ISI chief speaks publicly on political crisis

In rarest of the rare occasions in Pakistan’s history, the country’s spymaster made a public appearance at a news conference on Thursday, providing insight into the brewing political crisis in the country.


Flanked by chief military spokesperson Lt-Gen Babar Iftikhar, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt-Gen Nadeem Anjum spoke about closed-door discussions between the military leadership and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan.


Gen Nadeem also made startling revelations that how Imran, in order to save his government, offered Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to continue as the army chief for an indefinite period, which Gen Bajwa refused.


He went on to say that the real reasons behind the former prime minister’s outburst against the military leadership was that Gen Bajwa and his institution refused to play any unconstitutional role.


In their press talk, the DGs of the ISI and the ISPR also dilated on the cipher controversy, the alleged US conspiracy, secret meetings with Imran and the allegations related to the killing of prominent journalist Arshad Sharif.


Since his appointment as the head of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, Gen Nadeem kept a low profile and stayed away from the limelight. But on Thursday, he became the first spymaster to address a live news conference.


At the auditorium of the General Headquarters (GHQ), the journalists were stunned, while the ISPR DG announced at the end of his opening remarks that the DG ISI would also join the news conference.


“I know you are shocked to see me amongst yourself, and I can understand your surprise. My policy on my pictures and public appearances has been clear for the past year to which my agency and I strictly adhere,” Gen Nadeem said.


“But today is a different day, I am not here for myself but for my institution, whose soldiers and officers sacrifice their lives every day for this country. Especially, I have come here for my agency, whose officers and agents all over the world protect this country 24 hours a day,” he added.


“I cannot remain silent when they are made targets of uncalled-for criticism on the basis of lies, then as the leader of this institution, I cannot remain silent. You should know that this narrative has been 100 per cent constructed on the basis of lies,” the ISI chief told reporters.


Gen Nadeem said that “calling someone Mir Jaffar, Mir Sadiq, traitor, neutral and an animal” was not because the ISI or the army chief were disloyal or because the army chief did something unconstitutional or unlawful.


“It is because he [army chief], his institution, refused to do something unconstitutional and unlawful,” Gen Nadeem said, adding that the army as an institution last year took a considered decision not to get involved in politics.


He said that last year, the establishment decided to confine itself to its constitutional role. He stressed that it was not an individual’s decision. “This was not just a decision on part of the COAS,” he said.


Gen Nadeem revealed that in March, the army chief was offered an indefinite extension to his tenure “in front of me”. He also posed a question: “If you think he is a traitor, then why did you meet him in secret.”


“It cannot be that you meet the chief in the darkness of the night and express your constitutional and unconstitutional desires, you can express them, that’s fine, but don’t then go out during the day and call him a traitor.”


At the outset of the news conference, the chief military spokesperson questioned the events leading to senior journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in Kenya and the narrative that followed the “unfortunate incident”.


Lt-Gen Babar said that the purpose of the news conference was to ensure “facts, fiction and opinion can be differentiated” and added that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was also informed about the sensitive nature of the media talk.


“It is necessary to determine the factors through which a particular narrative was formed and the people were misled,” said the army spokesperson. He regretted that the army chief was also targeted and faced criticism.


“An attempt was made to create a divide in the society,” Lt-Gen Babar said. He pointed out that Arshad was an investigative journalist and did numerous shows when the issue of the diplomatic cipher arose. In connection with this, he met the then prime minister several

times and conducted interviews, he said.


“It is very important to determine the facts regarding the cipher and Arshad Sharif’s death…to ensure the people know the truth,” the chief military spokesperson added.


The cipher


“As far as the cipher is concerned, the army chief himself raised the topic on March 11 at Kamra, to which the former prime minister said it was not a big issue”, Lt-Gen Babar Iftikhar said.


He added that it was “surprising” for the army when a piece of paper was waived on March 27 and “an attempt was made to build a narrative that was far from reality”.


Terming the cipher “baseless and unfounded”, the military spokesman said the National

Security Committee (NSC) found no proof regarding a conspiracy against the PTI government and neither did the ISI.


