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March 31, 2016

A divided operation


March 31, 2016

The massacre in Lahore on Easter Sunday called for a prompt and unified response by the PML-N governments, in Punjab and at the federal level, and the military authorities. Both have launched into action on a big scale, but separately, exposing a lack of trust and unity of command in extending the operations for the first time to the ideological bastion of religious extremism and terrorism – Punjab. Will it work? And how should it work for desirable results?

It seems that the civilian and military authorities have different assessments and approaches towards religious extremism and terrorism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been reluctant to take on the terrorists head on and, instead, has been keen to take a reconciliatory course. On the other hand, contrary to the foot-dragging of his predecessor General Kayani, General Raheel Sharif was much more resolved to crush the terrorists with an iron fist and launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan.

It was not until the terrorist attack on the Peshawar Army Public School that the civilian and military leaderships were forced to come on the same page. The unanimous passage of the National Action Plan (NAP) was a turning point in a state that considered terrorism an instrument of achieving its national security objectives and considered various private militias as its ‘strategic assets’.

The very dynamic of the war on terror forced the armed forces to gradually and incrementally expand their targets against the increasing number of defiant terrorist outfits, even though certain sections of militant groups engaged across the borders have somehow escaped the onslaught. Rescued by a united parliament and COAS Raheel Sharif from near-collapse at the hands of the Imran-Qadri dharna, a vacillating federal government had to come on board to fight terrorism. Failing miserably in implementing the civilian parts of NAP, the Sharif government – by treading behind the military high command – lost the opportunity to lead from the front.

The real test of keeping the constitutional framework in calling paramilitary forces in aid of civilian authorities came when the Rangers in Sindh were superimposed over and above the head of the provincial civil administration. While bypassing the provincial government’s legitimate writ and disregarding Articles 146, 147, 148, the federal interior minister conceded authority that allowed the Rangers to act beyond their mandate resulting in the paralysis of an otherwise lame-duck government. This was not good for the Rangers, nor the police and civil administration, which have otherwise done a commendable job in bringing relative peace to Karachi. The model the Rangers are pursuing in Sindh is a replica of what is being pursued by the Frontier Constabulary by undermining the authority of the Balochistan government.

The federal government exhibited expediency and collaborated with the powers that be when the legitimate powers of the elected governments in Sindh and Balochistan were being undermined. Despite setting these bad examples of undermining provincial autonomy, on the contrary the PML-N governments in Punjab and at the centre were adamant on the issue of allowing the Rangers and the army to go for a wider terrorist hunt in a province that is the ideological bastion of extremist and banned outfits.

The turning point came at a time when the terrorists struck in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Lahore and, at the same time, the capital was under virtual siege by parts of the religious right. Failing to thwart the fanatical march on Islamabad and before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif could mobilise the civilian law-enforcement agencies in Punjab, the army chief took the initiative and launched a large-scale operation in the province under a mutual “understanding” for intelligence-based operations all over the country.

In his press conference on Tuesday, Punjab Minister of Law Rana Sanaullah dared to present details of the operation that the Punjab government had undertaken while asserting the prerogative of the provincial government in calling various security agencies to the aid of the civil administration. The anti-climax came in the capital where both Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid and DG ISPR Gen Asim Bajwa were expected to clarify pertinent questions regarding the launch of two parallel operations in Punjab.

The information minister could hardly explain the need-based use of law-enforcement agencies, while Gen Bajwa entirely focused on the most revealing arrest of a RAW offices engaged in subversion in Balochistan and Karachi – ignoring the need to clear the confusion regarding the legal sanction of an otherwise a much delayed operation in Punjab. Mention of some kind of an ‘understanding’ is no substitute to the constitutional course to be adopted by a provincial government in calling the army or the Rangers in aid of civil administration.

Rather than explain the overlap of military authority, Gen Bajwa may have done the Indo-Pak process no good by naming the Indian national security advisor as the handler of Kulbhushan Yadav and proposing a most aggressive line against India. Earlier, Iranian President Rouhani had been embarrassed after the release of confidential talks the army chief had with him No doubt subversion in Pakistan by RAW is a serious matter and should be taken up, but how and at what levels is the prerogative of the elected government.

Perhaps, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s policy for peace in the region is not being supported by a powerful establishment that continues to expand its control to civilian domains.

What is needed is for the the prime minister to immediately convene a meeting of the National Security Committee of the cabinet and sort out the confusion over the command and legal validity of the much delayed and most warranted operation in Punjab. Let the Punjab government send a formal request to the centre for calling the army and Rangers to do the needful in cleaning up the widespread networks of terrorists in Punjab. The COAS’ prompt response is laudable, but it should be within the legal framework.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA



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