Decision on COAS ‘very shortly’ as president assures no ‘mischief’

The formal process to appoint the next army chief is all set to kick off “very shortly” as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who otherwise spends his weekends in Lahore, stayed in the capital in anticipation of taking an imminent decision.

While Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told a private television channel that the process for the appointment of a new army chief would start on Monday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah claimed on Friday that the announcement of the new army chief would be made in the next couple of days.

The conflicting statements being given by ministers suggest the government seems under serious stress as some observers are of the view that this may indicate a possible deadlock between the civil and military authorities on the choice of the next army chief.

With all eyes on the prime minister, official sources said closed-door consultations were going on in the corridors of power in order to develop consensus among the stakeholders for the key appointment.

The process, sources said, for the appointment of a new chief will begin “very shortly” though they did not elaborate if the decision was imminent on Friday night or within the next couple of days.

However, some sources claim the Prime Minister's Office may announce the appointment of new army chief within 24 hours.

Although the appointment of the army chief is the sole prerogative of the premier, the coalition government is keen to consult all stakeholders before the final decision is made.

The move is aimed at reaching a broader consensus among the key stakeholders so that the decision serves the interests of the institution and the country.

Hectic political activities were witnessed in Islamabad in the last couple of days with Finance Minister Ishaq Dar holding a series of meetings including with President Dr Arif Alvi, former president Asif Ali Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in what appears to be part of efforts aimed at ensuring a smooth transition in the army command.

Read more: Who Pakistan picks as army chief matters far beyond its borders

His meeting with Alvi on Friday was seen as significant as the summary of the army chief appointment has to be signed by the president. There were rumours that the president, who happens to be a PTI leader, might block the summary at the behest of his party chief Imran Khan.

Dar met the president and leaders of coalition partners on behalf of PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Shehbaz, who because of Covid-19 cannot meet them in person.

While Dar had a busy day, all eyes were on the ministry of defence, which has to send a summary containing eligible candidates for the posts of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and the army chief to the Prime Minister Office.

The government, sources said, called back the defence secretary, who was abroad, in order to kick-start the process.

The summary is likely to carry the names of the five senior-most generals. Traditionally, the prime minister holds consultations with the outgoing army chief on the new appointment. However, the outgoing army chief’s advice is not binding on the premier.

In 2013 and 2016 then prime minister Nawaz Sharif had ignored the advice of the outgoing army chiefs.

Read: Process to appoint COAS to begin on Nov 18: Asif

There is one difference this time though that the political situation is volatile and the PML-N does not have its man at the presidency. In the past opposition has never raised any questions about the appointment of new army chief. But the current opposition leader Imran Khan is taking keen interest. In fact, many observers believe that one of the main objectives of Imran’s long march is to influence the appointment of new chief.

Against this backdrop, there are concerns that the presidency may play mischief.

Because of these concerns, the PML-N-led government geared up on Friday its efforts to smoothly conclude the appointment of the military chief as Dar called on President Alvi a day after he met Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Zardari issued a separate statement regarding the military chief’s appointment while the JUI-F chief called on PM Shehbaz despite the latter being in quarantine.

Sources in the ruling alliance said that the finance minister and the president deliberated upon the prevailing political situation and key appointment, discussing that there should not be a deadlock on constitutional and legal issues. Soon after Dar’s meeting with the president, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani also called on the president.

Flurry of meetings in the last couple of days suggested that the political leadership has accelerated its efforts to end any possible deadlock on the appointment of the military czar. The political elite also deliberated upon PTI’s long march, which is expected to converge soon in twin cities with the demand of snap polls.

Though Imran Khan has announced that he has taken a step back on the military chief’s appointment, the recent meetings have taken place against the backdrop of the concerns being expressed that the president might block the government’s decision when the summary is finally sent by the prime minister to the president for approval.

The concerns were strengthened when PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry tweeted that Dr Alvi would fulfil his constitutional responsibilities in connection with the army chief’s appointment. “It should be clarified that whatever steps the president takes will have the full backing of Imran Khan,” Fawad stated.

Despite announcing to take a step back from COAS’ appointment, Imran once again spoke on the issue by saying that Nawaz Sharif wanted to appoint an army chief who would disqualify him [Imran] when he met a legion of journalists in Lahore.

Meanwhile, Zardari separately issued on Friday a statement, saying that all three-star generals were equal and fully qualified to head the army. However, Zardari said politicisation of the issue of appointment of the next army chief should be avoided at all costs as the same would harm the institution.

The discussion over the army chief’s appointment also pushed Maulana Fazlur Rehman to rush to PM House to meet PM Shehbaz, who contracted Covid-19 right after returning from London and is currently quarantined.

The official press release issued after the meeting between Dar and Alvi stated that the minister briefed the president on the overall economic and financial outlook of the country.

It said that the financial czar also briefed the president on various steps taken by the government to provide relief to the people, especially to the unprivileged population of the underserved areas of the country as well as the flood-affected people.

It also said that the two also discussed various matters concerning finance and the economy.

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