• Spy chief thrust into spotlight in face of ‘one-sided lies’
• Backchannel talks held with PTI to reduce ‘toxicity’
• COAS offered ‘indefinite extension’ ahead of trust vote
• DG ISPR says perception of threat to Arshad Sharif’s life created after KP govt issued alert
• Chiefs say army criticised not over illegal act, but its refusal to abandon neutrality
ISLAMABAD: With the battle of narratives in the last stretch ahead of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) ‘long march’ on Islamabad, the army and the country’s premier intelligence agency on Thursday took off their gloves and alleged that their leadership was being maligned for refusing to help former prime minister Imran Khan through “illegal and extra-constitutional means” ahead of a confidence vote in parliament earlier this year and that he attempted to entice Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa with an “indefinite extension” in a last-ditch attempt to save his government.
In an unprecedented appearance at a media conference by the spy chief, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum spoke alongside military spokesman Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar.
“I am here because my institution [army] and agency [ISI] are being maligned through lies. I could not have remained silent anymore, especially when there is a threat of discord because of one-sided lies,” Gen Anjum said at the presser, which Gen Iftikhar said was held to shed light on journalist Arshad Sharif’s killing in Kenya and the circumstances surrounding it.
“I’ve come to break the silence of truth,” said the spymaster, who, unlike his predecessors who kept a relatively high public profile, had himself decided to stay away from the media after coming to office last year.
The army has faced unprecedented criticism from PTI leaders and their supporters since the party lost the vote of no confidence in the National Assembly in April. The party, said to have enjoyed the military’s unqualified support for most of its nearly four years in office, accuses the military of doing nothing while several of its MNAs switched sides.
Mr Khan’s popularity had ebbed during his last few months in office because of inflation and economic woes, but once out of power, he successfully used the anti-military and foreign conspiracy narratives to politically rehabilitate himself by tapping into the deeply entrenched anti-establishment sentiment in the country. This narrative was mostly built through public rallies and social media, particularly viral Twitter trends and TikTok.
Gen Iftikhar, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), said during the presser: “Lies were propagated and a narrative was crafted to present the vote of no confidence — a political, constitutional and legal matter — as a regime change operation, besides maligning the institution [army].”
This, he said, was done to pressure the army to undertake political intervention, and “neutrality” and “remaining apolitical” were used as euphemisms to insult the military for staying away from politics.
‘Illegal, extra-constitutional steps’
Gen Anjum, meanwhile, said the criticism was not because “we committed treachery, it’s not because we did something illegal, something unconstitutional, it was rather because we refused to take illegal and extra-constitutional steps”.
He recalled that the decision to stay out of politics was taken last year after a thorough debate inside the army on its role in political matters.
He said Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Bajwa, who is retiring next month, had wanted to leave behind as a legacy an institution that was apolitical and non-controversial. He hoped that the army would stick to this decision in the foreseeable future because it was taken after deliberations with all those in the hierarchy who would possibly be in leadership positions in the next 15 to 20 years.
Recalling that the PTI government offered an indefinite extension to Gen Bajwa during its last days in office, the ISI chief accused PTI Chairman Imran Khan of doublespeak by holding negotiations with the military leadership behind closed doors at night while maligning them during the day — in reference to the PTI-military backchannel facilitated by President Arif Alvi as part of which even Mr Khan and Gen Bajwa met each other despite the acrimony.
He said the army decided to enter the backchannel talks with the PTI to reduce “toxicity”, restore stability and end volatility in the political environment. He disclosed that those negotiations remained inconclusive. However, he avoided disclosing what caused the stalemate and then prevented the two sides from breaking the deadlock. “It’s evil to divulge unnecessary truth,” he said.
March ‘democratic right’
The PTI has been demanding early elections, but that has not happened. The army instead nudged PTI and the ruling coalition to talk directly about the issue. No progress could be made in those parleys either. The PML-N and its allies have been adamant that they won’t call elections before the end of the tenure of the National Assembly in August next year. The PTI is now hoping to pressure the government and the army into accepting its demand through a march on the capital set to begin from Lahore on Friday (today).
Sharing the military establishment’s views on the PTI’s march, the spy chief said the right of citizens to protest was guaranteed in the Constitution and therefore there was no issue with the march or the sit-in, but political and economic instability would not be allowed.
He said the security forces would provide security to the marchers and would play their role if requisitioned under Article 245 (acting in aid of civil power) by the government.
On this occasion, Gen Iftikhar also said the march was PTI’s democratic right and it neither posed a threat to the country nor should it worry anyone. He said no one would be stopped from coming to Islamabad.
Responding to a question, the ISI chief said the country faced no external threat. The real danger, he said, was from instability because of “politics of hate and divide” that has weakened “the foundations of society and the state” and the worsening economic crisis.
He quipped that when, before his appointment as the ISI chief, he was asked about the biggest challenge facing the country, he had pointed to the economic meltdown. The questioner, he said, did not like the reply because he thought the then opposition was a greater problem.
Gen Anjum did not say who had asked him that question. It is, however, known that former premier Khan had interviewed those nominated by the army for the position.
‘No threat to Arshad Sharif’
On Arshad Sharif’s assassination — killed over the weekend when Kenyan police cops shot at the car in which he was travelling over what they said was a case of mistaken identity — the army pointed fingers at his former employer and PTI for sending him abroad on the pretext of security threats and called for a thorough investigation into his assassination in Kenya.
“It is important to transparently investigate the case,” Gen Iftikhar said, adding that the army had called for an investigation at the highest level and warning that “it would be very damaging” if the probe was not taken to a logical conclusion.
Gen Iftikhar even suggested the inclusion of international experts under the umbrella of the United Nations to uncover the truth behind Mr Sharif’s killing.
Doubts have been expressed about the Kenyan police’s account of Mr Sharif’s killing, especially because the journalist, who turned a critic of the military last year, was hiding there due to fears that he could be arrested if he were to return to his home country.
The news channel for whom he worked had parted ways with him after it was taken off air following a controversial interview.
Gen Anjum said that there was no threat to Mr Sharif’s life and that the journalist remained in touch with one of his top-ranking officers until very recently and expressed his desire to come back.
The spy chief, however, neither mentioned the spate of cases registered against Mr Sharif before his departure nor was he asked about them by the journalists attending the presser. The cases seemed to be a continuation of the arrests and harassment of journalists who had been critical of the military.
Gen Anjum said freedom of expression was a constitutional right and it was his duty to respect and safeguard it.
On the removal of an ISI officer included by the government in the team that would visit Kenya to collect information about Mr Sharif’s killing, Gen Anjum said: “I deliberately withdrew ISI nominees from the judicial commission and inquiry team for making the probe transparent.”
He said he was not “fully satisfied” with the Kenyan explanation that he was killed because of “mistaken identity”.
DG ISPR Gen Iftikhar said the perception of threats to Sharif’s life started with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government issuing a threat alert about the TTP planning to target him, but it didn’t share any information with security agencies.
Mr Sharif, he said, did not want to leave the country but was made to believe that there were threats to his life. Gen Iftikhar also mentioned his former employers making his travel arrangements and the KP government facilitating his departure.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022