Road to nowhere?

The Long March may not achieve what its organizers want


The press conference by the DG ISPR was routine. What was not routine was his companion, a fellow lieutenant-general, the DG ISI. Officers of that rank shy away from the press, more so the DG ISI, with the current incumbent having ordered that he did not want even his image to appear in the media, perhaps in the tradition of British heads of MI5 and MI6, whose names even never disappeared in the press, and who were only identified by an initial.

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When any official, outside of press relations or public relations, holds a press conference, questions are bound to be raised. Either the official concerned is hungry for publicity, or does not trust the press department to handle the messaging properly. As the present DG is quite the opposite of a publicity hound, suspicion of the second arises. However, the DG ISI was able to bear personal witness to one of his claims, which the DG ISPR could not, and if he had made the claim, he would not have been speaking from personal experience.

This was the assertion that Imran Khan, while still PM, had offered COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa a lifetime extension in office, just before the vote of no-confidence against him, if he helped him avert it. The DG ISI claimed to have been present at this meeting. Apart from this, there was nothing which required his presence, which could not have been competently handled by the DG ISPR.

Indeed, the briefing could have conceivably been carried out by the federal Information Minister, but then the press conference might have been dismissed as a pre-Long March tirade. As a matter of fact, though the Long March had already started, and though it was the Interior Minister, not the Information Minister, who held the press conference, the audio clip of former federal minister Ali Amin Gandapur, in which he planned to bring weapons into Islamabad on the Long March’s arrival, was taken as a partisan claim.

The presence of the DG ISI, and the timing of the press conference, was meant to serve as a comment on the Long March. Short of the COAS personally appearing, there was little that could be done further. This was clearly an expression of support to the government, and message to Imran, that the military would not support the goal of the Long March, which are fresh elections.

The offer of a lifetime extension was unheard-of anywhere in the last century, the only possible parallel being Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke, who remained Chief of the General Staff of Germany for 30 years, from 1857 to 1888. But then, he did achieve the victory of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Like Pakistan’s COAS, the German CGS commanded the German Army.

It had already been noted that, compared to the 2014 dharna, Imran lacked institutions’ support and money. The DGs’ press conference showed that he faced active opposition from the establishment, not just because he had been bad for it, but because he tried to divide the institution.

At another level, the press conference could be seen as a mea culpa, an addition of guilt and an apology. It was as if the military had realised that meddling in politics was a bad idea, and had decided to stay out. It seems that the military has taken Imran as a cautionary tale. He was the best that the establishment could get. And all he did was earn a bad name for the institutions. And he wanted to interfere in postings, something which the military has never tolerated.

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It is worth noting that Imran’s ire, which had been concentrated on the military, has further narrowed down to the ISI, and even individual ISI officers.

Going by the press conference, it almost appears as if the military had ralized that interfering was a mistake. However, the history of the ISI in politics goes back to the Bhutto era, though its really big break came in the Zia era. Not only did the ISI expand hugely to handle the Afghan jihad, but the military needed a political tool which would keep the PPP under control. Nawaz Sharif was initially patronized, but fell out of favour.

Gen Ziaul Haq had taken the military back into politics, from which it had withdrawn because of the loss of East Pakistan. However, it came back because of the mess that politicians were making. And under |Zia, memories were revived of the glory days of the Ayub era.

The Ayub era produced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Zia era Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and the Musharraf era Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. Imran was not just popular but obedient, and so was chosen to head a hybrid regime.

The senior echelons of the establishment. Some constituents, both senior and junior, developed the belief that Imran was the real thing, who would allow the establishment to rule, while maintaining a civilian facade. However, the economic collapse he was presiding over had brought about great blame for the establishment. Because the PDM consists of parties which have established themselves,

It is possible that the establishment realised that its attempts to interfere were self-defeating. Whoever was chosen, ultimately rebelled. Was it worth the obloquy to get a few plums? The establishment may have realised that politicians are bound to attempt to get the power of appointing anyone who controls their majority. If the ISI determines their fate, they will not be happy until they appoint its head. If the COAS insists that he make the appointment, then they will want to appoint the COAS. Actually, that is the corner into which the establishment has painted itself. It wants the sort of independence of the political leadership that the judiciary has. There is no chance of a politician picking a Chief Justice out of turn; even though it cannot claim to lack input into the appointment process, and it is only by foresight and planning that the government might be able to get its own CJP in after a couple of decades. Politicians on a five-year election cycle do not have that sort of patience.

The DG ISI let slip something significant: that the move to withdraw from politics had the support of the Army’s future leadership for the next 15 years. In other words, the decision had been approved by the formation commanders’ conference. It is true that the future COAS to be appointed in 2040, was at the formation commanders’ conference, a recently promoted major-general.

One of the things that should have greeted the Long March would have been the publicising of a new round of audio and video clips, including the compromising videos of Imran. However, so far they have been held back, and rightly so. That such videos exist is widely assumed to be the case, but non-publication has left it to the prurience of the individual imagination rather than confronting the public with the reality of sound and images. Imran had prepared for these videos by claiming in advance that they were the product of ‘deep fake’ technology. While committed supporters will buy that explanation, the PTI would fear the effect on the PTI-leaning-but-still-uncommitted voter.

Perhaps what saved the nation from that particular trauma was the mediocre reviews the Long March has been getting, and the fact that after those videos, the establishment would have nothing to threaten him with, so as to stop a sit-in for example, or for violence in the capital.

It had already been noted that, compared to the 2014 dharna, Imran lacked institutions’ support and money. The DGs’ press conference showed that he faced active opposition from the establishment, not just because he had been bad for it, but because he tried to divide the institution.


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