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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Pakistan May be Headed to More ‘Neutrals’-instigated Turmoil

An elaborate strategy was finalized at a meeting of the top military brass to influence the July 17 Punjab bye-elections, prepare a favorable public opinion for General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension in service, strengthen MQM in Karachi, rebuild the army's public image and intensify the crackdown on the dissenting journalists, social media producers and influencers. Analysts say if true and implemented, this strategy will prove to be dangerous, divisive, and destabilize Pakistan even more.

By A Correspondent

Pakistan may be drifting towards more political instability if the reports coming out of GHQ are true. (Photo courtesy Mustafa Abdullah Baloch — @MustafaBaloch_ Twitter account)

Click here to read this article’s Urdu translation.

Pakistan could potentially sink into a deeper political crisis if the reports making the rounds in the country turn out to be true. While the mainstream media of the country is largely compromised or facing pressures from the powers that be, an expanding universe of digital media is emerging as the main source of (dis)information. It depends on whom one follows but there is growing evidence that the reporting by independent vloggers is being accepted as more credible than the one being produced by the mainstream media.

It is in this backdrop that reports have emerged of a more calibrated strategy having been approved by the country’s powerful top brass at a meeting held in Rawalpindi in the first week of July. If the grapevines and the Pakistan-based sources are to be believed and if the new strategy is implemented, analysts in Islamabad fear, Pakistan will sink deeper into a political crisis. An unstable nuclear-armed Pakistan is already unnerving many capitals in the West.

The operation “get PTI” is not just limited to Punjab. Even a strategy has reportedly been finalized to resurrect MQM in Karachi.

According to these sources, the said meeting was reportedly held at GHQ and chaired by the military’s top brass and attended among others by the head of the ISI, Corp Commander Rawalpindi General Azhar Abbas besides ISI’s sector commanders of Punjab and Islamabad. “No civilians were invited to the meeting,” a source familiar with the meeting said on condition of anonymity.

According to the sources, the meeting discussed the country’s political situation. Top intelligence and security officials gave detailed briefings on the political situation, especially with reference to the July 17th bye-elections to the 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly.

Stakes are very high for all the players in Pakistan’s murky politics. If former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf wins the majority seats in the crucial bye-elections, it will bring down the military-backed government of Mian Hamza Sharif in Punjab province and his father-lead federal government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. All the public opinion polls are projecting PTI to win majority of the seats up for grab unless the ballot is rigged.

Khan has been accusing the “neutrals”, “Mr. X” and Mr Y” of joining the alleged US-backed conspiracy to bring his government down and also help Shahbaz Sharif-lead PDM government not just survive but also manipulate the upcoming bye-elections for Punjab Assembly in the government’s favor. It’s known to all and sundry that the “neutrals”, “Mr. X” and “Mr. Y” are clear references to Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.

Fusion Cell has been created at ISI headquarters in Islamabad where efforts shall be made for coordinated efforts between Brig. Muhammad Faheem Raza, Sector Commander ISI Islamabad, and Brig Rashid Naseer, Sector Commander ISI Punjab, on the bye-elections and weakening PTI: Sources

The sources in Pakistan confirmed that elaborate plans have been charted out to influence the July 17 bye-elections results. “Fusion Cell has been created at ISI headquarters in Islamabad where efforts shall be made for coordinated efforts between Brig. Muhammad Faheem Raza, Sector Commander ISI Islamabad, and Brig Rashid Naseer, Sector Commander ISI Punjab, on the bye-elections and weakening PTI,” the sources claimed.

These sources further claimed that Brig Rashid is taking direct orders from the PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz and Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Sharif for “political engineering” during the by-elections elections. “Marryam even asks him to screw bloggers and YouTubers who are against the PDM narrative,” the sources added. It may be pointed out that Maryam Nawaz is a convict and her cousin Hamza Sharif is still facing massive corruption charges in Pakistani courts.

The operation “get PTI” is not just limited to Punjab. Even a strategy has reportedly been finalized to resurrect MQM. “Sector Commander Sindh Brig Muhammad Umar has been tasked to work on the unification of all MQM groups and PSP,” the sources claimed. If these claims are true then history may be repeating itself like in the 1980s when the then military dictator General Ziaul Haq was accused of propping up MQM to blunt the political power of Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi?

MQM leader Babar Ghauri’s sudden return to Pakistan and exit after clearance in a hate speech case has raised many eyebrows.

