troops are facing off the Chinese troops, even as we record this podcast in the heights of the Karakoram in the Himalayas, the force command, nor -- northern areas division, which is the highest battlefield in the world. It's where the Pakistani, the Chinese and the Indian militaries are all eyeball to eyeball with each other. He was in charge there. And then he had a pretty cushy post in Gujranwala as co-command of the 30th core, but even that is an India-centric formation. So he's had his eyes on India for the last several years, but his eyes on the dark arts, as well, for the last few years. So --

HUNTER-HART: That being spying. Okay.

KHAN: -- that being spying, that being spying, yeah. So, premised on his experience with India and the dark arts, the fact that he was the ISI chief during the negotiations with, between the Americans and the Taliban right before the U.S. pullout also says something. So he was the guy who oversaw the deal. And Pakistan, as you know, played a pivotal role in the deal that allowed, well, the Americans to walk out with some degree of their heads held high. I mean, we did see that massacre in the last days of the pullout, and that debacle on, in, near Kabul Airport. But more or less, the Taliban declared a very long cease-fire, letting the Americans pull out not one American soldier, Marine, airman, sailor was killed in the last days of the Afghan war by Taliban hands. The IS [Islamic State] did attack the U.S., but that's a different story. He saw that peace deal be executed. So again, not someone we should take lightly, either in Washington, which knows him well, or in Delhi, which also knows him well. Um, as far as his political activities are concerned. That's also part of his job. Whether you like it or not, the Pakistani army chief is also -- the, the reason I called him the "general manager" --

HUNTER-HART: Yeah, I was gonna ask about that.

KHAN: Yeah, as the reason I've, the reason I've titled this episode "General Manager" is -- it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but that's what you sign up for. You are the governor general of sorts. In a country where civilian institutions have not been allowed, by hook or by crook, by default, or by design, to well, excel, where there's vacuums across pretty much every strata of, of governance, the army comes across as the most organized organization. As, it's not just the most powerful organization because it can fire guns. But it can fight, it can battle COVID. It battles polio. When the police fails, the army steps in to clean up street crime, etc. So the politics of it all and the governance of it all is also a part of his ambit. He's come in at a very messy time. Imran Khan is on the rise. He's demanding snap elections. The army's facing serious pushback from the streets of Pakistan. Regular Pakistanis, especially millennials and Gen Zers, don't have that level of respect for this regime. It's very similar to what's happening in Iran, except in Iran it's happening against the Ayatollah. In Pakistan, it's, the angst is developing against the army. But the Ayatollah was never very popular. The army has, till recently, been very popular. So he needs to win that popularity back. He needs to get his own house in order. He needs to confront Imran Khan, and that is a tall order. But the biggest challenge -- and I don't know if he's qualified for this -- is that the country is facing economic default. We're back on the brink. I know Uzair is going to talk about the dollars and cents of it. But Pakistan is facing a serious economic crisis. The military is not meant to tackle that. But what it can do is provide stability, steer Pakistan towards stability. And one can see, so far, that he keeps his head down. He's, he's not a brash, swaggering character. There have been some, quite a lot of characters in office, they're watched very keenly. But he's supposed to be a sober, straight shooting, quiet man. And I'm hoping that the stability the country needs can be provided by this infantryman from the 23rd Frontier Force Regiment. Which I have been embedded with, by the way!

HUNTER-HART: All right, Waj Khan. Thank you for being a guest on Asia Stream.

KHAN: Good to be here, good to be here.

HUNTER-HART: No, I'm just kidding. Thank you for being in the hot seat. We appreciate it. That was an excellent primer. I think I am going to kick you out now and bring on Uzair Younus.

KHAN: I thought this was my show.

HUNTER-HART: Not today. All right.

KHAN: Thank you for having me. Thanks for flipping the script. And I'll see you next week.

HUNTER-HART: Sounds great. Thanks.


HUNTER-HART: We now have the great pleasure to welcome back to the pod Uzair Younus! He is the director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center in Washington, D.C. And he's the host of the Pakistonomy podcast. Uzair, we're so happy to have you back, and I'm hoping you can start off by helping us get situated. I'm sure many listeners are still wrapping their heads around the idea of the military playing such a large role in Pakistan's politics. So please explain: Exactly how much control does the army chief have over economic matters?

