In a democracy, whenever the military jumps into a political squabble, it becomes ‘breaking news’; and the moment an army General suddenly appears on TV, diplomatic hotlines between foreign embassies and their respective countries start buzzing frantically. But it is not so when these things happen in Pakistan, because such occurrences are quite normal here. In fact, Pakistan is one country where the army isn’t at all apologetic about either the extra-constitutional powers that it has unashamedly usurped, or the extensive control that it exercises over various state institutions.
So, when Director General Inter Services Public Relations [DGISPR] Major General Babar Iftikhar suddenly appeared on TV and commented on the statement made by a senior leader of the opposition in National Assembly [NA] it rattled no one. Whereas he didn’t take any names, but by saying ‘A statement was given yesterday which tried to distort the history of issues associated with national security’, he didn’t have to- because it was obvious that the subject of his ire was what senior PML[N] legislature Sardar Ayaz Sadiq had spoken in NA the previous day.
What the DGISPR opined to be an attempt to ‘distort history’, was actually nothing more than a bid by a political party in the opposition to put the government down by accusing it of indecisiveness. This is something that happens very frequently in democracies all over the world and is inconsequential. However, the PML[N] leader crossed the redline when he mentioned that the army chief had displayed signs of nervousness and panic and probably that’s why Gen Bajwa considered the army’s immediate intervention necessary and deputed his media chief Maj Gen Iftikhar to hold an unscheduled televised press conference post haste.
In this presser, DGISPR said that the statement in question was both ’disappointing’ as well as ‘misleading’ and his one-point agenda was to ‘correct the record’ as Sadiq had attempted to ‘distort history’. However, a fundamental question arises in a democracy. Since when has it become the army’s job to set the country’s historical records straight? With the DGISPR going all-out to justify the army’s intervention on a politician’s statement by citing a plethora of reasons clearly it is apparent that Rawalpindi was well aware that by intervening on this issue it was overreaching its mandate!
So, the DGISPR virtually used every trick in the book to make this interference appear to be an inescapable requirement of critical importance and in national interests, which made it incumbent on Rawalpindi to take things into its own hands. The first thing he did was term what the PML[N] leader said to be a brazen attempt to ‘distort the history of issues associated with national security’. On the face of it, this contention may sound worthy of the army’s intervention, but a dispassionate analysis raises a very basic question- can national security really be endangered by ‘distortion’ of just one single event and that too by a relatively insignificant person who hasn’t supported his assertions with any proof?
All that Sajid said in NA was that in the aftermath of IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s arrest, a meeting had been called, but while the Prime Minister chose not to attend it, the Foreign Minister was in a state of panic and the army chief’s ‘legs were shaking and he was perspiring’. So, what actually emerges is that the PML[N] leader had only expressed his own impressions regarding the physical and mental condition of those present at the meeting. So, being only personal perceptions that didn’t involve leakage of any state secrets or divulging any sensitive information, how does this become an issue ‘associated with national security’ defies logic!
However, just like his predecessors, Maj Gen Iftikhar too has relied heavily on arousing public emotions by saying, ‘This [Sadiq’s statement] is in fact equivalent to making controversial the Pakistani nation’s clear supremacy and victory over India, and I think this is not acceptable to any Pakistani’. DGISPR seems to have overlooked the fact that having had lived through far more embarrassing incidents precipitated by the army, the common Pakistani has become not only far more resilient but also even more discerning today and gone are the days when the army could get away with anything by playing the nationalism or patriotism card!
The common Pakistani who grew up hearing of how Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] of Pakistan Army is the foremost intelligence agency in the world, was greatly embarrassed when it emerged that Al-Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden was living in Abbottabad along with his family, while ISI was allegedly clueless that the world’s ‘most wanted’ was residing just a stone’s throw away from Pakistan Military Academy. The common Pakistani also suffered unspeakable humiliation when despite Pakistan being Washington’s closest ally in the global war on terror, the US still didn’t share this information with Islamabad and instead, nonchalantly went ahead to hunt him down by violating Pakistan’s airspace!
The common Pakistanis who always believed that Pakistan army officers are the epitomes of patriotism and integrity had to hang their heads in shame when very senior army officers [Lt Gen (retd) Javed Iqbal and Brig (retd) Raja Rizwan] were found guilty of being involved in espionage activities and passing sensitive information to foreign intelligence agencies. The common Pakistani was appalled when despite being exposed for having amassed wealth far beyond his known means of income and declared the same, Lt Gen [retd] Asim Bajwa has still been retained as head of the $62 Billion CPEC [China Pakistan Economic Corridor] Authority.
The common Pakistani who looked upon the army as the foremost unifying force in the country being devoid of any radical or fundamentalistic influences, is indignant when Brig Ali Khan and four Majors are found guilty of having links with Hizbut Tahrir, a fundamentalist terrorist organisation. The common Pakistani is also extremely furious when it emerged that the PNS Mehran terrorist attack that left 18 military personnel dead and 16 injured was the result of failed negotiations secretly held between Naval authorities and Al Qaida representatives over release of arrested Al Qaida sympathisers serving in Pakistan Navy, and that this attack was facilitated by serving Naval ratings with Al Qaida affiliations!
