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Army will continue to exercise restraint, has no role in conduct of elections: DG ISPR

Updated June 04, 2018

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DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor addressing a press conference on Monday. — Screengrab
DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor addressing a press conference on Monday. — Screengrab

Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor addressed a wide-ranging press conference on Monday to address several key issues, including Pakistan-India relations, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, the ongoing inquiry against retired Lt Gen Asad Durrani and social media propaganda, among others.

The army spokesperson also addressed several criticisms of the military, including references to it as the khalai makhlooq (celestial beings) that subvert the democratic process and accusations that it backs or supports militants.

Seemingly unfazed by the pejorative terms used against the institution, the army spokesperson said the army would continue to exercise restraint till the criticism was limited to the institution, but would take action if people started targeting the state.

To a question on how the army responded to being referred to as 'khalai makhlooq', the army spokesperson said simply that he would reserve his comments on the matter.

"But I will comment on a matter that is linked to this. You know the environment prevalent in Pakistan right now: this is an election year. The year 2018 is a year of change. Political parties are fighting for power, and this fight has to be at each others' expense. You should not drag security forces into this.

"However we, as the forces of Pakistan, are also happy with one thing: that every allegation levelled against us has been proven wrong with time. They said there would be no election in [NA]-120; that there would be no elections for Senate; the elections won't be announced on time; the government wouldn't complete its tenure — nobody is happier [than us] that the government completed its tenure.

"Let me congratulate the ex parliament and the people of Pakistan on this: the forces of Pakistan are very happy that the second democratically elected parliament has completed its tenure and we hope this will continue in the future as well."

To a journalist's comment that the army seemed to be "exercising restraint" under Gen Bajwa, Maj Gen Ghafoor responded: "We have been tolerating a lot for Pakistan, and we will continue tolerating it for Pakistan. The day we feel [the criticism] is going to harm Pakistan, there will be no restraint. We can tolerate attacks on our person, but not on our country. I think that should be enough."

He also said the conduct of the elections was entirely the Election Commission of Pakistan's prerogative. "If the ECP is in a position is in a position to hold elections tomorrow, let it be. The army has no role in any of this," he said.

"Should the army is requisitioned for any election related task, that is another matter. Whatever task we are given we will try to fulfill to the best of our capabilities," he said.

Pakistan-India relations

Maj Gen Ghafoor had started off his briefing with an overview of the status of the Pakistan-India relationship and a recent decision between the military command of both countries to renew a 2003 ceasefire agreement.

Regretting that ceasefire violations by Indian troops at the Line of Control had been higher than usual in 2017 and 2018, he recalled that 1,881 incidents in 2017 alone had left 52 dead and 254 injured.

The number of cross border incidents had similarly climbed north of 1,500 by the first week of June in 2018 alone, he noted.

"The Indian army targeted innocent citizens [on Pakistan's side], while we responded and targeted [their] forces," he said, before explaining that the situation was not tenable and hence an agreement was reached by the two countries' directors general of military operations to avoid further conflagration and ensure that their 2003 ceasefire agreement would not be violated.

Commenting on a cross-border firing incident that occurred after the agreement was reached, the DG ISPR explained that Pakistan would not have responded to Indian firing, but was "compelled" to do so only because civilians were targeted and there were casualties on the Pakistani side.

He also complimented the Pakistani media on showing responsibility on the matter and not inciting provocation, adding that Pakistan wants to respect the truce agreement.

"We are willing to ignore the first shot that is fired from the Indian side, provided it does not result in a casualty on our side," he said. However, the second shot would be responded in kind, he said.

"The Indians have to realise and understand where they want to go [in the future]," he said. "We are two nuclear powers and there is no space for war."

"Pakistan's desire for peace should not be construed as a weakness," Maj Gen Ghafoor warned.

Afghanistan and border fencing

Turning to the situation on the western front, the DG ISPR spoke about the fencing of the border, which he termed one of the factors that would help stem illegal cross border movement and terrorist infiltration.

"More than 50pc of the Afghan territory is not in the control of their state," he noted, saying border fencing would help contain its fallout.

He also mentioned that seven Pakistani officers had been martyred in 71 incidents of firing from across the Afghan border since the fencing started, but that it would go on till the end objective is achieved.

He acknowledged the country's relations with the United States were strained, but reiterated Pakistan's stance that the army, with the help of the public, has fought terrorism and done what no other armed force in the world could manage.

"We have learned that national interest comes first and we will not compromise on that," he stressed, saying the political and military relationship would always be on the same page against any external threat.