UZAIR YOUNUS, GUEST: Well, see, it's, it's grown a lot over the last few years, particularly over the last six years of Gen. Bajwa, who just retired as the chief of army staff. In the very early months, even, of him becoming chief, he started talking about things like Pakistan has too much foreign debt, started meeting business leaders, starting addressing business leaders at chambers of commerce in Karachi and Lahore, the two big economic centers of the country. And so through that, in the very early days of his, him being the chief of the army, that role began to grow. Now, of course, Pakistan's military has been dominant in the economy for decades before Gen. Bajwa became the chief of army staff. It operates everything from cereal-manufacturing companies to banks, and infrastructure providers as well. So over the last six years, a lot of that has grown tremendously, not only because the chief took such an interest, or the business leaders went to him to talk about problems they were facing in terms of governance, but also because Imran Khan's government, when it came into power in 2018, ceded much of that space. So, for example, you heard in conversations in Islamabad that even tax policy matters got input from the military, and the military was providing that input because business leaders are going to the chief, not to the finance minister. So that's how protracted the challenge has become over the last few years.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. So, what are the economic problems facing Pakistan right now that the army chief will be expected to help solve?

YOUNUS: Well, see, there are three broad challenges, and they're feeding off of each other. So it's not like they're in isolation with one another. The first one, obviously, is the fact that Pakistan barely has five weeks of foreign reserves left. And it has, in the first week of December, a billion dollars of bond payments coming due. Half a billion in addition has been received from the Asian Infrastructure Bank, AIIB. And so basically, the delta there is a negative half a billion at this point in time. Obviously, Pakistan depends on the largess of its key allies, among them China and Saudi Arabia being the largest ones. And over the years, the chief of army staff, not just Gen. Bajwa, but his predecessors as well, have gone to Saudi Arabia or having engaged with the Chinese to hash out certain issues or to give certain guarantees, etc. So that's one crisis where a new army chief, even though they're talking about being apolitical, there will be this institutional expectation that, hey, you got to engage with these countries to get the reserves back up. So that's one crisis. The second crisis is the inflationary crisis. It's linked to a weakening rupee, which is being fed off of the declining reserves. But there are other issues, as well, in the domestic economy that have fueled inflation. That crisis impacts the army chief because this is one of the world's largest armies, 600,000 soldiers, right? So all of a sudden, if inflation is 26% year on year, you as one of the largest employers in the country will have pressure institutionally to say, "Hey, boss, our soldiers are not too happy because their real incomes are declining. Inflation is 26%. You gotta give them a pay hike." Obviously that is a political choice, the finance minister has to give pay hikes. So that's the second area where he will feel pressure and, and the need to get involved or the need to have a say in economic matters. The third -- link to salaries, linked to tax policy, etc. -- is the broader fiscal deficit. Pakistan has been running superhigh fiscal deficits for a number of months now. The IMF is not happy about it. They're saying, "You gotta raise taxes, cut spending." One way to raise taxes, for example, is to impose -- and many people, including myself, have been arguing for this for years -- is to have a real estate tax, a meaningful real estate tax. And over here, I'll just give a tidbit of data for your listeners, that the city of Pune in India, which is a large city, but not the largest city in India, raises more in real estate taxes than the entire province of Sindh in Pakistan. That's how distorted the tax market on the real estate side is. But again, that draws in the military, because the military, military operates these housing societies called DHAs, Defense Housing Associations. There are a number of them across the country, generals own that land, they make a lot of money off of that land, even when they get allocated that land, etc. So all of a sudden, if a finance minister tomorrow takes my recommendation on board, and says, "We're going to tax real estate so that we don't have this kind of a distortion in the market," well, the military will get involved once more.

HUNTER-HART: I want to go back to the first problem you mentioned. So, during the six years that the outgoing army chief, Gen. Bajwa, was in power, he emphasized diplomacy. He traveled all over the world building relationships. He spent a lot of energy maintaining Pakistan's alliances with China and Saudi Arabia, which you've touched on -- and those relationships are more important than ever now, given this shortage of foreign reserves, because Pakistan really needs deposits from China and Saudi to boost them. So does that dire need for foreign reserves mean that the incoming Gen. Munir will be forced to use the same diplomatic playbook as Bajwa? How do you think this reserves crisis will impact foreign policy under Munir?

