Rawalpindi  -  The military hit back at mounting criticism of its long campaign against militancy and stressed its support for upcoming elections in a major public relations offensive on Monday.

The push comes one day after a Pashtun group clashed with Taliban-linked militants in South Waziristan Agency. Sunday’s fight between activists from the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) and militants during a rally left at least two dead and dozens injured.

In a wide-ranging press conference in Rawalpindi, ISPR Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor slammed accusations that the country was harbouring militants and accused PTM of being manipulated by “enemies of Pakistan”.

He went on to defend the conduct of country’s fight against insurgents, noting that thousands had lost their lives in the country’s battle against extremism. “War is a cruel action and not a fair game, more than 70,000 Pakistanis and 16,000 soldiers have been killed and wounded in this war,” said Ghafoor.

Commenting on FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he said it was a welcome development and will lead to development in the tribal belt. He said the army has assured Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) for addressing their reservations. He said almost all of their problems had been resolved, but unfortunately, some foreign elements unleashed propaganda against the army on social media in the guise of PTM.

Ghafoor also spoke on the PTM issue at a considerable length and denied the impression that security forces were using the force against PTM activists.

Recalling his first meeting with PTM leaders Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar, Maj-Gen Ghafoor said he was initially approached by a journalist about a group of people, including journalists from Fata, who had staged a sit-in outside the Islamabad Press Club soon after Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing.

The ISPR DG said he had then met a group of journalists, heard them out, and assured them of action on the issues they were raising, after which they had returned to the tribal areas.

After that meeting, he said, he was told that some youth from Fata had continued their protest outside the press club. He said he then personally met with Pashteen and Dawar and arranged their meetings with military officials after hearing their demands.

According to the ISPR DG, the issues put forward by Pashteen and Dawar included the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, the missing persons’ issue, the dumping of unexploded ordnance and the presence of security checkposts in Fata.

He said these were all practical issues and the PTM leaders were promised that they would be looked into.

Dawar later sent him a text thanking him for the facilitation, Ghafoor claimed. He said “He failed to understand how the PTM then moved forward with its protest after receiving assurances that the issues would be settled”.

“After that, how did Manzoor Pashteen’s name change from Manzoor Ahmed Mehsud to Manzoor Pashteen? How did this campaign start on the social media, and how were 5,000 social media accounts set up in a single day in Afghanistan?” Ghafoor asked.

“How did one cap made abroad started being imported into Pakistan? And how did groups of 10 individuals started raising anti-Pakistan slogans? How did articles start appearing in newspapers and how did some foreign media start telecasting their protests live on Facebook and Twitter?” he asked rhetorically.

He said it was time that the PTM does some introspection. “When those who are the enemies of Pakistan start praising you ... then one needs to look inside and see if what they are doing is something favourable for the country or not,” he said.

The ISPR DG said they were “strictly directed” by army chief not to use force against any PTM gathering.

He recalled reports that PTM leaders had claimed they were detained before their gathering in Lahore. According to Maj-Gen Ghafoor, the army chief had, upon receipt of these reports, called the authorities in Lahore and asked them to back down, desist from arresting them, and let the PTM activists speak.

“They are Pakistanis too. If they have some grievances, till such time [that] they are genuine and within the four corners of the Constitution, then we are the state and we have to deal with them,” he quoted Gen Bajwa as saying.  “If the state refuses to listen to its people, then who will?” he said.

Ghafoor warned the movement stating that “inimical forces” were exploiting PTM activists and that they were “letting themselves be exploited”.

He later pointed out that the data from the missing persons’ commission shows the number of missing persons has decreased from 7,000 to 3,000. He also said the removal of unexploded ordnance, one of the PTM’s demands, was a “colossal job” which is being worked on.

Giving a rundown of last evening’s incident in South Waziristan’s town of Wana, the ISPR DG said PTM leader Ali Wazir had been raising anti-army and anti-state slogans before the locals for the past few days. He said the area’s Aman [peace] committee forbade him from doing so, instead inviting him for talks with a jirga.

“As the Aman committee was waiting for PTM leaders, the movement’s supports arrived there and a scuffle followed, leading to an exchange of fire between both sides,” he said.

“Ask Ali Wazir, did the FC and the army not ask them to stop fighting each other?” Ghafoor said. He said the casualties of the episode were evacuated through army helicopters, demonstrating the army’s ‘role’ in the matter.

“And what is the propaganda on social media? An 8-year-old’s picture is being circulated saying she was killed last night in Wana. There has been no casualty of a child in Wana,” Ghafoor said, rubbishing the claim.

“When you spread such propaganda, you force the state to use force against you. We do not want that.”

“If you feel that insulting and bashing the Pakistan Army and making false accusations against it [makes a difference], it makes no difference to us,” Ghafoor said. “We know the people are with us. Love for the army has only grown over the years for us.”

“How will our soldiers man the borders if the media starts writing against him, or he is insulted in jalsas. It is very easy for us, should we return to our barracks?” he said. “If insulting the army raises your stature, please go ahead; but if it lower’s Pakistan’s standing, you ought to desist. I’ll leave it at there.”

To a journalist’s comment that the army seemed to be “exercising restraint” under Gen Bajwa, Ghafoor responded: “We have been tolerating a lot for Pakistan, and we will continue tolerating it for Pakistan. The day we feel [the criticism] is going to harm Pakistan, there will be no restraint. We can tolerate attacks on our person, but not on our country. I think that should be enough.”

Ghafoor was also at pains to emphasise the military’s total support for elections set in July.

