• DG ISPR says démarche delivered to US over ‘interference’
• Army chief won’t seek extension, set to retire in November
• Denies America sought any bases
• Says army has nothing to do with politics, Pakistan’s future lies in democracy
• Claims Imran approached establishment for mediation

ISLAMABAD: Military spokesman Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar on Thursday tried to clear the air about the alleged foreign conspiracy behind former prime minister Imran Khan’s ouster, besides announcing that Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has decided to retire on November 29 this year.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general, while speaking at a press conference, discussed the narrative being set by the PTI leaders that the party’s government was dislodged through a US-backed conspiracy as well as the smear campaign launched against the military on social media platforms.

A vicious campaign targeting the military leadership was unleashed on social media after it stayed away from helping Imran Khan foil the opposition’s no-confidence motion on the pretext of neutrality in domestic politics despite his claims that he was facing a foreign-inspired move because of his independent foreign policy.

There have not only been Twitter trends against Gen Bajwa and the army, but several allegedly fake audio messages from retired generals criticizing the current top brass were also massively circulated on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

The government, soon after Mr Khan lost the vote of confidence, launched a crackdown on PTI activists, rounding up several of them.

Gen Iftikhar, echoing the Formation Commanders who met earlier in the week, said the social media campaign against the army was “illegal, immoral, and against national interest” and vowed to not allow it to succeed.

“Any deliberate or inadvertent action meant to drive a wedge between the people and the army is against national interest and hence not acceptable. … Political parties are requested not to drag the army into politics. We want to remain out of it,” he said.

“It is very unfortunate that such language is being used for the military and its leadership,” he maintained.

The ISPR chief said the investigation by government agencies on the social media campaign had revealed the motives of those running it, besides unearthing foreign linkages.

Conspiracy allegation

The military spokesman went beyond denouncing the social media campaign and shared the military’s perspective on Imran Khan’s ‘foreign conspiracy’ mantra and his claim of refusing US bases on Pakistani soil.

For the first time since the foreign conspiracy allegation started on March 27 with Mr Khan’s speech at a public rally in Islamabad, Gen Babar suggested that the military leadership did not see eye to eye with the former government on this issue. In this regard, he specifically mentioned that the National Security Committee (NSC) had in its statement on the ‘cablegate’, unlike some political pronouncement by the PTI leaders, did not use the word “conspiracy”.

He said the military’s stance on the cable was formulated after a thorough investigation by an intelligence agency.

The NSC had noted that the message conveyed by a State Department official was tantamount to “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”.

Gen Iftikhar said the government might declassify the minutes of the NSC meeting if it wanted people to know more details about the discussions that took place on the issue.

Referring to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s speech in the National Assembly soon after his election in which he had talked about convening a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, the ISPR chief said the services chiefs could attend the parliamentary committee meeting and share the same input they gave at the NSC meeting.

Replying to a question, he said démarche was delivered to the United States over the undiplomatic language used by the State Department official as it amounted to interference in Pakistan’s domestic matters.

Regarding Imran Khan’s oft-repeated claim of saying “absolutely not” to the US request for bases on Pakistani soil after withdrawing from Afghanistan, the military spokesman said Washington had never asked for them and only a foreign journalist had discussed that possibility in an interview with the former prime minister.

On ex-PM’s Russia trip, he said, the military had also favoured the idea of Mr Khan visiting Moscow. He said no one had thought that Russian forces would launch the military operation against Ukraine during the visit. “It was very embarrassing,” he added.

Gen Iftikhar dismissed as unfounded Mr Khan’s fears about nuclear programme under the new government, which he had expressed at the Peshawar rally on Wednesday night. “The nuclear assets are not linked to any political party. The programme has progressed under successive governments, all of whom took it forward with full sincerity and loyalty,” he added.

Army’s neutral posture

Speaking about the army’s much-talked about neutrality in the latest political crisis, Gen Iftikhar said the word “neutrality” did not appropriately describe the military’s stance and “apolitical” was a better depiction.

“We have now fulfilled the longstanding demand of the political parties that the army should not involve in politics,” he said, adding that during the past two years no one had alleged army’s interference in political activities be it the by-polls or local bodies’ elections.

He said the decision was not taken to anyone’s advantage or disadvantage and would remain intact. “It is the constitutionally described role of the armed forces that we are trying to fulfil,” he asserted.

Meetings with PDM leaders

The military spokesman denied that Gen Bajwa had met any of the PDM leaders when they were planning to table the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan. He also denied speculations of any deal with them.

He said the only time Gen Bajwa had met the PDM leaders was during the political impasse that resulted after the no-confidence motion proceedings had started and that too at the request of the former prime minister for mediation.

The ISPR chief said three options were discussed in a meeting between Imran Khan, Gen Bajwa and ISI Director General Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum. The options included vote of no-confidence going ahead, resignation by the prime minister and withdrawal of the motion by the opposition followed by dissolution of the National Assembly. Mr Khan favoured the last option, but the opposition did not accept it when Gen Bajwa discussed that with the PDM leaders, he maintained.

The military spokesman also denied reports about senior officials visiting the Prime Minister House on Saturday night when the former government looked to be dragging its feet on the vote. He said an account of the visit published by BBC was “bizarre”.

In reply to a question about the Supreme Court and Islamabad High Court opening midnight last Saturday, Gen Iftikhar he said the judiciary was independent. “What happened there was their decision,” he underscored.

When asked about Gen Bajwa’s absence from PM Shehbaz Sharif’s oath-taking ceremony, he said the army chief was unwell that day. He, however, noted that political stability had begun to return with the installation of the new government as indicated by the gains for the stock market and recovery of the rupee against the dollar.

Gen Bajwa’s retirement

The military spokesman said Gen Bajwa decided to retire on the completion of his tenure on November 29. “COAS is neither seeking an extension nor will accept it, no matter what comes,” he emphasised.

Gen Bajwa had been given a second three-year tenure in 2019 by the PTI government.

Gen Iftikhar rejected the rumours about differences among senior generals on the political situation in the country. “The army works on the principle of unity of command. There has been no change and there wouldn’t be any. The army is proud of its leadership,” he said.

He also touched upon the army’s ties with the previous government, saying they had “the best of relations”. “There were no disagreements. COAS’s personal relationship with Mr Khan was very cordial and that of mutual respect and it will remain so,” he said.

The military spokesman said channels of communication between the army and the PTI would remain open and noted statements by some of the party leaders in this direction as positive.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2022

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