“This is all part of the record and we wanted these findings to be in front of the people,” he said. He added that it was then left to the then government to make public the ISI’s findings regarding the cipher, but “that was not done”.


“In fact, more rumours and fake news were spread with the aim of gaining political benefits, and a narrative was pushed that the constitutional and legal vote of no confidence was an attempt at regime change,” Lt-Gen Babar said.


“Pakistan’s institutions, especially the military leadership, were targeted and everything was linked to treason and the regime-change operation.”


Gen Babar said Arshad Sharif and other journalists were later fed a particular narrative and “an attempt was made to defame Pakistan and the country’s institutions across the world”.


He further said that during the “media trial, ARY news channel played the role of a spin-doctor in targeting the army and promoting a false narrative” and the NSC meeting was presented in the wrong context.


He said the words “neutral and apolitical” were turned into abuse. “The army chief and the institution showed restraint and we tried our level best that politicians sit together to resolve their issues, but this did not transpire.”


Gen Babar further said that it was also alleged that the cipher “was hidden”. He then asked if such was the case, what action was taken against those who tried to hide the diplomatic communication.


Referring to the comments made by the slain journalist earlier against the institution, the military spokesperson clarified that the army “did not have any negative sentiments about him [Arshad] and there are no such feelings now”.


He mentioned that many other journalists were also discussing the cipher and remained in Pakistan, and they also raised very tough questions, which was their constitutional right.
During the entire cipher drama, he said, whenever “we talked with any channel, we asked them to not label the institution’s leadership as traitors on the basis of fake stories” and to not turn the army’s apolitical stance controversial.


Arshad’s death


DG ISPR said the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) had issued a threat letter, on the directives of the provincial executive, on August 5 which claimed that the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) group was planning to target the journalist in Rawalpindi.


He added that no information was shared with the federal government or the agencies regarding “who” provided the information to the provincial government or “why”.


“This implies that the threat alert was issued with a specific thought, which perhaps had the objective of making Arshad Sharif leave the country,” said Gen Babar. “There were reports that he [Arshad] did not want to leave the country but was constantly reminded that his life was in danger.”


Revealing more details, he said that PTI leader Shahbaz Gill, on August 8, gave a statement on ARY News on the country’s institutions, for which he was condemned and arrested.


He added that ARY News senior staffer Ammad Yousaf was also arrested and during the investigation, it was revealed that the CEO of the news channel had asked Ammad to send Arshad abroad following Gill’s arrest.


“During this time, a narrative was formed that Arshad Sharif would be murdered abroad,” he said, adding that a ticket for Arshad was booked for Dubai by an employee of the ARY Group.


“On August 10, he [Arshad] left Peshawar airport through PK-637 for Dubai and during his departure, the authorities did not try to stop Arshad Sharif,” he said, adding that the journalist was provided “complete protocol” by the K-P government and he remained in the UAE “until he held a valid visa”.


The military spokesperson reiterated that the journalist was not “forced” to leave Dubai at the governmental level and asked who could have urged Arshad to leave the country.
He also questioned as to who looked after the slain journalist’s stay in the Gulf country and told him repeatedly to leave for Kenya. “He left for Kenya when the visa expired,” Gen Babar said and added that there were 34 countries with visas on arrival for Pakistani passports, so why Kenya was chosen as a destination.


Gen Babar raised further questions regarding the journalist’s stay in the east African country and who was hosting him. “Who was he in contact within Pakistan and what role do Waqar and Khurram Ahmad play in his death?”


“Did they know Arshad from before, or did someone get them in touch? Some people also claimed meeting Arshad Sharif in London, who were these people, and who asked them to make such claims?”


He further asked if the claims were also part of fake news and the misinformation campaign. “Arshad Sharif died in a faraway place and Kenya police did not recognise him. So who was the first person to get news of his death and by whom?”


“Kenyan police accepted their mistake and it has yet to be examined whether this is a case of mistaken identity or of targeted killing,” he said. “Therefore, the government has been requested to form a high-level inquiry commission”.