YOUNUS: I think this will be an interesting moment to watch, right? Because on one hand, you have the military leadership saying, "We want to go back into the barracks, so to speak, or be apolitical," in terms of the language they've used. But as we talked about, there are crises that will draw them in. And on the diplomatic side, whether it's the Chinese or the Saudis, or the even the Emiratis and the Qataris, they have had this long period of time going back as far back as Kayani, who was the chief right after the dictatorship of Gen. Musharraf was over in 2007, 8, that they feel the army as an institution has a more long-term view and they're more reliable as actors; when they get certain guarantees, they get acted upon. So again, there will be this probably expectation in foreign capitals, in China and Saudi Arabia and UAE in particular, that, you know, we got to engage with the new chief because that's who is going to be in charge for the next three years -- maybe longer than that if he gets an extension -- we don't know where the civilians will be even six months from now. So that expectation is, on the external side, likely to draw them in once again, or draw Gen. Munir in once again. The other issue over here is that over the years, you've seen the civilians sort of outsource domestically this kind of diplomacy to the military itself. So for example, in the Imran Khan years, Gen. Bajwa went to China when there were issues around CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor]. Khan's minister said something the Chinese did not like, he fired -- he was firefighting that. The foreign minister -- Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in that era -- said something about the Saudis that the Saudis didn't like, and Gen. Bajwa was back in Saudi Arabia to sort of smooth over those differences. So that outsourcing is also going to be a problem on the civilian side. Now, whether they want to take that back or are capable of it remains to be seen, as well. So I think both those challenges are there, and there will be this expectation for a new chief as well to say, "Hey, you know what? The military is suffering reputationally. Given the way Gen. Bajwa left things, we need to rebuild our reputation." Maybe some advisers will tell Gen. Munir, "Hey, boss, when you know, if you go to Saudi Arabia or to China and bring a few billion dollars back, that will help us position you as sort of the savior of Pakistan." So that temptation also might creep in it. It's too early to see, you know, how this will play out. But again, these are some of the scenarios that might play out in the coming months.

HUNTER-HART: And can you explain how the pressure of inflation -- inflation in Pakistan is among the highest in South Asia -- may impact the next few months to a year for Munir?

YOUNUS: Yeah. So, look, over here, again, if you go back to January 2019, I've been collecting this data since then. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, if you compare the three countries in the subcontinent, Bangladesh and India since 2019, have had inflation of roughly 25%, give or take a few percentage points. Pakistan is at 65%. So more than 2 times the rate of inflation in the other two countries. That basically means that for the last three years or so, ordinary Pakistani citizens have lost a lot of purchasing power because of sky-high inflation. 600,000 soldiers -- as I mentioned earlier -- in the Pakistan Army, many of them are not the elite generals with access to DHA plots and privileges and perks like that, right? So they're also suffering, much like the ordinary laborer in a bazaar in Pakistan is suffering. So that inflation crisis now will mean that the new general will feel pressure internally to give them a pay hike. But also, what are you doing about the economy? Especially when there is this perception that the military brought the current government into power because they were done and fed up with Imran Khan. So I think that will draw him in again. And if inflation does not ease, again, in the early months, Gen. Munir might say, "I want a low profile, it's none of our business, let's go back." But the longer this economic crisis persists, the higher inflation keeps going, the more push back and the more pressure he will face in terms of wanting to do something about it. Because 600,000 soldiers will be agitating, saying, "Either you give us a very high pay hike (well, you can't, because the economic situation is dire), or you do something to fix governance and fix inflation in this economy."

HUNTER-HART: Pakistan's scheduled to have its next general election about a year from now, in October. But Imran Khan might force them to happen earlier -- possibly this spring. Now, as you've said several times, the military is claiming to be an apolitical force. But is it actually possible for the military to be apolitical in the run-up to this next election? And what are some scenarios for how Gen. Munir's appointment might affect the election?

