The Pakistani military establishment on Thursday reached for the nuclear option as it attempted to reassert itself ahead of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s announced long march on Islamabad. Smarting from recent allegations and insinuations of its involvement in the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif, the military brought out its big guns to respond.

For the first time in the country’s history, the director general of ISI, the chief spymaster of the country’s premier intelligence agency, addressed the public in a joint press conference alongside the military’s spokesman.

Saying he was “forced” to make an appearance and to set the record straight because his institution and its people were being relentlessly attacked, spymaster Nadeem Anjum, who otherwise prefers working away from the cameras, expressed at length his indignation at those slandering the armed forces.

“When lies are being spoken so easily, fluently, and without inhibition from one side that there is a danger of chaos and upheaval in the country, the truth cannot remain unspoken for too long,” he said about his decision to speak out.

The two generals dismantled the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s post-ouster narrative. “Calling someone a traitor or Mir Jaffar or Mir Sadiq without proof cannot be condemned enough,” the spy chief remarked. “It is an allegation that is 100% based on lies.”

No punches were pulled as the director general of ISI dismissed the Cablegate controversy and condemned the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf for targeting the army leadership.

“They are not traitors. They did nothing unconstitutional or illegal. The [allegation of treachery] was levelled only because they refused to do something unconstitutional and illegal.”

The spy chief revealed that the army chief was offered an unlimited extension in March in return for thwarting the vote of no-confidence. “The offer was made in front of me,” he said. “If you thought your [army chief] was a traitor, why would you do that?” he asked.

He also confirmed that two meetings had been held since then, with President Arif Alvi acting as mediator, and that in both meetings, Imran Khan had been told that whatever he desired would have to be sought through the Constitution and the law. It is likely that Khan pushed the army to pressure the government to call early elections in those meetings.

The fact that the spymaster himself had to address a press conference to counter the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s narrative suggests that attempts at backdoor negotiations have been all but exhausted. Attempts to negotiate a compromise between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan Democratic Movement, silence Khan or make him back off, appear to have failed for now. The establishment has, in strategy terms, now ‘climbed the escalation ladder’.

The director general of Inter-Services Public Relations said in the press conference that internal instability is currently the biggest threat to the country. This appears to be a warning for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf not to consider taking any measures that may disrupt the status quo through its long march.

It is stunning how spectacularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the military have fallen out. There is now little question that the military establishment, especially the ISI, played a key role in bringing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to power. It ‘persuaded’ the smaller parties and independents to join the party and help it form a government.

It seems that Khan, out of hubris or something else, forgot those ‘services’ and started to believe that he had come to power on his own. As a consequence, the friction between the two eventually grew. When the establishment finally turned against Khan, either for his refusal to toe the line or because they had decided to turn ‘neutral’, the allies and independents also parted ways and took the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government down with them.

Khan has not been able to swallow that insult. He continues to believe that it has only been his right to govern. This thinking has been evident in the campaign he has run over the last few months. The army’s darling has now become its bête noire.

How matters will be resolved between the two is difficult to say at this stage. Perhaps realising the gravity of the situation, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been guarded in its response. Instead of going on the attack, it took a defensive posture, stressing that it has only sought an early election both privately and publicly, and intends to proceed with the long march and ensure that it remains peaceful.

This article first appeared in Dawn.