This time the target seems to be Khan’s PTI which won majority seats from Karachi in the last elections and is expected to repeat its performance in future elections. Despite repeated operations against MQM in the past, many in Pakistan consider the party as the “B team” of the military, always doing its bidding.

Evidence again is emerging as a trend because known MQM zealots and target killers are getting relief from the courts. Babar Ghauri, the former federal minister and a known confidant of London-based MQM founder Altaf Hussain, is the latest example. Ghauri ended his seven years of exile on June 4 and was arrested at Karachi Airport upon his arrival from the US. Sindh High Court had granted Ghauri a two-week protective bail in corruption reference, money laundering, and terror financing cases.

MQM’s known target killer Ajmal Pahari

Within days, on July 13, an anti-terrorism court in Karachi ordered his release in a hate speech case. It is the same case in which MQM’s founder Altaf Hussain is also wanted. Earlier in February this year, MQM’s known target killer Ajmal Pahari, who was arrested for his alleged involvement in 100 murders, was unexpectedly released from Sukkur jail.

Another known gangster of Karachi’s Lyari neighborhood, Uzair Baloch, who has been in the custody of paramilitary Pakistan Rangers for months, has also been getting relief in different cases from the courts. So far he has been acquitted in 19 cases because of “lack of evidence”. Baloch was facing at least 59 cases of heinous crimes at the time of his arrest. Although Uzair has been acquitted in multiple cases, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the field general court-martial on charges of espionage.

Uzair Baloch has been in custody for months. Yet authorities have failed to get him convicted on any of thee charges. Baloch is known for his connections in the highest places.

The Director General of Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar has repeatedly denied the charge of the military’s interference in politics, insisting that the military is taking no sides in the ongoing crisis. “{The] Pakistan armed forces take strong exception to such unlawful and unethical practice and expect all to abide by the law and keep the armed forces out of political discourse in the best interest of the country,” the DG ISPR said in one such statement in May this year.

But if one were to gauge the credence of Gen Iftikhar’s assurances, visit Twitter and see the vocal criticism and even profanity that the soft-spoken military spokesman receives from Twitter users, the majority being Khan’s supporters and overseas Pakistanis.

Evidence of the military’s increasingly assertive role in setting the political agenda is no longer a secret. And reports of huddles with political agenda in GHQ are no longer eye-popping news. Sources in Islamabad said the early July meeting in GHQ reportedly ended with a charted strategy that, if true and implemented, is dangerous, divisive, and will destabilize Pakistan even more.

The sources claimed it was decided during the meeting that apolitical posture of the army shall be propagated in the media to prove the credentials of the Army as “neutral”. However, the premier intelligence agency’s Sector Commanders shall interact with political parties whenever required but discreetly. “Narrative shall be built in favor of Army Chief’s extension after 14 August. In this respect, ISPR has been tasked to work in tandem with the Ministry of Information,” the sources added.

DG ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar’s July 7 visit to the PTV headquarters raised many eyebrows as such visits by serving generals are a rare occurrence. An official statement said the meeting discussed preparations for the diamond jubilee celebrations of Pakistan’s creation in a befitting manner. But the sources insisted that the public agenda of the meeting aside, the military is very eager to implement its political agenda and the visit should be seen in that backdrop.

“Gen Bajwa has decided to seek extension, and make Lt. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza as the next Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and General Azhar Abbas as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US after his retirement,” the sources added.

If Bajwa’s reported desire for an extension becomes a reality, it will belie the repeated denials by General Iftikhar. “Let me put this to rest. COAS is neither seeking an extension nor will he accept it. He will be retiring on time on November 22,” General Iftikhar told reporters during a press conference earlier in April this year.

The source claimed that the Rawalpindi meeting approved “expediting a crackdown” on dissenting journalists and social media activists and ISI teams shall be formed to be integrated with FIA for the purpose. “ISI teams shall use physical violence against the anti-present regime activists,” the sources claimed.

Ayaz Amir sits in his vehicle directly after being attacked in Lahore on July 1. (Credit: Twitter)

The incidence of violence against journalists is growing by the day in Pakistan. Unidentified assailants assaulted senior Pakistani journalist Ayaz Amir as he left a televised debate program in Lahore on July 1. Six unidentified assailants stopped Amir’s car, attacked him, and tore his clothing off. The attackers forced him out of his vehicle and stole his phone and money, threatening Amir and leaving him with visible bruises on his face.

