In a speech in the National Assembly last week, Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) leader Ayaz Sadiq, a former speaker of the assembly, stated that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had in a meeting of parliamentary leaders, after the downing of Abhinandan, the Indian pilot, in a dogfight, pointed out that if Pakistan did not release him, India would attack Pakistan that night.
He commented, “I remember Shah Mahmood Qureshi was in the meeting which Imran Khan had refused to attend and Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa came into the room, his legs were shaking, and he was perspiring. Foreign Minister said for God’s sake let Abhinandan go, India’s about to attack Pakistan at 9 PM.”
Ayaz Sadiq also stated that many disagreed with Qureshi. He said, “We did not agree with the decision. There was no rush to return Abhinandan; you could have waited a little. It was done in the national interest. But Imran Khan’s decision betrayed weakness of the civil leadership.” Qureshi commented, “I did not expect Ayaz Sadiq to say such a thing,” adding, “we didn’t want to give India a chance to take Pakistan to the International Court of Justice again.”
No excuse could be lamer than this. The fact that Qureshi did not dispute the statement implied that Sadiq had spoken the truth. Ayaz’s comments caused an uproar in both Pakistan and India. The account of an individual present in the meeting where the final decision was taken projected reality in decision-making at the apex level in Pakistan. In his address to the assembly the next day, Fawad Chaudhary, the Pakistani minister for science and technology, seeking to counter Ayaz’s statement mentioned that Pakistan was behind the Pulwama attack.
It was the first time that a sitting Pakistan minister had admitted to Pakistan’s role in the Pulwama attack. This countered what Imran Khan had repeatedly said about Pakistan having nothing to do with the Pulwama attack. He had even requested India to provide information and intelligence on which Islamabad could act.
Fawad Choudhary was interviewed by a couple of Indian channels on his comments. This brash outspoken politician was, for the first time, nervous and unconvincing, despite the interviewers not pushing him on his comments.
The ex-Indian air force chief, BS Dhanoa, stated that he had been confident of the return of Abhinandan. In an interview, Dhanoa mentioned that while political and diplomatic pressure was being continuously applied, the armed forces were prepared to attack Pakistan’s forward brigades across the LOC in case Abhinandan was not returned unharmed. The Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, is also reported to have spoken to the Pakistan DG ISI and warned of strong retaliation in case Abhinandan was not returned.
Pakistan faced similar warnings conveyed through nations close to both countries. Gul Bukhari, a Pakistani journalist now based in UK, tweeted, “sources informed Geo TV that India had planned to target 6-7 Pak airbases. In panic Pak sent a message through friendly nations and returned the pilot.” She added, “Saudi Arabia, Turkey and UK played a major role. Pakistan also conveyed through these countries to India, that it was now Modi’s turn to reduce tensions.”
Imran had attempted to project a brave face and declared that he was repatriating Abhinandan as a goodwill gesture, whereas the reality was that he was pressured into acting. The truth, which Pakistan had attempted to hide is now out. It was pressure and fear of Indian retaliation that compelled Pakistan to act. Post publication of these comments there were three simultaneous actions in Pakistan, which highlighted that the country’s leadership was rattled.
The first, Ayaz Sadiq was compelled to retract his statement. He released a video wherein he stated he had been misquoted. There was nothing to misquote, on the contrary his words were clear and unambiguous. Subsequently, he stated that he sticks to his comments and would not be cowed down. The second was a hurried meeting between the army chief and Imran Khan to discuss options to overcome the situation.
Finally, the DG ISPR, head of Pakistan army public relations, held a one agenda press conference to negate Ayaz Sadiq’s comments. He stated, “It is extremely disappointing and misleading to link Abhinandan’s release with anything other than a responsible state’s mature response.” He added, “negative narrative directly affects national security, and the enemy is taking thorough advantage of these things in the information domain and you all can see a glimpse of this in the Indian media.”
Mohsin Dawar, a Pashtun leader and member of the national assembly, tweeted, “Why is the ISPR responding to a former speaker? What authority do they have to respond? Where is the foreign minister?” Evidently, not many, even in Pakistan, believed the coverup. There is no doubt that comments by both Ayaz Sadiq and Fawad Choudhary have been made with indepth knowledge of the truth.
These were not off-the-cuff remarks as both were part of decision-making and aware of the proceedings. Subsequent justification would only add to fires already ignited. Pakistan had declared Balakote as nothing but elimination of trees and a cow. However, they knew that another strike would be impossible to cover-up and casualties beyond the ability of the army to hide. This would have broken the invincible halo that the army had created around itself.
Pakistan also knew that Indian actions could in no way be countered by a nuclear threat as that myth had been smashed. The unfolding of this incident has led to Pakistan exposing itself to the globe. It has proved that its hierarchy is directly involved in terrorism. It has also proved that the Indian strike in Balakote had caused irreparable damage to its terrorist infrastructure.
Finally, it has displayed that it lacks the capability to counter Indian military power and its nuclear bluff has lost all steam. The myth of invincibility of the Pakistan army has been broken, though would be kept supressed within. Abhinandan still gives Pakistan leaders nightmares and would continue to do so for a long time.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)