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Pakistani PM Hints At Intelligence Role In Balochistan Upheaval

FILE: Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (C) with his party leaders in Islamabad on August 1, 2017.
FILE: Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (C) with his party leaders in Islamabad on August 1, 2017.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has tried to rescue his party’s government in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.

But his January 8 visit to the provincial capital, Quetta, couldn’t salvage the administration of Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri.

On January 9, the province’s most senior elected official resigned from his post hours before the provincial assembly was scheduled to vote on a no-confidence motion put forward by his former allies and opposition members.

Zehri’s fate was sealed after a majority among the 21 lawmakers from his Pakistan’s Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party revolted and joined efforts to oust him. Abbasi reportedly advised Zehri to resign once it became apparent he had lost majority backing in Balochistan’s 65-member assembly.

Abbasi told Pakistan’s independent Capital TV on January 10 that in an effort to find out what prompted PML-N lawmakers to move against a coalition administration headed by a leader from their party, he discovered many had not acted on their own volition.

“People told me about being pressured by intelligence agencies. Some people told me about receiving phone calls [from intelligence operatives],” Abbasi said. “Someone said they saw people [lawmakers] confined to compounds where vehicles of the FC (Frontier Corps) were parked," he added while naming a paramilitary organization that is tasked with border security, counterterrorism and aiding the government with law and order in Balochistan.

The Pakistani leader says his administration is now investigating the alleged political engineering by the country’s secret services.

“I have asked the interior minister to find out who ordered the FC to be there and whether intelligence agents made calls [to lawmakers] to pressure them,” he said. “Such things are not acceptable and are not good for democracy.”

Two major intelligence agencies report to the prime minister. While civilian leaders typically control the Intelligence Bureau, they have had tough luck with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), where most of the top leaders and staff hail from the military.

Over the past three decades, Pakistani politicians have frequently accused the ISI of orchestrating the rise and fall of political leaders, their administrations, and political parties.

Nawaz Sharif, Abbasi’s predecessor and the PML-N leader, has frequently accused the powerful military establishment of arranging his ouster from office in July, when the country’s apex court removed him from office over undeclared assets.

“Secret telephone calls and deals should not be used to tie our hands,” Sharif told journalists on January 3 in a subtle reference to alleged attempts by the security services to undermine his party’s administration. “Democracy should be given a chance to grow in the country.”

Abbasi agrees, and says that “stunts” such as the alleged machinations in Balochistan cast a dark shadow over democracy in Pakistan, where civilian administrations have rarely completed their terms and are often accused of corruption and incompetence.

“Our democracy has suffered because of this, and we should avoid it,” he said.

While Pakistan’s spy services don’t usually speak to the media, military leaders and public relations officials have denied being involved in attempts to undermine representative rule.

Last month, current top soldier Qamar Javed Bajwa reportedly offered to resign if it was established that his organization was involved in orchestrating anti-government unrest that blocked parts of the capital, Islamabad, for weeks.

"There is no threat to democracy from the Pakistan Army, [but] there could be a threat to democracy if its [democracy's] requirements are not being met," military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told journalists in October. "I want to add that there needs to be stability. The government needs to continue, and an established democratic system needs to continue."

Abbasi, however, doesn’t seem convinced. He said that in a political career spanning three decades he has seen dozens of episodes of elected governments being undermined.

“We need to learn our lessons and do things to benefit our country and contribute to its welfare,” he said.