Polls before new army chief can’t be ruled out: Asif | The Express Tribune

Defence Minister and PML-N stalwart Khawaja Asif has said it could not be ruled out that the government agreed to go to elections before the appointment of the new army chief, who would be replacing the incumbent Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in November this year, BBC Urdu quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

Asif also said it was also possible that by the time the new chief of army staff (COAS) was appointed, a fresh government would have already replaced the caretaker set-up after the elections.

Replying to a question about extending the tenure of the army chief, the minister said Gen Qamar had already made it clear that he would not seek another extension.

“I welcome this announcement as it has closed the doors to speculations. Earlier, Gen Raheel Sharif had never directly or indirectly demanded extension of his tenure.”

It may be noted here that the PTI government, led by Imran Khan, had granted a three-year extension to the COAS in 2019. Gen Qamar is set to retire on November 29 this year.

To a question about Peshawar Corps Commander Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, the former director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Asif said the government would “definitely consider” him for the post of the army chief if his name was on the seniority list.

He added that the prime minister could not ask the army or the defence ministry to change the names in the list forwarded to him for the appointment of the army chief.

About the PML-N-led government that came to power amid an economic turmoil with the help of its allies, Asif said his party had taken a “great risk” to come into power.

He added that nobody “pushed us [to form the government] we took this leap ourselves” as it was “necessary” to take this risk.

He claimed that had Imran Khan stayed in power for 14 more months, the damage caused to Pakistan would have been “irreparable”.

He said the conditions in Pakistan at present were “precarious”, but Imran’s government was “definitely” steering the country towards disaster.

In response to another question about whether or not the Imran govt was sent packing over the COAS’ issue, the minister said the PTI chairman wanted to have his own way over the appointment of the new army chief to “ensure his political interest and prolong his tenure”.

However, he rejected the impression that the PTI chief was removed because of this issue. “It is the prerogative of the prime minister to appoint the army chief,” he added.

Read No change in army’s approach despite huge PTI protests: analysts

Asif said the process for the appointment of the army chief needed to be “institutionalised” just like the judiciary. “There is no speculation about [a chief justice]. I know who will become the chief justice in 2028.”

He added that the appointment of the COAS needed to be made on “merit” to discourage “political debate” on such an important issue.

The minister pointed out that two army chiefs were appointed — in 2013 and again in 2016.  “The then prime minister [Nawaz Sharif] made the decisions on the basis of merit and fully respected the recommendations of the army.”

Asif noted that ex-PM Nawaz did not know Gen Raheel Sharif. Similarly, at the time of Gen Qamar’s appointment, Nawaz knew him only because he was commanding the Rawalpindi Corps.

“On both occasions, the institution’s proposal was respected.”

Talking about the rise in popularity of former PM Imran after the success of the no-confidence motion against him and the difficulties faced by the PML-N in publicly contesting him, Asif said he believed that there was no possibility of the defeat of his party in this war of words.

“It won’t take long and the situation will stabilise.”

Asif conceded that Imran was a ‘popular people’s leader’ but also said he had nothing to show for it.

“That is why they are hiding their failure behind these two or three statements which unfortunately become popular,” he said.

“At the same time, they [PTI] are playing on the wicket of religion and repeating the anti-American rhetoric.”

Asif claimed that Imran was gradually built up so a man could be brought into power with whom the establishment was more comfortable. “The love for a traditional politician was sometimes more and sometimes less. So, they thought he [Imran] is a new man … what happened after that is in front of everyone.”

He claimed that this “experiment” harmed the country. “Today, it does not suit Imran Khan for institutions to stay neutral. He wants to be in power and the institutions to provide him with crutches.”

The minister termed Imran’s anti-establishment narrative as “shameful”.

Asif said for the last four years, everything had been centered on one man.

“Whether it was the economy, foreign policy initiatives or relations between institutions, everything was decided keeping in mind his [Imran’s] desires. If the institutions work as subordinates, then it is fine for Imran Khan. But Imran Khan is not happy if the institutions work within their constitutional ambit, be it the judiciary, the army, the parliament or the media. I think Imran Khan’s anti-military rhetoric will not last long and will end on its own.”

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