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May 4, 2017

The unending turbulence


May 4, 2017

A single tweet has yet again exposed the existing faultlines in Pakistan’s power structure. The developments that have followed suggest that the civil-military deadlock is likely to continue.

The two key men removed from their positions – seasoned diplomat and PM’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi and Principal Information Officer (PIO) Rao Tehseen – have both rejected the charge that they were involved in the Dawn leaks. They are both likely to take up the matter legally. This will definitely prevent the PM from implementing the Inquiry Board’s demand, which the army command wants the PM to implement. The two steps needed to advance a consensus-based action on the Dawn leaks are still awaited. These involve the government making public the Dawn leaks report and the need to hold a high-level meeting between the elected government and the GHQ.

Meanwhile, the April 29 controversial tweet by the DG ISPR “rejected” the “notification” on the Dawn leaks because it was “incomplete and not in line with recommendations of the Inquiry Board”. The tweet rejected the orders that the prime minister had issued. As per the government’s organisational hierarchy and the rules of business that flow from the constitution, the tweet was a highly undisciplined – if not an unconstitutional – step. In Pakistan’s already stormy political battle, the Dawn leaks and the tweet affair are now the added issues to the ongoing frenzied debate on the Panama judgment and the mysterious Jindal trip. These frenzied debates make for belligerent politics and for buoyant – if not quarrelsome – talk shows. Meanwhile, the civil-military tension remains unchanged.

Those who are criticising the ISPR tweet for rejecting the chief executive’s order simply believe that the tweet reflects several broad problems. First, the refusal shows how an institution with a coup-making past simply refuses to accept civilian supremacy. Second, the army high command, having almost always called the shots on national security matters, overreacts to an elected government’s attempt to take control of national security matters. Third, the army high command resists implementing decisions taken by an elected, civilian government in the foreign policy and security realm. Fourth, through political manoeuvring, the army high command continuously seeks to undermine and weaken political governments that take control of the national security policy.

Meanwhile, those who believe that the ISPR tweet, even if improper, was inevitable point towards recurrent problems in civil-military relations: elected governments do not conduct state affairs within constitutionally laid down parameters; decision-making on national issues is not conducted within the institutional framework, leading to the lack of transparency in decision-making, especially on national security issues; and the current prime minister has run into problems with a majority of the army chiefs that he himself selected.

Interestingly, these broad and mostly chronic complaints on both sides of the civil-military divide do not fully capture the changing nature of the civil-military relationship. This is not the 1980s and 1990s when the binary, black-and-white divide was valid. Back then, the army had remained ascendant in the power structure, with leverages at its disposal to unseat elected governments. Although the civil-military power dynamics still operates in a competitive mode, the leverages available for power play to the military have been greatly reduced.

Meanwhile, beyond these general points made by the supporters of both the government and the army about the hotly debated tweet, there are some specific points that relate to the Dawn leaks, its report and its recommendations. First, when the Dawn leaks issue emerged, there was a division within the government on how to deal with the matter. The core team in the PM House decided to issue a clarification rejecting the Dawn story which appeared on October 6, suggesting that the government was trying to rein in the intelligence agencies who were supporting the militants. However, the interior minister supported the army high command’s view that the story was based on a deliberate leak to damage the army’s image and, therefore, an inquiry must be conducted. The interior minister made the unconvincing statement that the Dawn report did “undermine national security”.

The October 14 press release after the Corps Commanders’ meeting clearly stated that the “feeding of a false and fabricated story of an important security meeting at the PM House, the Pakistan Army’s top commanders termed it as a breach of national security.” The initial inquiry report held the information minister responsible for not stopping the report and sent him packing. The army chief sought more action against those who “fed” the report. The government agreed. The multi-institutional inquiry committee finally presented the report to the government after six months. Meetings between the PM and the interior minister followed.

And then came the April 29 order from the PM’s Secretariat. The order, which called for action against the Dawn editor and columnist, the PIO and Tariq Fatemi, was addressed to the interior secretary and was distributed to the press. Television debates erupted. Then bang came the ISPR tweet which completely hijacked the airwaves and cyberspace. Just as a government response was awaited, the interior minister, in his Karachi presser, first called the tweet a “poison” for good governance. He then questioned the issuance of what he called the “notification”. He said that the notification can only be issued by his office and he had his additional secretary come to office on a holiday so he could issue it. He was wrong. It was an order, not a notification. Another senior minister clarified that the PM’s order merely contained recommendations given in paragraph 18 of the inquiry report.

The PM’s camp believes that the ISPR tweet showed impatience, great impropriety and a lack of understanding of the process that was to follow after the inquiry report was handed to the prime minister. They maintain the PM, as the chief executive, is not bound by the recommendations given in the report. Recommendations like suspending the Dawn paper for 10 days, the dismissal of his special assistant Tariq Fatemi and PIO Rao Tehseen, are not likely to be implemented by the prime minister. The leaked order already established this.

Meanwhile, the army camp claims that the army high command – specifically, the previous and current army chiefs – both conceded to several requests made by the PM regarding the Dawn leaks inquiry. These ranged from not conducting an inquiry against the “breach of national security” in a military court, not filing an FIR against the suspects and not including the names of senior PM House members in the inquiry. Finally, the unbecoming act of the ISPR publicly rejecting the PM’s order via a tweet came to the fore. Individuals associated with the army camp maintain that Twitter was used only after several attempts to communicate with the PM House failed.

While the army camp communicated with the media, a formal response was expected from the PM’s camp. No response was issued, even as the PM concluded his meeting with his kitchen cabinet in Raiwind. The message seems to be clear. The PM will implement the inquiry recommendations as he considers appropriate. All understandings, if there were any, with the army command are off.

Indeed, some surprising moves have included the interior minister’s pointed criticism of the intelligence agencies, which he has repeatedly praised in the past. At the May 1 POF workers’ function he claimed that “some people” tried to stop him from coming to the ordinance factory. He said the labourers were the pride of POF and were also the “mujahids” of Pakistan who produced weapons that the security forces used to fight the enemy. Earlier, at his Karachi presser, he had fired another salvo when he announced that his views on India are well-known and he was the only minister who had refused to welcome former Indian PM Vajpayee in Lahore.

The tweet crisis obviously signals to problems that run deeper than just the news leaks issue. The key issue remains the absence of an institutionalised approach to decision-making. Unless elected, civilian governments approach institutions – like the National Security Committee – for decision-making, the perennial problem of the absence of the civil-military distrust will persist.

In the coming days, the Dawn leaks issue will subside. Through dialogue matters will be resolved and there will be closure as far as the civil-military discord over the issue is concerned. However for the political opposition, the leaks will be another scoring point in their political battle against the prime minister. There may be a gathering of the opposition on one platform making the political waters choppier for the elected PM.


The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra