Pakistan’s new army chief takes charge of armed forces

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new military chief took command of the country’s armed forces on Tuesday as the political rift between the government and the popular opposition leader deepened. He took office one day after a renewed threat from a key militant group behind dozens of deadly attacks over 15 years.

Historically, the military has wielded great influence in Pakistan, ruling it for half of the country’s 75-year history. But it has also been fighting local and foreign militants since 2001, when Pakistan became a US ally in the war on terror. The alliance angered Pakistani militants, some of whom joined the Afghan Taliban in the years-long war that ended in 2021 with the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

One of the key challenges facing the country’s new army chief, General Asim Munir, will be how to respond to the latest threat from the Pakistani Taliban, known as TTP, which has ordered its fighters to resume attacks across the country. The army has also been fighting separatists in the southwest.

The Pakistani Taliban are a separate group but are allied with the Afghan Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan more than a year ago when US and NATO troops were in the final stages of their withdrawal. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan emboldened TTP, whose top leaders and fighters are hiding in Afghanistan.

Munir, who was spy chief, replaced General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who retired after a six-year term. Bajwa, during his tenure, had approved a series of operations against the militants to evict them from the former tribal regions in the northwest of the country bordering Afghanistan.

Bajwa also opened peace talks with TTP earlier this year.

The Pakistani Taliban agreed to an indefinite ceasefire in May after talks with Pakistani government and military officials in the Afghan capital Kabul.

The TTP in a statement on Monday ended the ceasefire and vowed new attacks.

That has raised fears of violence in Pakistan, which has seen dozens of deadly attacks, mostly claimed by the TTP, an umbrella group of various militant factions.

The Pakistani Taliban were behind a 2014 attack on an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar that killed 147 people, mostly schoolchildren. On Tuesday, Hina Rabbani Khan, the country’s deputy foreign minister, traveled to Kabul on a planned visit. She was expected to discuss a variety of topics, including the latest threat from the Pakistani Taliban, in her talks with government officials.

Tuesday’s change in military command comes days after Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif appointed Munir to replace Bajwa, who handed over his traditional “baton of command” to Munir in a ceremony amid tight security at the Garrison town of Rawalpindi.

Munir was promoted to four-star general by Sharif last week to replace Bajwa, who retired at the height of his unpopularity. Bajwa emerged as one of the most controversial army chiefs this year when opposition leader Imran Khan accused him of overthrowing his government as part of a US-led plot, an accusation that Sharif, the US and the military have denied.

In his speech, Bajwa congratulated Munir and wished that the country’s defense would be further strengthened during his tenure. Bajwa served in the army for 44 years.

Khan, a former cricket star turned politician, was ousted in a vote of no confidence in Parliament and wants new military leadership to end the political turmoil. The army chief is widely seen as the de facto ruler in Pakistan.

Munir’s approach to the ongoing political dispute was unclear.

Munir took over command of the army amid a deadlock between Khan and Sharif, who says the next elections will take place as scheduled in 2023. The army has so far said publicly that it will not play a role in politics, which means it depends on Sharif. government and Khan to solve any political problem.

Khan was shot in the leg on November 3 by a gunman as he marched to the capital Islamabad from the eastern city of Lahore in a convoy of thousands to pressure Sharif to resign and accept the new vote. One of Khan’s supporters was killed and 13 wounded in last month’s attack and the gunman was arrested.

Meanwhile, the army claimed it killed 10 “terrorists” in a raid in Balochistan province’s Hoshab district on Tuesday. In a statement, he did not provide details, including the identities of the men or what led them to label them terrorists. A military spokesman reached by phone also had no additional details.

For nearly two decades, Balochistan has been the scene of a low-level insurgency by separatists demanding independence from the central government in Islamabad. The government says it has put down the insurgency, but violence in the province has persisted.

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Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan contributed to this report.

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