"Nobody is more desirous of US success in Afghanistan than we are," he assured. "We want them to return successful and wish Afghanistan forms a government that reflects the will of the Afghan people."

"We will give them whatever support they need," he promised.

Addressing accusations of harbouring the Haqqani network on the Pakistan side, Maj Gen Ghafoor conceded that some residual strength may still remain but no 'stable' network existed.

"Prior to [Operation] Zarb-i-Azb it used to be a question of capacity, not resolve," he explained, saying that the operation had achieved tangible gains and eradicated most terrorist networks on this side of the border.

The army spokesperson also reiterated that the military desires respectable repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, "after which the army can target all remaining terrorist networks".

"The Americans and the Afghan officials have acknowledged our successes in Zarb-i-Azb," he also said.

The army spokesperson also said relations with Iran were progressing rapidly and security situation was improving in the south-east region.

Fata and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement

"There has been a historical and landmark achievement in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with the merger of Fata with KP," Maj Gen Ghafoor said. He credited the merger to the national civilian and military leadership coming on to the same page.

"We understand there wasn't 100pc consensus on the matter and some elders were against it. But we need to understand that the decision has been made, it is a done deal. The army chief has told the pro-merger factions that they now need to take the people who were not entirely sold on the idea on board as they move forward."

"Fata is now a part of KP, and we need to work together for its development," he said.

Maj Gen Ghafoor also spoke on the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) issue at considerable length and denied the impression that security forces were using force against PTM activists.

Recalling his first meeting with PTM leaders Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar, Maj Gen Ghafoor said he was initially approached by a journalist about a group of people, including journalists from Fata, who had staged a sit-in outside the Islamabad Press Club soon after Naqeebullah Mehsud's killing.

The DG ISPR said he had then met a group of journalists, heard them out, and assured them of action on the issues they were raising, after which they had returned to the tribal areas.

After that meeting, he said, he was told that some youth from Fata had continued their protest outside the press club. He said he then personally met Pashteen and Dawar and arranged their meetings with military officials after hearing their demands.

According to the DG ISPR, the issues put forward by Pashteen and Dawar included the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, the missing persons issue, the dumping of un-exploded ordnance and the presence of security check posts in Fata.

He added that these were all practical issues and the PTM leaders were promised that they would be looked into.

Dawar later sent him a text thanking him for the facilitation, Maj Gen Ghafoor claimed. He said he failed to understand how the PTM then moved forward with its protest after receiving assurances that the issues would be settled.

"After that, how did [Manzoor Pashteen's] name change from Manzoor Ahmed Mehsud to Manzoor Pashteen? How did this campaign start on social media, and how were 5,000 social media accounts set up in a single day in Afghanistan?" Maj Gen Ghafoor asked.

"How did one cap made abroad started being imported into Pakistan? And how did groups of 10 individuals started raising anti-Pakistan slogans? How did articles start appearing in newspapers and how did some foreign media start telecasting their protests live on Facebook and Twitter?" he asked rhetorically.

He said it was time that the PTM conducted some introspection.

"When those who are the enemies of Pakistan start praising you ... then one needs to look inside and see if what they are doing is something favourable for the country or not," he said.

The DG ISPR said they were "strictly directed" by Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa not to use force against any PTM gathering.

He recalled reports that PTM leaders had claimed they were detained before their gathering in Lahore. According to Maj Gen Ghafoor, the army chief had, upon receipt of these reports, called the authorities in Lahore and asked them to back down, desist from arresting them, and let the PTM activists speak.

"They are Pakistanis too. If they have some grievances, till such time [that] they are genuine and within the four corners of the Constitution, then we are the state and we have to deal with them," he quoted Gen Bajwa as saying.

"If the state refuses to listen to its people, then who will?" he said.

Ghafoor warned the movement, however, that "inimical forces" were exploiting PTM activists and that they were "letting themselves be exploited".

He later pointed out that data from the missing persons commission shows the number of missing persons has decreased from 7,000 to 3,000. He also said the removal of unexploded ordnance, one of the PTM's demands, was a "colossal job" which is being worked on.

Giving a rundown of last evening's incident in South Waziristan's town of Wana, the DG ISPR said PTM leader Ali Wazir had been raising anti-army and anti-state slogans before the locals for the past few days. He said the area's Aman [Peace] Committee forbade him from doing so, instead inviting him for talks with a jirga.

As the Aman Committee was waiting for PTM leaders, the movement's supports arrived there and a scuffle followed, leading to an exchange of fire between both sides.

