The issue of the appointment of the next army chief continued to occupy the centre stage of the national political discourse on Friday, with the government taking the pains to state that it would be done according to the Constitution.
The statement came as the matter of the imminent change of guard gets mired in controversy amid widespread speculations.
The extended stay of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif along with his key advisers in London purportedly to discuss the key appointment and other issues of national importance with his elder brother Nawaz Sharif heightened confusion and sparked rumours about the issue.
The prime minister left London for the country late Friday night after holding what media reports said a crucial meeting with his elder brother on the issue. Later, the prime minister stated that the constitutional path would be followed while deciding the name of the next army chief.
Moreover, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif took to Twitter to state that the PML-N leadership had only deliberated upon choosing the outgoing chief of army staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s successor but no final decision has so far been taken in this regard.
The minister said that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the elder Sharif along with senior party leadership had mulled over the name of the new military czar in London and added that a “final decision would be taken once the constitutional process formally begins”.
Asif, while speaking at a press conference last month, had said that the appointment procedure would commence at the start of November. Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa is set to retire on Nov 29.
The minister’s tweet came after news reports stated that the PML-N’s top brass has decided in its London meeting that the senior-most army officer would be made the new military chief.
The premier and defence minister, among others, went to London seeking elder Sharif’s guidance on the crucial appointment, among other developments.
Since PM Shehbaz departed for London after attending the COP-27 conference in Egypt, it was conjectured that his visit’s main purpose was to finalize the name of the new army chief in consultation with his brother, who has made several such appointments in past.
The details were later confirmed by Asif and several other PML-N leaders that the appointment of the army chief was the top agenda of the London huddle. However, the PML-N leadership has been exercising extreme care in issuing statements regarding the appointment of the new military chief.
When approached for a comment, the defence minister only shared his tweet, which states that there were speculations in the media that a decision has been taken regarding the appointment of the army chief in the Shehbaz-Nawaz meeting in London, adding there has definitely been consultation in this regard but the decision would be taken after consultation once the constitutional process starts.
Asif didn’t clearly refute the news reports that clearly stated that the PML-N leadership has decided to pick the senior-most army officer as the new chief.
Minister for Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb also refrained from confirming or denying any such reports and preferred to share Asif’s tweet when asked to clear the air on the issue.
Apart from Asif’s tweet, the PML-N leadership has kept a mum after the crucial London meeting.
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Political analysts say that PM Shehbaz was there for consultation with Nawaz Sharif and they must have decided on a name that PM would present to coalition parties, therefore, one could say that at least PML-N has reached a decision about the new military chief.
However, when asked about it, the information minister didn’t say anything. When specifically asked if the news reports about picking the senior-most officer were incorrect or false, Asif also preferred to stay quiet. Earlier, while answering a journalist’s question after meeting with Nawaz Sharif, PM Shehbaz said that the issue of the appointment of the army chief was a constitutional matter and will be dealt with according to the constitution.
In an interview with a media outlet, Asif had earlier said that the summary for the new military chief was moved after November 18 on previous occasions, saying there was still a week’s time left and hopefully things would timely and smoothly conclude in this regard.
On November 11, it emerged that the political huddle in London could not choose Bajwa’s successor.
Sources in PML-N had, however, revealed that it was decided in the meeting that the government would not succumb to any pressure from any quarters regarding the new military chief, including PTI Chairman Imran Khan.
During his back-to-back meetings with Nawaz, PM Shehbaz and PML-N leadership discussed not only discussed the appointment of a new army chief but analyzed the recent statements from the military’s media wing, the government’s strategy to deal with the PTI’s long march, among other things.
Sources in the PML-N had revealed that the government was clear in its mind that it wanted stable relations with the establishment, adding the plan was to achieve “reverse engineering” and to appoint a military chief, who does not force the government for early elections.
“Agreeing for the snap polls or giving a date for early elections would be tantamount to committing political suicide,” the source had said. Surprising as it may seem, the source had added, neither the government nor the establishment could afford elections right now or anytime soon keeping the precarious economic situation and floods that have caused havoc in the country.
“Things would not settle until the appointment of the new army chief,” the source had admitted, saying the premier’s sudden departure to the UK was in line with the evolving situation, especially, after the army chief began farewell meetings.
Meanwhile, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal said that the next army chief will be announced before November 29. “When the prime minister returns to the country, he will make the announcement in the next few days or two.”
He said the prime minister had his “eye” on the issue and the announcement would be done at the “appropriate time”. Iqbal said that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will only have one criterion for the army chief’s appointment, maintaining Pakistan’s impenetrable defence and taking the military’s professionalism to a higher standard.
“We have to do the army chief’s appointment on a professional, instead of political, basis.”
Iqbal said the issue was a “routine appointment” and speculation should be avoided on the matter. He criticised PTI chief Imran Khan for being the only politician in the country’s history to play politics on the army chief’s appointment.