YOUNUS: Yeah, so I think, currently, this appointment is a blow to Imran Khan, because his whole entire campaign in the last few months was to prevent this outcome. Gen. Munir fell out of favor with Imran Khan, he had one of the shortest stints as DG [Director-General] of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. And so you know, even in conversations, private conversations with PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] leaders, they would say in so many words that Gen. Munirwas not going to be their favorite among the lot that was up for promotion. But now he is the chief of army staff. So on the government side, they're kind of saying, "Well, we kind of got the guy who Imran Khan does not like. He's not going to play ball with him." Again, too early to tell how the chief acts, right? So, there's -- perception and reality can be often very different. And this actually has been the experience of the ruling party in the coalition, the PMLN [Pakistan Muslim League]. They've picked numerous army chiefs and have had a fallout with all of them. So whether this is an exception, we don't know yet. And so I think it remains to be seen. But again, the longer the economic crisis goes on, the more people will start paying attention to Imran Khan's logic, who's been arguing that the only way out of this instability -- economic and political -- are elections. And they've been asking, in so many ways, for the military to play its role -- unconstitutional role, by the way, they don't deny that -- unconstitutional role to force early elections to get the government to accede to the demands of the PTI. And, again, Gen. Munir might be able to resist that urge for the first two, three, four months. But if things start going south, or keep going south, he may face pressure to say, "Hey, you know what, time out, everybody, let's force you to sit around a table and hash out an election schedule ahead of time."

HUNTER-HART: Under the term of outgoing Gen. Bajwa, the military only became more involved in Pakistan's politics, arguably destabilizing the country further. It also became more involved in the economy and in other areas. Is there a feasible scenario in which the power of the military decreases, in comparison to the civilian government, anytime soon? What would allow that to happen, and could it happen under Gen. Munir?

YOUNUS: I think this is entirely possible. There is a great example in East Asia, Indonesia, that made that choice. And after the Asian financial crisis, Suharto stepped down and there was a plan and it was executed upon consistently, right? These things don't happen overnight. So it's not like today there's a lot of influence of the military and the economy, tomorrow it's going to go down to zero. It takes two to tango in this dance as well. So on the one hand, yes, you will have to have a chief that is OK with, you know, stepping back, even when leaving a vacuum causes more instability in the near term, because you gotta let the process play out. So on the one hand, he has to be careful not to sort of intervene again when things start going south, or the, the acceleration of things going south picks up. And then on the other, the civilians actually have to govern better, and push the reforms or do the necessary things that, you know, put the economy back on a sound trajectory, on a sound footing moving forward. I think it will take a lot of time. And it's not an extremely likely scenario that all of this plays out the way it played out in Indonesia. Primarily because, in the Indonesian case, the military itself put out a plan that says, "Here's how we're going to, step by step, do this." Pakistan's military has not done that yet, at least not that we know of. And so we will see where this goes. But it's not totally impossible to do that, right? I think the first step for this has to be, for example, the culture of having retired or serving military personnel serve in government institutions, in the economy, in the power sector, etc., that has to stop. That's step No. 1 in my book. Then, for example, the chief or the sector commanders or the people in the ISI should stop meeting people in the chamber of commerce or business leaders. Those meetings, it's none of the business of the military to have those meetings, right? Providing input on things like technology policy, or tax policy should stop. If we start seeing some of these small steps, incremental steps, then one can build confidence and say, "OK, over the next three years, this can be sustained." And then maybe another chief comes in and he sustains this as well. But at this point in time, we have had no inclination, or no indication, I'm sorry, except the pronouncements by the military saying, "We're apolitical." Well, we're not seeing that in action yet.

HUNTER-HART: Uzair Younus, thank you so much for coming back on Asia Stream.

YOUNUS: Thank you so much for having me.


HUNTER-HART: That's it for Asia Stream this week.

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HUNTER-HART: As always, we are very grateful that you listen to our coverage, but we highly encourage you to read it as well. There's so much more out there that we don't have time to cover on the pod. So head to Nikkei Asia at, both for more in-depth coverage of Pakistani politics and also all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review. And a last reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: to get the discount, click the link in the episode description. This episode was hosted by Waj Khan. I'm your producer and correspondent, Monica Hunter-Hart.

We'll stream again in two weeks. In the meantime, we'll watch the early days of Munir's tenure play out. Will the military and civilian government begin to repair their relationship and work together more congenially? Let's hope so; after all, teamwork makes the stream work.

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