Pakistan’s “Memogate”: Was there ever going to be a coup?
For all the fevered discussion about Memogate, one of the most arresting claims to emerge seems to have evaded even the faintest scrutiny. In the very evidence Mansoor Ijaz marshaled before the Pakistani public, he says there was a second, rival plot, set in train during the very same days in early May. It, too, involves a senior Pakistani official reaching out to foreign allies in a similarly abortive bid to take on a powerful institution back home.
About a quarter of the way down the purported BBM exchange between Ijaz and Husain Haqqani, the American businessman proffers an eyebrow-elevating tip. Some hours after the memo was delivered, Ijaz tells his alleged co-conspirator that he has learned of a clandestine effort to evict Asif Ali Zardari from Islamabad’s presidential palace.
“I was just informed by senior US intel,” Ijaz writes in a message on May 10, “that GD-SII Mr P asked for, and received permission, from senior Arab leaders a few days ago to sack Z. For what its worth.” It’s worth a great deal, if only because it carries the same weight as what else appears in the apparently incriminating exchange. In his hasty typing, where he manages to turn “DG-ISI” into an anagram, Ijaz was saying that top American spooks have told him that Lieut. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha secured a green light from Gulf potentates to overthrow the government.
Intrigued, I asked Ijaz to furnish some context. When the memo was being crafted, he told me in a telephone interview some days ago, he wanted to independently verify whether the Zardari government was truly imperiled. “One of the things I had done,” he explained over his London cell phone, “was to make sure that a senior person that I know in US intelligence would have had the opportunity to review what was about to sent over.” This, he added, was why Leon Panetta came to know of the memo, hinting at a CIA link.
Ijaz said he felt the measure was necessary “to make sure that there was nothing we were doing that was against US interests.” The well-placed source got back to him about a day later. “And the person told me,” Ijaz said, “that their information was that Pasha had traveled to a few of the Arab countries to talk about what would be necessary to do in the event they had to remove Zardari from power and so forth.”
Did he find the information credible? “Of course I thought it was credible,” Ijaz replied, slightly exasperated by the question. “I wouldn’t have repeated it if I didn’t. When I say, ‘a senior intel source,’ I mean senior,” he said, laying stress on the last word. Based on what his source told him, Ijaz said he had “confirmation that there was a real threat there at some point.”
The question of whether the shadow of a coup ever fell on the early days of May lies at the very root of Memogate and remains unresolved. Ijaz has claimed that coup jitters spurred Haqqani into action. Indeed, all claims in this regard emanate from Ijaz. They appeared in his column on the pink pages of the FT and in the memo that he dispatched. Haqqani, by contrast, denies there was ever talk of a fourth phase of Pakistani military rule. The army and the ISI, at least on this occasion, won’t disagree with the former ambassador.
And judging by the government’s reaction at the time, the need never arose. Before the memo even reached Admiral Mullen’s inbox, Yousaf Raza Gilani had already bellowed his support of Pakistan’s military-led spies. “Indeed, the ISI is a national asset and has the full support of the government,” the prime minister told parliament on May 10. “We are proud of its considerable achievements…” Gilani also failed to call for the “independent inquiry” floated in the memo, handing the responsibility instead to the army’s adjutant general. And a day later, the prime minister told me that the government, the army and the ISI were “all on the same page.”
So, the only one claiming that Gen Pasha was busily touring Arab capitals enlisting support for a coup is his London host. Like other allegations made in the Memogate affair, it rests on Ijaz’s credibility. If he is telling the truth, and his entire account is to be accepted, then both Haqqani and Gen Pasha were involved in shadowy schemes that merit further inquiry. And in each case, questions will inevitably arise about how much their respective bosses knew.
We already know that Ijaz has at least been right about Haqqani’s travel itinerary. The former envoy concedes that he was in London on the dates his accuser mentions. Gen Pasha’s movements are more opaque. According to news reports of May 7 – two days before Ijaz alleges Haqqani contacted him – the spy chief slipped out of Pakistan that day for “a sudden foreign visit”. The Nation newspaper, among others, reported that its sources said the “ISI chief’s visit could be to China, Saudi Arabia and UAE where he is expected to meet senior defence and military officials of these countries to brief Pakistan’s stance.”
Even if Gen Pasha did travel to these countries, two of which clearly qualify as homes to “Arab rulers,” perhaps nothing unseemly took place. Perhaps all that was discussed, quite appropriately, was Pakistan’s reaction to the bin Laden raid. But if Ijaz is wrong about the nature of Gen Pasha’s trip, then his other claims begin to crumble. It becomes very difficult to sustain the argument that he was telling the truth about Haqqani but lying about Gen Pasha.
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