But what defies explanation is Pakistan Army’s renewed push to playdown the effectiveness of the IAF Balakot airstrikes and this definitely betrays a deep sense of uneasiness. What else explains the requirement of DGISPR to waste ‘air time’ by talking about the Balakot airstrikes by IAF when the PML[N] leader’s statement in NA that prompted his unscheduled presser had no mention about or reference to this incident at all? Yet Maj Gen Iftikhar spoke about how ‘The enemy [IAF] planes that had come to drop the explosives on the Pakistani people escaped while dropping their payload on empty mountains in panic after seeing our Shaheens [hawks, here a reference to PAF]’.
Readers would recall that immediately after the Balakot airstrike that took place on 26 February 2019, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor who was the then DGISPR had made a similar claim and even offered to take the media to this site as soon as weather conditions improved. However, even though the weather cleared in a couple of days, the media was finally taken to the target location only on 29 March which rightly fuelled speculations that this visit had been delayed by more than one month because there was something that Pakistan Army wanted to hide!
It’s a documented fact that a Reuters team which attempted to visit this site for independently ascertaining the veracity of contradictory claims being made by India and Pakistan wasn’t allowed to do so, and instead was turned back not once or twice, but three times by Pakistan Army officials citing ‘security concerns’. Since the otherwise hyper-vocal DGISPR gave no further reasons or explanations as to why this area was placed ‘out of bounds’ for media persons immediately after the IAF strike, or what compelled Pakistan Army to delay taking the media to this site for 43 days, the ISPR has itself let the cat out of the bag!
But the most irrefutable evidence to prove that DGISPR was being economical with the truth regarding the Balakot airstrikes are the three craters which the media was told had been created by the armament fired by IAF. Since media persons who visited the attack site wouldn’t have been aware that each type of armament and explosive has a ‘signature’ crater profile, the journos readily believed whatever was told to them. However, anyone with even ‘YouTube acquired’ knowledge will tell you that craters created by an air delivered ‘bunker burster’ munitions [like the 1000 k.g. Spice bombs used by IAF] characteristically have a very small surface spread but are at least 2-3 m. deep as they are specifically designed to penetrate concrete roofs and thereafter detonate, killing the occupants therein.
However, photographs of the craters [which DGISPR claimed had been created by IAF missiles] that were taken by the visiting media persons have just no similarity whatsoever with what an air delivered bunker penetrating missile would have made. The craters shown to media were quite wide and comparatively very shallow- a clear indication that these were intentionally created by controlled conventional high explosive explosions. Furthermore, that the Pakistan Army couldn’t even produce a single bomb fragment recovered from these three craters to support their claim, reads more like pulp fiction!
Similarly, when Maj Gen Iftikhar spoke about how the PAF ‘shot down their [IAF’s] two jets [and] Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured’, he raked up yet another issue that once again bared ISPR’s proclivity for falsehood. On 27 February 2019, Pakistan Army’s former DGISPR tweeted that two Indian aircrafts had been shot down inside Pakistani airspace and while one pilot [Wing Commander Abhinandan] had been arrested, two others were in the area. An hour later, while addressing a press conference, he spoke about a second IAF pilot being in Pakistan army’s custody adding that he was ‘injured and has been taken to Combined Military Hospital and will be given proper care’.
But by evening, the second IAF pilot who DGISPR had himself confirmed as being in Pakistan Army ‘custody’ and was undergoing treatment in a military hospital, suddenly vanished from the face of earth without any trace. It was only then that it became apparent that this injured pilot actually belonged to PAF and was flying the F16 which was brought down by Wing Commander Abhinandan. Though he bailed out safely, this unfortunate pilot was roughed up so mercilessly by locals [who mistook him to be an IAF pilot] that he lost consciousness by the time he was rescued by Pak security personnel. Stripped off his flying overalls by the mob, he was erroneously presumed to be an IAF pilot and this explains DGISPR’s claim of a second IAF pilot being in Pakistan Army’s custody!
So, rather than setting the record straight, by mentioning Balakot air strike and the air combat incident of 27 February, DGISPR Maj Gen Iftikhar has opened a can of worms and ended up exposing how Pakistan Army has itself been twisting facts all along to conceal it’s failing, whether it was the failure of Operation Gulmarg [attempt to annex J&K in the garb of a tribal invasion in 1947], Operation Gibraltar [annex J&K by inciting a local insurrection in 1965], Operation Koh Paima [Kargil intrusions of 1999, in an attempt to change the alignment of Line of Control], not to mention the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report [on loss of East Pakistan in 1971], which hasn’t officially yet seen the light of day.
With PML [N] leader Sardar Ayaz Sadiq standing by what he had said and refusing to apologise, things have become much murkier and that’s why DGISPR’s unsolicited intervention to ‘correct the record’ is simply just an attempt to debunk the PML[N] leader’s mortifying revelations about the army chief so that the ‘tough’ public image of the military isn’t compromised!