A tweet, possibly the most criticised, of Pakistan Army spokesperson’s social media communiqué issued on April 29, has widened the gap between the civil and military leadership of the country. The conflict is mainly on the military’s demand of punishing the main culprits of the alleged ‘security breach’ through a ‘leaked’ news item to a national daily.
The situation, likely to be amicably resolved through backdoor contacts and issuing of a fresh order by the Prime Minister’s Office, may firefight the issue for the time being. It will, however, take time to bridge this gulf of mistrust amid speculations and fears on both sides.
On April 29, the PM office issued an order to take action against the two officials in line with the recommendations of the report of a special commission comprising civil and military representatives to identify the elements feeding this controversial news. The commission worked for nearly six months to look into the matter and recently submitted its report. Only a few minutes after the issuance of order from PM Office, Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor in his official capacity set aside the prime minister’s orders in this tweet: “Notification on Dawn-Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. The Notification is rejected.”
After the military’s official ‘rejection’ of the PM’s order, and amid serious criticism on a government servant for undermining constitutional supremacy of an elected PM, lull remains while there is still latent tension in the country’s political climate.
It was on October 3, 2016, that the news item “Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military” exposed serious cracks in the civil-military relations. The story claimed to be all about the discussion in a high-level security meeting that had taken place in the Prime Minister’s House and attended by the civil-military top leadership. The story, with unnamed attributions, focused on the concerns expressed by the civilians before military leadership on the “growing diplomatic isolation” of Pakistan for lack of action against some militant groups.
The news report created a storm despite a repeated denial by the government, terming this news item as ‘fabricated’ and ‘planted’. The military, on the contrary, took this as an intentional act, a deliberate leak, to malign the institution.
Political and social circles are condemning this straight rejection of an order through a tweet questioning the civil-military balance in the country and see it as an added obstacle.
“It was an inappropriate way to differ with the orders of a constitutional authority of a country,” says Saeed Ghani, a prominent senator of Pakistan People’s Party, a major opposition party, adding, “It was a very strange reaction to the PM’s order; it questions the supremacy of parliament and elected prime minister. The message through a tweet, for many, was showing where the power really lies. It was a wrong message indeed.”
Suggesting an amicable way to resolve the growing tension, Ghani believes the government should publicise the commission’s findings so that people “know who is responsible for this leak that damaged institutional dignity”. He feels, “the issue, certainly, will add to the mistrust on both sides amid fears and speculations”.
PM Sharif, through an order, had ratified the recommendations of the news-leaks inquiry committee, withdrawing the portfolio of Advisor on Foreign Affairs from Tariq Fatemi and suspending the Principal Information Officer of Information Department. However, both officials have denied any link to the news challenging the findings of the committee. The PM order-sheet includes the role of the editor of Dawn newspaper, Zafar Abbas, and reporter Cyril Almeida which will be referred to the All Pakistan Newspaper Association (APNS) urging the association to develop a code of conduct for the media, especially the print media.
Two days after this rift, on May 1 which is the Labour Day, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, along with two other ministers, was scheduled to make a speech to the workers of Pakistan Ordinance Factory (POF) in Wah Cantonment, a strictly army-controlled factory and area. However, the military intelligence agencies ‘advised’ the minister not to visit the area in the wake of some ‘security threats’. The ministry, insiders say, felt it was a deliberate attempt by the army to show its muscle — by barring the democratic leadership to enter their controlled premises.
“Questions can be raised about the performance of security agencies as they can’t ensure the protection and security of highly-sensitive areas like POF,” the minister said in his speech.
“The issue, hopefully, will be peacefully resolved because there are problems on both sides,” says Suhail Warraich, political analyst and senior journalist. “The government issued the notification in a hurry, contrary to the agreement between the two parties, while the army rejected it through a hard reaction via a tweet. There is hope for a middle way.”
However, he says, “this situation has widened the mistrust, taking the situation back to former army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s tenure and it may take time to get filled.”
Warraich believes the situation will have a long run impact on the civil-military relations. He also urges the government to make the inquiry committee findings public “for transparency and normalising the situation and let the public better judge the report and level of disagreement on both sides”.
The views of former military officers do give some sense of the thinking within the institution. “It is not about gaining power; it is about the integrity of an institution. The findings of the commission have been delayed and the recommendations are not in line with the consensus built between the two parties. This shows the government’s intent to avoid going after the real characters who fed the story,” says retired Gen. Ijaz Awan. “The present army chief General Qamar Bajwa has met the prime minister at least 11 times since he assumed office, and in almost every meeting he has requested the PM to conclude findings of the news-leaks inquiry and decide as per all recommendations.”
Some analysts, however, hint at a possible division within the army on the issue of the news-leak.