Gen Babar also said that ARY CEO Salman Iqbal “should be brought back to Pakistan” and made a part of the probe as his name has surfaced repeatedly.


“It has to be determined who exactly benefited from his [Arshad’s] killing,” said the military spokesperson as he referred to the finger-pointing at the army.


“It’s your responsibility now to unearth the facts and bring them to light. We have to wait for the report from the inquiry commission.” Babar added that until the report was released, it was not appropriate to make allegations.


Lt-Gen Babar Iftikhar requested the people to “trust their institutions”. “This is your army. If we have made mistakes in the past, we have been washing them with our blood for the past 20 years. We will never fail the people of Pakistan, this is our promise,” said the military



“We can be weak or make mistakes, but can never be a traitor or conspirator. The army is nothing without the people.”


Responding to a question regarding criticism of the military and associated press freedoms, the DG ISPR said that “just as Pakistan’s Constitution grants the freedom of expression, it also does not grant the right for character assassination and especially the Pakistani Constitution also does not grant the right to speak against institutions”.
“And when somebody does that we have always approached the government. It is not our prerogative to take action, all we can do is request the government.”


“There was no danger to the life of Arshad Sharif in Pakistan,” said ISI DG Gen Nadeem, after he admitted that there might have been “some opposition to his political leanings”.
“He was in contact with the establishment and my own institution when he was here and even when he went out of the country he maintained contact. In fact this month, he was in touch and wished to return to the country” he added.


“We are not fully satisfied” with the Kenyan official’s initial claims that “this was an accident that occurred due to mistaken identity,” the ISI chief said.


Army chief’s appointment


Answering a question on possible propaganda against the military in attempts to influence the selection of a new army chief in November, the ISPR DG said that “criticism is everyone’s right”.


“We have never had an issue with criticism as an institution. We only have an issue when criticism enters the domain of propaganda and fake news. That is something we need to avoid because we don’t have a forum where these things can be addressed on a daily basis.”


“As far as the selection of the new army chief is concerned, it will happen on time and as per the constitutionally defined method. There should be no doubt about that,” added Gen Babar.


“I have already said that it is the constitutional right of every Pakistani that they freely express their opinions, even if that opinion is my own criticism and I will repeat this for you: It is my duty to respect that right and as a soldier and spy I am ready to protect that right,” Gen Nadeem said.


“You criticize us, by all means, do it day and night, but ask what I did for the country and the nation, not what I did for your or your own political gains,” added the intelligence chief.
“If I am not meeting the nation’s expectations then please criticise me. I will happily bring improvement in my work. You have a right to an opinion, but don’t manufacture facts.”


Long march


Responding to another question about the PTI’s upcoming long march, Gen Babar said “coming to Islamabad, participating in a long march and protesting is a constitutional right. I don’t think that is a risk to the country’s safety”.


“If people go and assemble somewhere or gather in a constitutional manner, that should not worry anyone,” he continued. “I will tell you this much, we will not allow anyone to destabilise Pakistan, that should be very clear to everyone.”


The ISI DG also added that “the Pakistani Constitution grants fundamental rights to its citizens, one of which is the right to protest, therefore, we should not oppose anyone’s long march, sit-in, or protest”.
“The Supreme Court has allowed the government to use whatever resources it has to maintain the law and order situation and what the COAS stated earlier is definitely correct, that he will not allow anyone to bring political or economic instability to the country,” he added.


However, he said that danger always stood when so many people gathered the terrorist organisations and other anti-state elements would want to take advantage of it.
“It is our duty to provide security … and if the Pakistan army needs to be called in by Article 245 by the government – as is its right – then the military will help the government to control the situation.”


When asked about the impact of the former ruling party’s long march on the prime minister’s upcoming foreign visits, the ISPR DG said that “in democracies all over the world, such upheavals come and go”.


However, he added that “this does not mean that the government in any way holds any less merit, whoever holds the office is the prime minister of Pakistan”. He added: “I don’t think there needs to be too much alarm over it, this happens in democracies.”

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