The assault occurred a day after Amir criticized Pakistan’s military establishment at a seminar organized by the Islamabad High Court Bar Association. In his speech, Amir referred to army generals as “property dealers”.

A week later, Imran Riaz Khan, another critic of the military and its backed government, was arrested on trumped-up premeditated charges. The journalist is facing several sedition cases filed against him by me of shady backgrounds in Pakistan’s far-flung areas. He has been freed through court intervention but is still facing more charges. The same is the fate of other journalists, like Sabir Shakir, Sami Ibrahim, Dr. Moeed Pirzada, and Arshad Shareef.

It is clear from the data that the armed forces have launched a major campaign to intimidate critical journalists. This kind of interference, which is absolutely intolerable, must stop at once or else the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be held directly responsible for the decline in press freedom in Pakistan: Reporters Sans Frontiers

International press freedom organizations like Reporters Sas Frontiers have condemned Islamabad’s crackdown on the media. “After registering nine cases of intimidation of Pakistani journalists by army-related agencies since Shehbaz Sharif took over as prime minister in late April, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cautions the army high command against further harassment of the media, which would seriously undermine Pakistani democracy,” RSF said in a statement.

“The many cases of harassment that RSF has registered in the past two months have one thing in common – all the journalists concerned had, in one way or another, criticized the army’s role in Pakistani politics,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “It is clear from the data that the armed forces have launched a major campaign to intimidate critical journalists. This kind of interference, which is absolutely intolerable, must stop at once or else the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be held directly responsible for the decline in press freedom in Pakistan,” the RSF statement added.

Regulating Pakistan’s social media also came up for discussion and it was decided that new legislation shall be pushed through PDM government for regulating this media and its activist users, besides digital media influencers. The matter shall be discussed with the PDM by the military’s competent authority, the sources added

Pakistani media has been abuzz with reports that special material is being engineered to run a smear campaign against Imran Khan. The former prime minister had claimed in May this year and repeated it several times later that his political rivals are preparing material, including videos, to launch a smear campaign against him.

The sources confirmed these reports, saying that the Pindi huddle “decided that a character assassination campaign shall be initiated more vigorously against Imran Khan,” adding that the powers that be planned to exploit anti-IK elements to the maximum. It is yet to be seen if it will transpire in more institutional support for the PML (N)-lead anti-Khan campaign.

The sources said the strategy of building “army being apolitical” narratives will be part of efforts to salvage the tarnished image of COAS Gen Bajwa, who has been receiving flaks from many Pakistanis who blame him for the country’s ongoing political and constitutional crisis. Concern has been growing in the military establishment because Gen Bajwa has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Earlier, reports had appeared in the media that Gen Bajwa is a Qadiani, a charge that has been denied by his confidants. Even, a petition was filed against Bajwa in Peshawar High Court in 2019 because of his reported religious beliefs. However, the sources insist that while reports about Gen Bajwa may be incorrect there is no denying the fact that his father-in-law Maj. Gen. (Retd) Ejaz Amdjad is a known Qadiani.

Restless community

Many inside and outside Pakistan are raising the question as to what the establishment wants? What political map it may have for the future of the South Asian country, especially about the next prime minister. It looks like the establishment might have found its new blue-eyed boy. The sources said the country’s youthful foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto has emerged as the new political favorite of the establishment.

A strong military is Pakistan’s life insurance but a politicized military is the biggest threat to its security: Pakistani American

“Bajwa will make maximum efforts to make Bilawal next the next prime minister as Marryam Nawaz Sharif is immature and anti-Shehbaz Sharif Group,” added the sources.

“I care less about who becomes the prime minister in Pakistan if the process is transparent and democratic,” says Zainul Abedeen, a New York-based Pakistani American who does not hide his anger at the ongoing crisis. He says a strong military is Pakistan’s life insurance but a politicized military is the biggest threat to its security as well. “I truly hope that better sense will prevail and Pakistani generals and civilian leaders will rise above their personal, institutional, and party interests and act like patriots,” the Long Island-based Pakistani American added.

The political turmoil in Pakistan is keeping many members of the community on the edge. “Everyone is concerned about the future of the country,” Abedeen says. But he is not sure if the Pakistani establishment and the ruling elite are capable of overcoming the crisis. “Incompetence in the entire governance structure is becoming the biggest national security threat,” he says. “A divided and weak Pakistan is in no one’s interest but it certainly is the dream of our enemies. So how we will defend ourselves from outside when we cannot defend our constitution from within,” he asks.

Click here to read this article’s Urdu translation.

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