Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on Wednesday said that “barring one or two exceptions”, all prior appointments in the military forces were on merit.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad with Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, he said the recommendations for the heads of the three military divisions — army, navy and airforce — were sent to the prime minister who made the decision after consultation with others.
On PTI chief Imran Khan’s comments at his Faisalabad rally on Sunday, regarding the appointment of the upcoming army chief which generated controversy, Asif said the former prime minister had given a “new meaning” to his comments in Tuesday’s Peshawar rally.
“This is done as part of a well-considered strategy that first you attack and make institutions controversial and see the reaction and then say ‘I talked about merit’.”
In Faisalabad, Imran had said PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif were making all-out efforts to bring their “favourite” army chief after the retirement of the incumbent chief in November this year. The new army chief should be chosen on merit, he had said, adding that Zardari and Nawaz were “traitors” and should not be trusted with the fate of the country.
Subsequently, in a bid to clarify his remarks about the appointment of the army chief, Imran claimed a day ago that his rivals were “distorting” his statements to pit him against the military and the judiciary.
“My criticism of the Pakistan Army is constructive in nature,” the former prime minister told the charged crowd in Peshawar. “What did I say wrong,” Imran Khan had asked. “I only asked for the appointment of the army chief on the basis of merit,” he had said, adding that merit-based appointments were mandatory to strengthen any institution.
Asif addressed the PTI chief’s comments and said the situation was such for the PTI that even Imran’s confidantes remained mum, made excuses or avoided the question when they were asked for their opinion on their leader’s comments.
“The president also disassociated himself from what Imran Khan said.”
The defence minister called on the PTI chief to tell when army appointments were not done on merit. “Our last appointment of the current army chief was endorsed by them (PTI)” Asif said, adding that Imran seldom might have praised anyone in the last three years as he did Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
He alleged that Imran’s 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 Gen Bajwa to preside over.
“Now that they no longer have power, every person [of theirs] is attacking our military leadership and deliberately creating doubt and suspicion for the upcoming [army chief] appointment.”
Asif said that even if Imran’s point about merit was considered, he questioned if appointments made under the PTI’s tenure of former Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mahmood Khan were on merit or not.
The defence minister also raised a laundry list of alleged corruption cases regarding the PTI government, such as the Peshawar BRT inquiry, Toshakhana reference, legalising an amount to Bahria Town and others, and questioned whether merit was considered in those matters as well.
He also castigated the PTI regime for allegedly failing to investigate various scandals during its tenure such as the sugar and wheat shortages. “They investigated no corruption case on merit. Was this merit? What merit does he speak of?” Asif added.
He claimed that people within the PTI were abandoning Imran and no one was defending him for his recent comments.
Meanwhile, Ismail talked about the allegations regarding Farhat Shahzadi — also known as Farah Khan and a close aide of Imran’s wife Bushra Bibi — and questioned whether her alleged acts were also on merit or in Imran’s knowledge.
He called on the PTI chief to come to the Press Information Department (PID) and provide simple answers in “yes or no” to three 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 Buzdar’s alleged corruption.
The finance minister reiterated that Imran should come to PID and give answers to all these allegations, including his wife’s allegedly taking jewellery from someone and whether any favours were granted in return. He added that doing so would greatly increase the weight in Imran’s anti-corruption and merit narrative.
Meanwhile, in the question-answer session, Asif said there was no decision of any kind on the current army chief’s extension in a recent meeting of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. He also said there was no decision on PML-N leader Hamza Shehbaz again becoming the Punjab chief minister or on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to London.
Asif said the announcement for the next army chief was usually in the past made in the last 24-48 hours and announced on November 29, adding that there was no real need to stray from this process.
“I think this debate should be over. This debate has never happened in the past on this appointment,” he said, adding that the sanctity of the military forces and their processes should not be made controversial.
The defence minister also spoke about cases regarding the opposition and said it was his opinion that there should be no lacking or room for error in them and any action should be taken in accordance with the law so no impression of victimisation or settling scores is created.
“I on oath say that if there is any lacking in an allegation against them then the benefit of the doubt will be given to them.”
Failure to control dollar appreciation
Meanwhile, questioned on the failure to curb the rupee’s depreciation against the dollar, Ismail said the current floods were to blame as crops were ravaged and it became necessary to import them.
He said pressure on the rupee had increased due to the expectation of further future imports and blamed the PTI government’s decisions for the current high power prices.
Meanwhile, Asif said the government would rein in inflation in the next two to three months and further economic upturn would be witnessed.
The defence minister praised and credited Ismail for leading the government’s economic recovery plan, saving the country from default and said trust in him was “well placed”. He said the government would consider the option of making him a senator or extending his tenure as his current six-month term as finance minister is set to expire.
“Our government can take comfort in the fact that Miftah Ismail’s performance was a big contribution in taking us out of the critical situation we were in.”
Ismail was also questioned about the possibility of trade being resumed with India, to which he said the option could be explored if the market did not stabilise after the measures the government was taking.