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RED ZONE FILES: Notifying a crisis

It was like a depth charge exploding under the sea. On the surface you heard a faint thud, then a rumble, and finally water erupting into a wild spray reaching the skies.

For a good part of the week, Islamabad was gripped by a frenzy not witnessed since, oh, maybe Panama. That is saying a lot for a city that sways to the rhythm of conspiratorial melodies. The intense hype generated by the appointment of a new DG ISI was, rather unbelievably, trumped by the even more intense hype triggered by whispers that Prime Minister Imran Khan had refused to notify the appointment.

Many agonising days later, it is still not clear which way this issue will settle, if it will settle, and who will finally take charge as the new DG ISI. It is quite an unprecedented situation.




This is how it transpired.

Last week Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of the army staff, took a file and drove down to the see Prime Minister Imran Khan. It was time to appoint a new head of the ISI. In his capacity as the army chief, he had by then already decided the fresh postings of important three-star generals. For the appointment of the DG ISI, he had to get the PM’s nod. The file he carried as he walked into the room to see PM Khan contained a few names of the candidates for this position. There is some ambiguity about how many names he had. Some sources inside the Red Zone say there were three names, others whisper there were two. The two gentlemen eased themselves into comfortable sofas and started discussing the names.

But there were hiccups. After some back and forth, the meeting ended on a less-than-agreeable note, as per sources. The army chief swooped up the file, walked down to his car and drove off to Rawalpindi. Was there a consensus on any name at this point? Insiders believe that was not the case.

What happened after this is disputed.

Version 1: The Prime Minister’s Office was taken aback when it heard that the ISPR had announced the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmad Anjum as the new DG ISI, replacing Lt Gen Faiz Hameed who was posted as corps commander of Peshawar. The PM office did not say anything at that moment but within 48 hours it had communicated that PM Khan would not sign the notification because he had not agreed to the name announced.

Version 2: A while after the army chief had left from his meeting with the PM, one senior official in the PM office picked up his phone and dialled a number in Rawalpindi. The man on the other end was a uniformed officer. The caller from Islamabad asked him to convey the PM’s message to the army chief. The message, as per sources, was that the PM was okay with the name that the army chief had recommended as DG ISI in the meeting. This message was duly communicated, and shortly thereafter the ISPR made the official announcement.

If version 1 is correct, there was some miscommunication, or misunderstanding, or misinterpretation in that, or of that, key meeting. If version 2 is correct, there were after-thoughts in Islamabad both in terms of personnel and procedures. Either way, the outcome was the same: disagreement.

There were two other very important meetings that followed the one between the PM and the army chief. The story of these meetings shows that a new complicating factor had now entered the equation established by the varying versions. As per sources, one very senior and very relevant official went to see the PM. He advised him to review his demand that the current DG ISI should stay a while longer. This was corroborated a few days later on Tuesday when PTI’s Amir Dogar said on TV that the PM did in fact want Lt Gen Faiz Hameed to remain in his position for some more time. The rationale he gave was that the uncertain Afghanistan situation required his hand on the wheel.

This meant that the PM did not have an issue with the new person announced as the DG, but that he wanted to retain the present one. If this be the case, it had also become clear that the army chief did not agree as he had already announced the posting of Lt Gen Faiz to Peshawar.

The same evening, the same senior official went again to the PM and requested him once more not to insist on retaining the incumbent DG ISI and let the postings take place as announced by ISPR.

Till this time, the news of this sub-surface tension was known only to a handful of people. Publicly there was no indication that a depth charge had exploded. The faint ‘thud’ sound broke the surface on Thursday, October 7. By Friday morning, the rumble had begun to echo on social media. Whispers began to spread like jungle fire and by the afternoon had swirled across the nation. These whispers were met with ominous silence from official quarters. The voluble army of spokespersons were shocked into silence. This was beyond their pay grade, so to speak.

The weekend was weighed down with tension as the nation braced — yet again — for an institutional clash. The past had, it seemed, reached out and grabbed the present by the throat.

By Monday evening Red Zone insiders were getting signals that a follow-up meeting between the PM and the army chief had been scheduled. Gen Bajwa that night drove up to Banigala and the two ‘principals’ sat down to resolve the issue. Red Zone insiders monitoring the meeting said they were fairly surprised how long the meeting went on. It was very late at night when Gen Bajwa took his leave and was whisked back to his home in the cavalcade of screaming sirens and whirling lights. Would the morning bring clarity to this grim affair?

Turns out this was asking for too much. Red Zone insiders initially suggested early morning that the two gentlemen had agreed on the general already announced as the DG. However, he would not take charge immediately. The incumbent DG would stay on till mid-to-end November and then take charge of his new assignment as already announced by the ISPR. By midday, however, it became clear that there was, in fact, still some distance in the two positions. In the afternoon the government finally broke its deafening silence and acknowledged what the world had known for nearly a week. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s presser confirmed that the matter remained unresolved. But the nature of the matter, it now appeared, was mutating into something different. Yet another layer of complication had been added.

The right procedure was not followed, the PTI ministers said. They pointed out that as per these procedures, a summary had to be routed from the defence ministry to the PM office containing various names (up to five as said by Amir Dogar) and the PM would select one as the DG ISI. Could he, or would he, select someone other than the one already announced? And if so, did it mean that he was no longer demanding that the incumbent stay on for longer?

The questions remained unanswered as Wednesday crawled its way into a nippy Islamabad night. The summary did finally make its way to the PM office and it contained three names as per reports, including the one already announced. The PM now has to make a decision. But things have become, as they say, rather complicated by now for the following reasons:

If he selects someone other than the one already announced, he would have rejected the candidate not only recommended but officially announced by the military. This could, and probably would, rip a hole in the ‘same page’.

If he selects the one already announced, why did the issue have to be conflated into a crisis? And why run the risk of creating a breach when none was needed, and could be afforded?

If he opts for option 2, and the government argues he forced the army chief’s hand to ensure that proper procedures were respected, this narrative would only aggravate the situation further.

There may be some logic in how the PTI government could come out unscathed from this unfortunate saga. This logic, however, is buried deep somewhere near the depth charges.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2021

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