"Ask Ali Wazir, did the FC and army not ask them to stop fighting each other?" Maj Gen Ghafoor said. He added that the casualties of the episode were evacuated through army helicopters, demonstrating the army's 'role' in the matter.

"And what is the propaganda on social media? An 8-year-old's picture is being circulated saying that she was killed last night in Wana. There has been no casualty of a child in Wana," Maj Gen Ghafoor said, rubbishing the claim.

"When you spread such propaganda, you force the state to use force against you. We do not want that."

"If you feel that insulting and bashing the Pakistan Army and making false accusations against it [makes a difference], it makes no difference to us," Ghafoor said. "We know the people are with us. Love for the army has only grown over the years for us."

"How will our soldiers man the borders if the media starts writing against him, or he is insulted in jalsas. It is very easy for us, should we return to our barracks?" he said. "If insulting the army raises your stature, please go ahead; but if it lower's Pakistan's standing, you ought to desist. I'll leave it at there."

The role of media

The army spokesperson also praised national media for playing what he called a positive role in the midst of the challenges being faced and asked 'anyone' to state on record that the army had been dictating press coverage.

"Please do tell us on your evening talk shows [if something like this has happened]. I have only said [to media owners] that Pakistan needs to come together and Pakistan needs to further its successes and strengths: please do what you can to this end," he said.

Turning to social media, however, it was clear the army is unhappy with how things have been progressing.

"Please give us this due," he said as he displayed a slide on the rapid rise in the number of social media 'troll' accounts operating in Pakistan, "The ISI a premier intelligence agency and it has checked all enemy designs. This really irks them [enemy forces]. We have the capability to monitor social media and see who's doing what."

The graph, which showed sharp increases in troll accounts spreading propaganda against the army and against the state over the January-May 2018 period. The spokesperson said such accounts now numbered 10,000.

"This will give you an idea about how social media is creating ripples among you. If we do not deal with this situation and start responding to it..." he said, before cutting off to remark: "Actually, these social media cells set up by whoever's operating them, they're just playing between themselves. A lot of Pakistanis may not have even seen these accounts, [yet they display unnaturally high activity]."

He then moved to a graphic that showed what seemed to be an individual's Twitter activity. The person was someone "who tweets against the forces and the state. But who's retweeting them?" Maj Gen Ghafoor asked, bringing attention to several blank boxes which said only "Political Figure".

"Till these tweets concern us [the army], we tolerate them. But when it comes to the state, we share these with the relevant authorities and we work on those cases too," he said.

"But what do we do about these blank spaces? They're using their own handles to retweet, praise and spread anti-state propaganda," the spokesperson said. "If we ourselves aren't careful about our use of social media, then we do not even need to get into the 10,000 accounts I just told you about."

"This social media is not a threat as of now, but a lot of countries have controlled it through mechanisms. The first is to create awareness," he warned.

"And we are grown-ups, but this is a more lethal threat for children," he added.

He also revealed that the army had reported many 'pro-army' accounts to the FIA for political posts "with a heavy heart".

"We are a symbol for unity. When you enter the armed forces, you are only Pakistanis and only Muslims."

The Spy Chronicles controversy

Addressing the matter of retired Lt Gen Asad Durrani's controversial book, Maj Gen Ghafoor assured that an inquiry was ongoing and whatever came of it would be shared with the media.

"He retired as a 3-star general, and you know the circumstances of his retirement — it was premature. He's involved in the Asghar Khan case as well," he recalled, indicating that the army was clearly unhappy with what the retired officer had done.

"As soon as the book was published, we took action."

He also noted that Durrani's book referred to incidents that took place after the former DG ISI's tenure. Nonetheless, he noted that it was not okay for the retired spy chief to use his experience to comment on matters that happened after his retirement.

"We are all human, we make mistakes. But when you make mistakes, you suffer the consequences. Pakistan Army has never forgiven any mistake, whether made by a soldier or a general. What will happen to Durrani sb will be in front of you, " he said.

He added that the reason the forces reacted so sharply to Durrani's book was because the army does not take violations of its code lightly. "Had he taken an NOC for the book, all of this would not have happened," he said.

Missing persons

In response to a question about the PTM's demands about missing persons, the DG ISPR stated that war is "not a fair game".

Military operations can be lacking, he said, adding that sacrifices have to be given during wars by people on a national and military level as well as by the residents of the area where a war takes place.

But "everybody who is not at home is not picked up by the forces," he said, and added while referencing the PTM: "And everybody who is picked up is not Pashtun. Every terrorist is not Pashtun, and not every Pashtun is a terrorist."