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Pakistan’s ‘Neutrals’ Versus ‘Patriot’ Slugfest – OpEd

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Unlike his predecessor Lt Gen Faiz Hameedwho revelled in publicity [remember his tea sipping photo in Kabul just days after Taliban had seized power], the current ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum appeared to be a mysterious spymaster belonging to the old-school who preferred to remain in the shadows. At least that’s what everyone thought, because soon after taking charge of the ISI, there were rumours that he had instructed Pakistani authorities not to release his images or video footage to the media.

When the Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office released a photograph of a luncheon hosted by the then Prime Minister Imran Khan in honour of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, viewers were astonished to find that it had been ‘photoshopped’ to remove the image of the ISI chief and this lent further credence to Lt Gen Anjum’s predilection for anonymity. To some, the ISI chief’s fondness for obscurity may appear odd, but this practice isn’t uncommon in the cloak-and-dagger world. Rameshwar Nath Kao who founded India’s external spy agency RAW too avoided being photographed and didn’t even pose for the camera during wedding ceremonies of friends or relatives. 

So, when the ISI chief decided to address a press conference, even most seasoned Pakistan watchers and analysts were taken by surprise. Besides the public appearance of the reticent and elusive ISI chief for a presser being unexpected, this is also the first instance in Pakistan’s history of an ISI chief holding a press conference, which is really intriguing. The ISI is guilty of many extremely serious security lapses, which have both had national and international repercussions. Yet, be it the assassination of Benazir Bhutto or embarrassment caused by the fact that Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden was living comfortably just a stone’s throw from the country’s prestigious Pakistan Military Academy, a DGISI never addressed the media to explain the army’s side of the story.

Like all other branches of the armed forces, ISI too relies on Pakistan army’s media wing ISPR to convey its intended message to the people. It was only when things got a bit too ‘hot’ and irrefutable evidence squarely put ISI in the dock, that this spy agency broke protocol by directly going to the media. This happened in 2011, after the abduction and extrajudicial killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad.  However, even then never did an ISI chief ever appear personally before the media even when the entire country was

One had expected that in his presser, the ISI chief would apprise the media of serious internal and external security challenges facing Pakistan that the army’s spy agency had unearthed. Instead, Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in Kenya and former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s anti army rant were the only issues covered. Even with such a restricted agenda, the chief of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency and DGISPR still couldn’t put across their point of in a coherent and convincing manner. In short, both the Pakistan army’s intelligence and media chiefs were a big disappointment.

Though high on rhetoric, attempts made by DGISI and DGISPR to deny complicity in journalist Sharif’s murder and demonise Khan lacked substance and hence misfired. For example, rather than dwelling on the killing of the scribe, DGISPR focussed more on who influenced journalist Sharif to flee Pakistan. Accusing PTI for his flight suggested, ISI made a pathetic case to suggest that Khan and his party were responsible for sending the journalist to his death. It thus became apparent that a deliberate attempt was being made absolve the ISI in this murder through DGISPR’s pet two-pronged stratagem of obfuscation and blame-shifting. So, rather than allay suspicions, DGISPR’s bombast has only created more doubts in the minds of the people.

Similarly, by using the tone and tenor of a petty politician rather than a dignified discourse expected from an army General while discrediting Khan, the ISI chief has not only ended up demolishing Rawalpindi’s tall claims of being politically “neutral” and the army having nothing to do with politics, but indirectly validated these very accusations repeatedly being made by Khan. That any attempt to deny ISI involvement in the killing of a Pakistani journalist and tarring Khan would backfire was expected all along. That’s why DGISI’s decision to address a press conference on these issues is tantamount to shooting Pakistan army in the foot is to say the least, inexplicable.

Attempts to soup-up the press conference through large media presence and trying to give this event the semblance a highly open and interactive session by a question-and-answer session didn’t help. While the attendance was impressive, the fact that some major media groups like Dawn and Express Tribune [known for objective and balanced reporting] were conspicuous by their absence, which clearly indicated that the ‘establishment’ had ensured that the audience didn’t have those who could ask hard questions. Additionally, observers didn’t fail to notice that that only questions which would elicit answers that showed Khan in poor light were posed by the journalists present. 

So, what could be Rawalpindi’s compulsions to conduct a presser that it knew would do Rawalpindi no good?

Analysts opine that Rawalpindi is perturbed by Khan’s continuing anti-army tirade, which it fears can create public consensus against Pakistan army’s unrestrained interference in functioning of other institutions. It also apprehends that Khan’s growing popularity amongst the masses could well translate into a landslide electoral victory and end Rawalpindi’s ‘self-legitimised’ practice to ‘select’ prime ministers of its own choice. While these factors are definitely prodding Rawalpindi to adopt a more combative approach to counter Khan’s vitriolic utterances against the army in general and the army’s top General in particular.

A lesser discussed issue that’s compelling Rawalpindi to cross swords with Khan in what’s turning out to be an ugly political- military confrontation, is the American angle. While the cricketer turned politician’s allegation of Washington having orchestrated his ouster is downright incredulous, there can be no two views that Rawalpindi is extremely concerned by the way Khan’s “foreign conspiracy” allegation is whipping up anti-US frenzy within the country. 

Despite its internal turmoil, Pakistan has still worked wonders lately. it has not only secured a long pending $450-million worth F-16 maintenance and refurbishment package from the US, but also got IMF loans released. it has even exited the FATF’s grey list. However, all these spectacular successes aren’t the result of Islamabad’s deft diplomacy or due to a change of heart in Washington. It’s merely payback from the US for ISI’s leaking the location of Al Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s hideout in Kabul and Rawalpindi permitting the drone that killed him to overfly Pakistani airspace. So, while the common Pakistani thinks that the country can do without any aid from the US, Gen Bajwa much better. 

The reality is that despite apportioning a lion’s share of the national budget, Pakistan army still can’t do without assistance from Washington and hence needs to keep Uncle Sam in good humour. So, it’s in the army’s interest that anti-US sentiments in Pakistan are supressed and thus, even after Gen Bajwa hangs his uniform, Rawalpindi’s no holds barred verbal duel with Khan is not likely to end! Lastly, let’s not forget that what we are witnessing isn’t a personal duel between Khan and Gen Bajwa- its total war between the army desperate to appease Washington and those hellbent on sabotaging its efforts by fanning anti-US feelings in Pakistan. 

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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