Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has said that the possibility of holding general elections prior to the appointment of a new army chief cannot be ruled out.

In an interview with BBC Urdu, he said, “It is possible that we hold elections before the [new] army chief’s appointment, before November. There will be a caretaker government at that time. It is also possible that the caretaker government is gone, and the new government is [in power] before November.”

Asif was responding to the interviewer after she brought up the impression that former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted over the new army chief’s appointment.

“Imran Khan wanted to do things his way on the matter of the new army chief’s appointment. He wanted to ensure the protection of his political interests and the continuity of his rule.

Incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa will remain in office till November 29, when his second three-year tenure will end.

Gen Bajwa was given an extension by the previous PTI government in 2019.

In response to a question about whether the PML-N-led coalition government could give the incumbent COAS another extension, Asif said Gen Bajwa had already announced that he does not want his tenure to be extended.

The defence minister said he welcomed the announcement because it had “closed the doors of speculation” and noted that the previous army chief, General (retd) Raheel Sharif, too, had not “directly or indirectly demanded an extension”.

PM’S PREROGATIVE: He was then asked whether the entire process for Imran’s removal was because of the former premier’s “desire to do things his way”. Denying that this was the case, Asif said it was the prime minister’s prerogative to choose who he wanted from the list of names recommended to him by the army.

He noted that army chiefs had been appointed in 2013 and 2016 and the premier at the time had taken the decisions on merit and respected the army’s recommendations.

“[Former premier] Nawaz Sharif did not know General Raheel Sharif. He knew General Qamar Javed Bajwa because he had served as the Rawalpindi corps commander. But the institution’s recommendations were respected both times. The [new] appointment will be made on merit in the same way.”

Asif said he believed the process for appointing an army chief should be “institutionalised” similar to the judiciary. “There is no speculation about [a chief justice]. I know who will become the chief justice in 2028.”

“In my personal opinion, instead of discussing the matter of the army chief’s appointment, the process should 100 per cent be based on merit. This is a big and very important issue, it should never be the subject of political debate.”

GEN FAIZ HAMEED: When asked whether the PML-N-led government, which has previously criticised former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, would consider him for the army chief’s post, Asif replied, “If his name is on the seniority list, it will definitely be considered.

“All names on the list will be considered.

“If the defence minister brings the names of five officers to the prime minister, and the army recommends Lt Gen Faiz Hameed’s name as well, then I don’t think the defence ministry or the prime minister have the space left to say, ‘send three or eight names instead of five’.”

Lt Gen Hameed, who served as the ISI chief from June 16, 2019, to Oct 19, 2021, is currently posted as the Peshawar corps commander.

When asked to comment about the PML-N’s past statements claiming the security establishment, especially Hameed, was behind Nawaz’s ouster, Asif said it was unfortunate that the party’s politics were “dragged into this thing or red lines were mixed in our past experiences”.

Referring to the success of the no-trust vote against Imran, the minister said that whatever had happened in the last month gave the opportunity to turn a new leaf and adhere to the limits set by the Constitution. “Pakistan’s security lies in this,” he added.

The army should not become a topic of discussion in the public domain, he said, adding that “they say names should not be taken at the party level.”

‘A BIG RISK’: Asif said the PML-N took a “big political risk” by forming the coalition government after the PTI’s ouster. “I don’t think anyone pushed us, we took the plunge ourselves.”

The country was in a precarious condition right now, he said, claiming that there was danger of “irreparable damage” being caused if the Imran-led government had stayed in power for 14 more months.

The previous government was “definitely” heading towards failure, he alleged.

“Imran Khan’s slate has not been wiped clean. This is a political risk for us but it was necessary to take it. The writ of that government was gradually decreasing, the people around Imran Khan were accumulating wealth. His own financial background is very bad.

“I will not go into the details. There are many questions on him.”

Asif said there was no possibility that his party would lose the war of narratives with the PTI and predicted that it would not take long for the situation to stabilise.

He made the remarks in response to a question about the increase in Imran’s popularity following his ouster and the PML-N’s difficulties in countering the ex-premier’s narrative.

While Imran was a “popular public leader”, he had nothing to show for his performance, the minister claimed. “This is why he is hiding his failure behind these two to three narratives, which unfortunately become popular among the people. He is playing the wicket of religion and repeating anti-United States narrative at the same time.”

Asif alleged that the establishment had brought Imran as an alternative to traditional politicians.

“Imran Khan was gradually built up so a man could be brought [into power] with whom the establishment is 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.

“This experiment was done and it harmed the country. Today, it does not suit Imran Khan for institutions to become neutral. He wants to be in power and the institutions to provide him with crutches.”

He also termed Imran’s anti-establishment narrative as “shameful”.

Heavily criticising the former prime minister, Asif said for the last four years, everything had been centered around one man. “Whether it was the economy, foreign policy initiatives or relations between institutions, everything was decided keeping in mind his (Imran’s) wishes.

“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,” he added.

Asif acknowledged that his party’s leaders had taken army officers’ names in the past and were continuing to do so but said the way Imran was “attacking” the army was unprecedented.

“Imran Khan is clearly saying all the institutions should obey him and it was their duty to protect his government. ‘How can they be neutral? They should have taken my side’.”

Asif claimed that the former premier was “paranoid”.

“If I become politically weak in the assembly, my allies leave me, I do not have the power of votes, then what is the army’s fault? You are trying to say that the army built everything in 2018 and now when they have stepped back, the alliance has fallen apart. Now you’re asking for the wickets to be re-instated. That cannot happen.”

In response to a question about whether the establishment had “realised this political interference experiment has failed”, the defence minister said the matter should move beyond regret.

“In my opinion, this experiment will not be repeated. I also wish that when a document, the Constitution, has been made, if all the institutions follow it, then I don’t think there is any better solution for all,” he added.

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