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COAS Bajwa’s Iftar Dinner Was A Grand PR Exercise To Influence Media

The Iftar-dinner hosted last week by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa for around 35 journalists, mostly anchorpersons, has kept the media grapevine busy round the clock with first-hand stories related by second- and third-hands as to what had transpired between the General and the journalists over what is said to have been nearly a seven hour long off-the record tête-à-tête.

That is how it is done by top officials when they want to test the waters about some crucial paradigm shift in policy matters that they are proposing to adopt. They know that the media has many tricks up their sleeve to turn the off-the-record briefings into reasonably credible reports while keeping the actual source camouflaged in too transparent a wrap which offers the source the protection of what is called the hedge of plausible deniability.

Such exchanges between the COAS and the media persons in the past on occasions have turned out to be a prelude to regime change. I recall the one I attended when General Musharraf was the COAS and he had invited a select number of journalists for an Iftar-dinner in, if my memory serves me right, February 1999. This exchange was also off-the record. I clearly recall that he was accompanied by the then ISI Chief Lt. General Aziz and the then MI Chief Lt. General Ehsanul Haq. Musharraf was clearly trying to win friends and influence the senior media persons. He said everything that we wanted to hear. Some pearls which I can recall off hand: He volunteered “If tomorrow the Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) commands me I will throw my troops into the sea to shoulder the wobbling ship off the country and bring it back out of the troubled waters.” On a question: “Altaf is a traitor, period”. When told those who go across the LoC to fight the Kashmir Jihad on return indulge in sectarian killings, especially, Shias Aziz quipped: “No, no, they are all very pious people they don’t indulge in such crimes.” Come to think of it, the threesome was planning Kargil misadventure around this time. And then it took Musharraf only about only 8 months to stage his bloodless coup.

The leaks

The stories that have so far leaked out of the Bajwa Iftar-Dinner also indicate that it was if anything a grand PR exercise—trying to win and influence the influential section of the media. Not only that. The PR effort was seemingly extended to the PML-N as well, and in an effort perhaps to mend fences with the party, the ‘officially certified truth’ said establishment does not consider Nawaz Sharif to be ‘anti-state’ and praised Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail, Ahsan Iqbal and Khurram Dastgir ‘for being competent and armed with solid educational credentials from abroad’.

Meanwhile, Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza are out on bail; Jehangir Tareen has formed a so-called forward bloc within the PTI to challenge Prime Minister Imran Khan; Justice Qazi Faiz Isa’s case has ended in his victory causing a lot of embarrassment to the Khan government; former FIA Chief Basheer Memon’s accusations have robbed PTI of a great deal of its political capital and; out of the blue the PPP has succeeded in bagging a Karachi NA seat.

It is difficult to believe that Tareen would do anything not approved by the powers that be; Review petitions no matter how legally sound don’t normally get accepted; retired government servants do not come out of the retirement without a signal from you- know- who; the losses of PTI in the recently held by-elections indicate that the selectors may have stopped taking interests in the political well-being of the government. The two, no more on the same page? And the PPP victory in the Karachi by-election could also be seen as a PR job by the powers-that-be to bring the party back into Pakistan’s mainstream political reckoning now that the PTI is seemingly losing the steam.

But why? Why is this sudden change, if at all, in the GHQ’s approach to the domestic politics? What is it up to? Why does it want to win friends and influence as many as possible including the ‘discarded’ PML-N and PPP? Could it be that it is trying to create conditions conducive for Bajwa to implement his doctrine based on “Let us bury the past and move ahead…Let us first put our own house in order…Let us focus on geo-economics rather than geopolitics”?

Backchannel contacts

In this context, it is recalled that India had approached Pakistan in December 2020 with an offer to reduce tension and offered backchannel talks on all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan reciprocated favourably. Initial backchannel contacts between Pakistan and India are said to have taken place in 2017. The then prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is said to have given the go-ahead for this backchannel contact which then continued at a gradual pace. Strange, isn’t it? Giving credit for resumption of backchannel contacts to the very government which was accused of selling off to Modi?

The latest official thinking on relations with India is said to have been influenced by the fact that wars did not produce a solution and neither did the Kashmir Jihad. They are said to be thinking in terms of ‘strategic patience’. This policy is said to be based on a realisation that a ‘hot LoC’ has been a major drain on the economy.

And more significantly, there is said to be a renewed effort in key official quarters to move beyond rigid policies of the past.  Therefore, there is said to be an admission that Pakistan for the time being should focus only on ensuring that the oppressed people of Occupied Kashmir, are provided relief.

Pakistan is said to have reached this conclusion as India with the active support of the US and Australia had effectively constrained Rawalpindi’s jihadi capacities by employing the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to stop terror financing. Pakistan was thus forced to finally realise that the country can move ahead only if it eradicates militancy from society and turns Pakistan into a ‘normal’ state.

But this is not the first time that Pakistan was forced by global and regional circumstances to try to become a ‘normal’ state. Attempting to do as much, Musharraf in a remarkable reversal of Islamabad’s verbal strategy on Kashmir dropped the longstanding demand for a UN-mandated plebiscite in Kashmir on December 17, 2003. And in order to sell this idea of a ‘normal’ state Musharraf regime also went on a grand PR campaign.

And while talking to a group of newspaper editors at an Iftar dinner in Islamabad on October 25, 2004, Musharraf called for a national debate on new options for the Kashmir dispute. This was followed by another off-the-record briefing at the Foreign Office which talked of the escalating pressures on Pakistan for coming to some kind of negotiated settlement with India on Kashmir. It was also pointed out that the world had stopped supporting our Kashmir cause. At the end of the briefing one of my colleagues sarcastically asked: “Have we decided to hand over the list of Kashmiri freedom fighters to India as was reportedly done in the case of Sikh insurgents?”

Testing the waters

The Bajwa Iftar-dinner off-the-record talk also seems to be an attempt to test the waters to see how the media and then the nation would react to actually ‘burying the past and moving ahead’ dictated by geo-economic rather than geopolitics. To our misfortune the world at large seems to have taken the August 5, 2019 actions of Indian government (revocation of Article 370 and 35A) in its stride without even a token protest. India has created new realities in the occupied region. Going by what Musharraf had done by changing our stated position on Kashmir, plebiscite was already out of the Kashmir talks agenda. And now because of the new reality that had emerged following the revocation of India’s Article 370 and 35 (A) in any future bilateral talks New Delhi’s position would most probably be: ‘But constitutionally Kashmir is a part (province) of the Union (state), so what is there to talk about it with any outsider?’ So, perhaps the decision makers are thinking of treating the Kashmir issue as China is treating its Taiwan issue for the time being while we establish normal trade and travel relations with India.

And as luck would have it, at this very juncture the European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for ending Pakistan’s eligibility for the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) status. This is presumably a tit-for-tat for tabling a resolution in the National Assembly seeking the expulsion of the French ambassador.  Also, the Europeans seem to have been irked by Prime Minister Khan’s announcement that he would try to mobilise the 50 Muslim countries to counter the obsession of the West with Islamophobia. In case the West did not accept the argument, Khan said the Muslim countries could consider hitting back with boycott of products from these countries.

So, if we really want to make Pakistan a ‘normal’ state time is ripe for getting rid of the TLP for good before the global pressure becomes unbearable as it happened in the cases of Hafiz Saeed’s Jamatud Dawa and Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Muhammad, both victims of UN sanctions and ultimately of the FATF.     

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Naya Daur