Roiled by political uncertainty, Pakistan was on the edge Saturday as Prime Minister Imran Khan asked his supporters to take to the streets Sunday and “protest peacefully” when the country’s parliament is due to vote on a no-confidence motion against him.
Pushing back at Khan who has blamed the US both obliquely and directly for all his troubles, Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, while calling for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues including Kashmir with India, spoke of his country’s “long and excellent” strategic relationship with the US and, in the same breath, targeted Russia over its invasion of Ukraine saying “aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned” – Khan was on a visit to Moscow when the invasion began.
Speaking at the second edition of the Islamabad Security Dialogue, organised by Pakistan’s National Security Division, Bajwa said it was important “we keep the flames of fire away from our region” and that “in this regard, besides the Kashmir issue, the India-China border dispute is also a matter of great concern for us” and must be resolved “quickly through dialogue and diplomacy” for peace in the region, making a three-way link between India, Pakistan and China.
“I believe it is time for the political leadership of the region to rise above their emotional and perceptual biases, and break the shackles of history to bring peace and prosperity to almost 3 billion people in the region,” he said.
“Pakistan continues to believe in using dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues, including the Kashmir dispute, and is ready to move forward on this front if India also agrees to do so,” Bajwa said. He made no mention of the raging domestic political battle in triggering which the Pakistan Army appears to have had a key role.
Last year, at the inaugural conference, he had laid out a vision for “geo-economics” over geopolitics in the region, calling for trade and connectivity “in all directions,” days after Pakistan and India signed an agreement reaffirming their commitment to the 2003 ceasefire.
The “geo-economics” plan ran into opposition from sections of Pakistan’s establishment and a proposal to restart trade with India in a limited way was cancelled overnight after several ministers in Khan’s cabinet opposed it.
Bajwa’s renewed outreach to Delhi, at a time when Khan’s departure from office seems imminent, is significant.
He described the situation on the Line of Control as “satisfactory and fairly peaceful,” and said this “had brought great relief to the people living along both sides of the Line of Control.”
But he did not let go of the opportunity to refer to the recent misfiring of a missile from India into Pakistan. He spoke of what he called Delhi’s “indifferent attitude” in not informing Pakistan about the incident immediately.
Pakistan’s “maturity and responsibility” in the wake of the missile incident, Bajwa said, was comparable to its return of IAF pilot Abhinandan, captured by Pakistani forces when his aircraft was downed in PoK after a dogfight in February 2019.
In the wake of Imran Khan’s anti-US rhetoric, Bajwa also did some damage-control by emphasising that Pakistan has “excellent” relationships with both China and the US, and wants to broaden the friendships. He also named the UK, EU, Gulf, Southeast Asia and Japan as important partners of Pakistan.
Last month, Khan had publicly berated EU ambassadors in Pakistan for urging Islamabad to take a stand against Russia. Bajwa also rowed back from Khan’s visit to Russia with a strong statement in which he called for immediate cessation of hostilities, ceasefire and “dialogue between all sides.”
“The continuation or expansion of conflict in Ukraine will not serve the interest of any side, least of all the developing countries which will continue to face social economic costs of the conflict, a conflict which can easily get out of hand,” Bajwa said.
Meanwhile, Khan, ahead of the scheduled vote in the Pakistan National Assembly on the no-confidence motion against him, reiterated his allegation of a “foreign hand” for which he claimed to have “proof” and asked the country’s youth, who form the bulk of his support base, to hold “peaceful protests” against the “foreign conspiracy”.
“The cabinet, NSC and the parliament’s security committee have seen it. The official document says that if you remove Imran Khan, your relations with the US will get better,” he said during a live question-and-answer session with the public that was broadcast on radio, television and social media platforms.
“You don’t have to sit silently (because) if you stay quiet, you will be on the side of the bad. I want you to protest and speak up against this conspiracy, not for me but for your future,” he said, addressing the youth.
“There’s a conspiracy against the government right now and it has been proven that politicians are being bought like goats to topple the government… I want Pakistan’s history to not forget these traitors either. It is your responsibility. Don’t let them feel that you have forgotten,” he said.
Khan’s fightback seems aimed at securing a political future after Sunday’s outcome. Playing the martyr, he recalled, in a Twitter post Saturday night, the sacrifice at Karbala by Imam Hussain, the third Shia Imam and the grandson of the Prophet. “In Karbala, facing an enemy that far outnumbered them, Imam Hussain AS, his family & followers laid down their lives to show people the difference between Haq (right/truth) & Baatil (falsehood). Today, we are fighting for truth & patriotism against falsehood & treason,” Khan tweeted.