Former Military Intelligence chief Lieutenant General Asim Munir has been appointed as director-general of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Munir will formally take over the position on October 25, following the retirement of Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar.

The announcement comes a couple of weeks after Munir’s promotion to be a three-star general. With Lieutenant General Mukhtar set to retire at the end of this month, Munir was considered a front-runner to become Pakistan’s next spymaster.

His intelligence experience as Military Intelligence chief was a major reason why he was tipped as favorite for the ISI position. Military officials said Munir was the “Army Chief’s guy”, which underscores why the balance was tipped in his favor.

While the ISI chief is officially appointed by the prime minister, in Pakistan it is usually the Army chief who handpicks the spymaster. And it was the Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who appointed Munir as his Military Intelligence chief in one of his first major calls at the helm of the military in November 2016.

“It was the Army Chief who picked the prime minister who picked the ISI chief,” a leading security analyst quipped, referring to claims that Imran Khan’s election as premier was engineered by the all-powerful Pakistani military.

Civilian award

Munir won the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, the second highest civilian award given to both civilians and military officials, in March this year in recognition of his “meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of Pakistan, world peace, cultural or other significant public endeavors”.

Munir is also a Hafiz-e-Quran (person who has memorized the Koran), and is seen within the military as a devout and practicing Muslim, who adheres to Pakistan Army’s Islam-centric narrative. Munir is the fourth MI head to be appointed ISI chief following Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, General Ehsanul Haq and Lieutenant General Taj. Before his role as the MI chief Munir was posted in Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly known as the Northern Areas, as a Force Commander.

“That’s where General Bajwa’s fondness grew for [Lieutenant General Asim Munir]. For General Bajwa, Asim Munir was the go-to guy,” revealed a senior military officer, referring to Gen Qamar Bajwa’s time as the head of Corps X, where Lt Gen Asim Munir worked directly under him in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Experience with Saudis and Chinese

Having worked as a Major General in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) starts in Pakistan, and having been posted as a Lieutenant Colonel in Saudi Arabia before that, Lt Gen Asim Munir has firsthand experience of engagement with Pakistan’s two most significant strategic partners.

With Saudi Arabia increasingly demanding more military and intelligence involvement from Pakistan, and China regularly citing concerns with regard to CPEC security, Asim Munir’s appointment is being seen within the military as a bid to safeguard the Army’s interests on both these fronts.

Within Army ranks Asim Munir has the reputation of a ‘hardliner’. His subordinates maintain that his strictness has a cult status among the troops he has managed. Observers have expressed concern that  Munir will bring a similar hardline approach as the spymaster, increasing the involvement of the intelligence agency in civilian matters even more than it already has.

A recent of this “over-reach” can be seen in the Supreme Court’s sacking of Islamabad High Court judge Justice Shaukat Aziz on Thursday for criticizing the ISI and noting its involvement in the disqualification and imprisonment of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The decision last week to expel 18 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) from Pakistan was also taken at the behest of the ISI as well, well-placed sources in the Interior Ministry have confirmed.

Similarly, authorities on Friday arrested rights activist Gulalai Ismail, who is a member of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) – a Pashtun nationalist movement that is critical of the Pakistan Army.

Military sources say that Munir is a no-nonsense ideologue, who will not tolerate any dissent or spreading of narratives that don’t toe the line defined by the Army.

Therefore, a further clampdown on NGOs, activists and an already subdued media is expected under Asim Munir.