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ISLAMABAD: The ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, has shot itself in the foot once again.

On the evening of Independence Day, when the celebrations were still ongoing, a federal minister’s remark have thrown the ever fragile civil-military relations into a tail spin, compelling the government to deny the cabinet member’s remarks and the military to issue a denial as well.

The strongly worded denial of the military is not going to be a good omen for the PML-N government, which is far from stable.

It was an old plot though some of the characters were new.

The culprit was Senator Mushahidullah, Minister for Climate Change, who told the BBC that the “former head of ISI had devised a conspiracy to remove the elected government.”

Within hours of his remarks having hit the airwaves of the news channels, the prime minister’s secretariat and then the ISPR, the military’s media wing, denied the existence of the conspiracy in statements that snubbed the minister as well as others.

Interview that set the ball rolling

The minister highlighted that the plan was made when the two marches — the ‘Azadi March’ by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the Inqlab March by Pakistan Awami Tehreek — entered Islamabad in August 2014.

In his interview to the BBC, one year after the two marches set forth from Lahore towards Islamabad, the minister claimed that the plan made by the then head of ISI General Zaheerul Islam Abbasi was aimed at creating unrest and chaos.

“Telephone discussions of the former intelligence head have been recorded in which he was giving directions on how to create chaos and take over the PM’s house,” Senator Mushahidullah claimed in the interview.

He then added that these telephone conversations were recorded by the civil intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which reports to the interior ministry.

Senator Mushahidullah also told the BBC that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif played the telephone recordings for the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Raheel Shareef, during their meeting on August 28, 2014.

After this, the minister claimed, the horrified army chief made his director general of ISI listen to the tapes. In his interview the minister further elaborated that after listening to the audio recording the army chief called in the head of the intelligence agency and got the tape played.

“General Abbasi was asked by the army chief if the voice was his or not? And receiving the confirmation from him, the head of the intelligence agency was asked to leave the meeting,” Senator Mushahidullah stated in his interview.

The minister even said that the government had received several other reports that the conspiracy prepared at that time in this connection would have a “bloody and destructive outcome”.

“The conspiracy was not only to target the civil government led by Nawaz Sharif but it was even against the army chief,” he said, “The action plan was to create a deep rift between the PM and the army chief so that the prime minister may take action against Gen Raheel Sharif and then some people would come into action.”

Unsurprisingly, the interview caused immediate controversy.

What had preceded the interview?

In order to understand the attention the interview garnered, it is important to point out that such rumours had been doing the rounds since last year -- about then DG ISI General Zaheerul Islam being behind the sit-in by PTI and PAT; how the conspiracy was nipped in the bud by a democracy loving General Raheel Sharif; and how the government of PML-N was saved.

These rumours had died down as other events took place but they appeared to have made a comeback since the judicial commission’s report was announced, declaring the elections free and fair.

Shortly after the report came out, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who is known to say the “wrong thing at the wrong time” where the army is concerned, caused a small storm when he named General Zaheerul Islam and others of having been behind the sit-ins. This was the first time a government official had identified an army official instead of simply pointing the finger at unknown generals.

Later, the prime minister’s brother and chief minister Punjab also called for an inquiry into the factors behind the sit-in.

This set more alarm bells ringing.

Observers and commentators pointed out that the PML-N government was deliberately gunning for the retired army officials including General Zaheerul Islam. The combined statements of the defence minister and the chief minister were seen as a party policy that enjoyed the prime minister’s approval.

In addition, some news reports also once again referred to these audio tapes that proved the DG ISI’s guilt. A PTI member said in one interview that the plan was to make the prime minister so nervous that he would try and remove the army chief (as he had tried in 1999) and thus ‘provoke’ the military to carry a coup.

The unease in Pindi

There is no doubt that the military was deeply uncomfortable with such statements.

As more than one observer pointed out, if these statements were being made and there was no response from the military, it strengthened the perception that General Raheel Sharif and General Zaheerul Islam were not on the same page. Why else would the military allow multiple statements accusing a retired general of instigating a coup?

When a senior military officer was asked about the institution’s silence in the wake of the statement by the defence minister, he argued that any reaction from the military would not serve the democratic set-up well.

He, however, hinted that the some within the federal government had been informed of the unease in the military.

However, on Friday, it seems as if the PML-N Senator caused far too much unease.

The denials begin

It was the government that swung into action first.

The media wing of prime minister’s secretariat denied Mushahidullah’s statements including the notion that the PM played any tape in front of anybody.

It also added that Senator Mushahidullah had been asked to clarify his position over his statement.

After that the minister as well as the information minister spoke to television channels to deny the interview. Senator Mushahidullah went so far to say that he simply repeated rumours he had heard from here and there.

But clearly, their efforts did not satisfy the military because at midnight, the DG ISPR took to his preferred social media platform, twitter, and tweeted that “The story about any tape recording as being discussed in media is totally baseless and farthest from truth...Such rumours are irresponsible and unprofessional”.

While this will stop some of the rumour mongering for the time being, the more important question about the state of the civil- military relations will continue to be discussed. And the prime minister has his ministers to thank for that.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2015

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