Ghafoor said the military stood by country’s political development ahead of what is likely to be only the second democratic transfer of power in the nation’s 70-year history. “There is nobody else happier than the army over the completion of parliament and government’s tenure,” Ghafoor said.

The ISPR chief said Pakistan Army supported democracy and it welcomed the completion of five-year-term of a democratic government. He expressed the hope the upcoming elections will be held on time.

He also said the conduct of the elections was entirely the Election Commission of Pakistan’s prerogative. “If the ECP is in a position to hold elections tomorrow, let it be. The army has no role in any of this,” he said.

“Should the army is requisitioned for any election-related task, that is another matter. Whatever task we are given we will try to fulfill to the best of our capabilities,” he said.

Responding to a question, he warned that the ongoing fencing along the Afghan border will continue come what may. “Fencing of border serves the bilateral interest of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We will continue fencing of our border with Afghanistan despite the cross-border fire and physical attacks on fencing parties in order to prevent illegal movement,” Ghafoor said.

“Pakistan’s security forces are fencing the Pak-Afghan border to check infiltration of terrorists. Pakistani forces engaged on fencing the border have been attacked from across the border, but they will continue it and complete the process,” he said adding the border fencing will prove useful for both the countries to eliminate terrorism.

The ISPR chief said the Army had faced 71 cross-border fire or physical attacks in March, 60 attacks in April and 55 attacks in May on fencing parties as well as border security posts which left seven personal martyred and 39 injured.

“But even at that cost, Pakistan was not slowing its efforts of fencing and forts’ construction because a secure border was in the interest of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan,” the ISPR DG said.

“More than 50 percent of the Afghan territory is not in the control of their state,” he said and added that the border fencing would help contain its fallout.

Commenting on Pakistan and Afghanistan relations, the ISPR chief said that a delegation led by Afghan National Security Adviser recently visited Pakistan and held meetings with Pakistani officials including Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

He said candid discussions were held between the two sides to improve bilateral relationship. He said the two sides developed an understanding that military coordination between them will improve through the working groups.

These working groups include military working group, politico-diplomatic group, intelligence, Afghan refugees and economy groups set up for peace and stability in the area under Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace. He said the two countries realized that they were indispensable for each other and Afghanistan’s sustenance.

Maj-Gen Ghafoor expressed confidence that through these forums both the countries would be able to get the required results of peace and prosperity in the region.

About Pakistan’s relations with the United States in the context of Afghanistan, the ISPR DG said Pakistan will secure its interests at all costs and render all possible cooperation for enduring peace in Afghanistan.

“Nobody is more desirous of US success in Afghanistan than we are,” he said. “We want them to return successful and wish Afghanistan forms a government that reflects the will of the Afghan people. We will give them whatever support they need,” he said.

Rejecting allegations of failure to act against the Haqqani Network, the military spokesman categorically stated that Pakistan has carried out action against all terrorists under operation Zarb-e-Azb. He said there was no organized terrorist network including the Haqqanis in the country.  He said respectful repatriation of Afghan refugees was necessary for complete elimination of terrorism.

Commenting on the situation on Pakistan’s border with India, Maj-Gen Ghafoor said Pakistan’s desire for peace should not be taken as weakness as Pakistan Army was fully committed to defending every inch of the motherland.

The ISPR DG said India continues violating ceasefire agreement despite reiteration of commitment during the recent hotline interaction between director-generals of Pakistan and India.

He said the Army honoured the agreement, but the Indian security forces and the media both acted irresponsibly, and ceasefire on Working Boundary was violated by India even last night.

He said India would have to realize and understand where they wanted to go (in the future), adding “We are two nuclear powers, and there is no space for war.” Pakistan’s desire for peace should not be taken as a weakness, he added.

He said India has so far committed 1,577 violations on the Line of Control and Working Boundary this year, martyring 48 civilians and wounding 265 others. He said that Pakistan Army responds to the Indian firing when civilians were targeted.

Giving a comparison of a rise in ceasefire violations by India, the ISPR DG said that 2,001 ceasefire violations took place from 2003 to 2016, whereas in 2017, 1881 violations were committed. He said 39 Pakistani civilians were martyred in ceasefire violations in 2015, 46 in 2016, and 56 in 2017.

Regarding the situation on the border with Iran, Maj-Gen Ghafoor said coordination between the two countries has improved, leading to a better situation on the frontier.

Speaking about the domestic security situation, he said security forces have been redeployed and realigned to make prosper Balochistan programme a success. He said that the security forces eliminated Salman Badini, who was involved in the killing innocent people from Hazara community and targeting the security forces.

Regarding the security situation in Karachi, the ISPR DG said the security forces have restored peace in the city rendering unmatched sacrifices. He said now the people of Karachi will have to say ‘no’ to politico criminology mindset.

He said Rangers’ operations are continuing in Punjab under operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. He urged the media to play its role in creating awareness among the people for the positive use of social media.

Answering a question, Ghafoor said an inquiry has been ordered against former ISI chief Lt-Gen (retd) Asad Durrani over his controversial book, and the outcome of the inquiry will be shared with the media.

He also noted that Durrani’s book referred to incidents that took place after the former DG ISI’s tenure. “He has only offered his opinion on them,” he said adding that had the former spymaster asked for a no-objection certificate from the army, the matter would have never arisen.

He said that the reason the forces reacted so sharply to Durrani’s book was because of his post at the time of his retirement. Major General Asif said the institution itself took notice of the book co-authored by Asad Durrani. Army has never forgiven any mistake, whether made by a soldier or a general,” he said.

 

 

Army vows total support for elections

 

Maqbool Malik/Agencies