Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on Wednesday said that “barring one or two exceptions”, all prior appointments in the armed forces were made on merit.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, he said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif would take the decision about the appointment of next army chief “within the ambit of the General Headquarters (GHQ)” around 29th of November.
He denied that the ruling coalition – the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – had taken a decision on giving extension to incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The two ministers levelled a slew of corruption charges against former prime minister Imran Khan.
They also went on to accuse Imran’s wife, their confidants, Farah Gogi and Syed Zulfikar Bukhari and the chief ministers of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), of corruption.
The ministers’ presser came after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman attempted to make the appointment of the next army chief controversial, inviting a strong reaction from the military itself.
The recommendations for the heads of the three military divisions – army, navy and air force – were sent to the prime minister, who made the decision after consultations with others, the defence minister said.
He said that there was no decision on Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Hamza Shehbaz becoming the chief minister of Punjab again, or the premier’s visit to London.
In the past, Khawaj Asif said, the announcement of the next army chief was usually made during the last 24-48 hours, adding that there was no reason to deviate from the process this time around.
He said that Imran had given a “new meaning” to his comments in Tuesday’s rally in Peshawar. “This is done as part of a well-considered strategy that you first attack and make the institutions controversial and, upon seeing the reaction, say, ‘I talked about merit’.”
Imran triggered the controversy when he accused Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Co-Chairman Asif Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Quaid Nawaz Sharif of making all-out efforts to bring their “favourite” as the next army chief after the retirement of Gen Bajwa in November.
Subsequently, in a bid to clarify his remarks, the PTI chief claimed in Peshawar that his rivals were distorting his statements to pit him against the military and the judiciary.
Asif said that the situation was such for the PTI that even Imran’s confidants either remained silent on the matter or avoided it altogether when asked about their opinion on their leader’s comments.
“The president also disassociated himself from what Imran Khan had said,” he said, adding that the senior PTI leadership, including Shah Mahmood Qureshi, was distancing themselves from Imran’s comments.
He called on the PTI chief to tell when the appointments were not made on merit, challenging him to take names. In the last three years, he added, the last time, the decision about the army chief was taken by Imran Khan. At that time, he said, Imran had praised General Bajwa.
The defence minister said that when Imran was in power, his confidence in the army chief was so high that he did not chair several important political meetings or security briefings himself and left them to General Bajwa to preside over.
Even if Imran’s point about merit was considered, he wondered, whether the appointments to the top slots of Punjab and K-P were made on merit or not. He then went on to accuse the former government of corruption, questioning whether merit was considered in those matters as well.
Asif alleged that Imran did not investigate various scandals during his tenure such as the shortage of sugar, medicines and wheat. He claimed that the people within the PTI were abandoning their leader as no one was defending him over his recent comments.
Responding to a question, Asif said that various agencies and departments were investigating corruption charges against Imran and the government would only nab him when the case was fully ripe, in order to avoid any element of political victimisation.
“I say on oath that if there is any lacking in an allegation against them, then the benefit of the doubt will be given to them,” he said.
The finance minister spoke about allegations of corruption against Farah Gogi and questioned whether her alleged actions were also on merit or were they in Imran’s knowledge.
He urged the former prime minister to come to the Press Information Department (PID) and provide simple answers in “yes or no” to these questions: “Did Farah take money for transfers and postings in Punjab? Did Imran know about these actions himself and could these acts have been done without his approval and sanction?”
Ismail also claimed that he knew people who had personally told Imran about Punjab’s former chief minister Usman Buzdar’s alleged corruption.