Burnt bridges

Published October 28, 2022

THE establishment on Thursday reached for the nuclear option as it attempted to reassert itself ahead of the PTI’s announced long march on Islamabad. Smarting from recent allegations and insinuations of its involvement in the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif, the military brought out its big guns to respond.

For the first time in the country’s history, the DG ISI, the chief spymaster of the country’s premier intelligence agency, addressed the public in a joint press conference alongside the military’s spokesman.

Saying he was “forced” to make an appearance and set the record straight because his institution and its people were being relentlessly attacked, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, who otherwise prefers working away from the cameras, expressed at length his indignation at those slandering the armed forces.

“When lies are being spoken so easily, fluently, and without inhibition from one side that there is a danger of chaos and upheaval in the country, the truth cannot remain unspoken for too long,” he said about his decision to speak out.

The two generals dismantled the PTI’s post-ouster narrative. “Calling someone a traitor, or Mir Jaffar or Mir Sadiq without proof cannot be condemned enough,” the spy chief remarked. “It is an allegation that is 100pc based on lies.”

No punches were pulled as the DG ISI dismissed the Cablegate controversy and condemned the PTI for targeting the army leadership.

“They are not traitors. They did nothing unconstitutional or illegal. The [allegation of treachery] was levelled only because they refused to do something unconstitutional and illegal.”

The spy chief revealed that the army chief was offered an unlimited extension in March in return for thwarting the vote of no-confidence. “The offer was made in front of me,” he said. “If you thought your [army chief] was a traitor, why would you do that?” he asked.

Read more: COAS says army to remain 'apolitical', not seeking another extension

He also confirmed that two meetings had been held since then, with President Arif Alvi acting as mediator, and that in both meetings, Mr Khan had been told that whatever he desired would have to be sought through the Constitution and the law. It is likely that Mr Khan pushed the army to pressure the government to call early elections in those meetings.

The fact that the DG ISI himself had to address a press conference to counter the PTI’s narrative suggests that attempts at backdoor negotiations have been all but exhausted. Attempts to negotiate a compromise between the PTI and the PDM, silence Mr Khan or make him back off appear, for now, to have failed. The establishment has, in strategy terms, now ‘climbed the escalation ladder’.

The DG ISPR said in the press conference that internal instability is currently the biggest threat to the country. This appears to be a warning for the PTI not to consider taking any measures that may disrupt the status quo through its long march.

It is stunning how spectacularly the PTI and the military have fallen out. There is now little question that the military establishment, especially the ISI, played a key role in bringing the PTI to power. It ‘persuaded’ the smaller parties and independents to join the party and help it form a government.

It seems that Mr Khan, out of hubris or something else, forgot those ‘services’ and started to believe that he had come to power on his own. As a consequence, the friction between the two eventually grew. When the establishment finally turned against Mr Khan, either for his refusal to toe the line or because they had decided to turn ‘neutral’, the allies and independents also parted ways and took the PTI government down with them.

Mr Khan has not been able to swallow that insult. He continues to believe that it has only been his right to govern. This thinking has been evident in the campaign he has run over the last few months. The army’s darling has now become its bête noire.

How matters will be resolved between the two is difficult to say at this stage. Perhaps realising the gravity of the situation, the PTI has been guarded in its response. Instead of going on the attack, it took a defensive posture, stressing that it has only sought an early election both privately and publicly, and intends to proceed with the long march and ensure that it remains peaceful.

Also read: ‘If institutions apolitical, why hold a press conference’: Imran raises questions on ISPR presser

It did ask, however, that if the army was apolitical, why did it need to hold this press conference? It is a question that needs to be contemplated.

Meanwhile, there are other lessons to be learnt. Due to the manner in which the establishment repeatedly interfered in political and civilian affairs over decades, the civil-military schism we see today was bound to happen. It is true that the people of Pakistan have always loved their armed forces and will continue to do so, but their love should not be considered unconditional.

It is there for those who give their blood to protect the country against its enemies, not for those who manipulate the country’s political system. We sincerely hope that at least this one lesson has finally been learnt from the situation.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022

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