A civil-military tussle as old as Pakistan itself resurfaces as the government tries to assert its authority in the eyes of the public.
A newspaper story that indicated that, despite tensions, Pakistan's civil and military leadership were finally on the same page with respect to militant extremism within the country, seems to have inadvertently blown up into a full-fledged tussle between the two.
The saga began with Dawn, arguably Pakistan's most respected newspaper, publishing an account of a secret high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In the October 6 ‘exclusive' it reported – via unnamed sources present at the meeting – that the civilians had sharply questioned the head of military-controlled intelligence agency ISI about covert support to militants waging guerrilla war in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The report claimed that the ISI chief (a three star general) was particularly told how support for the militants was leading to Pakistan's diplomatic isolation.
In a country with a not-too-happy history of civil and military relations – the military has conducted three coups in Pakistan's 69 years of existence and has ruled directly for 33 of them – many are viewing the recent developments with some trepidation.
Happily, according to Dawn, the intelligence chief and the government ministers present in the meeting came to a consensus that action needed to be taken against all militants.
For keen observers of Pakistani politics, both elements of the report were positive. Not only was there consensus over direction but civilians had shown backbone in asserting their right to determine overall state policy.
So far so good.
Or so the average reader thought.
It seems the report rubbed the military the wrong way. Under pressure from the military, the government first issued a denial of the story, labeling it as "speculative", "misleading", and "an amalgamation of fiction and half-truths." Then a little later came a stronger denial from the chief minister of the largest province Punjab, calling the story "baseless" and "devoid of reality." Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif – who is also the brother of the Prime Minister – had been quoted in Dawn's report as having been the most critical of allegedly ambiguous ISI policies. Finally, after the army chief General Raheel Sharif met the PM to discuss matters, came yet another denial, calling for those who had leaked "a fabricated" and "twisted" account of the meeting and "harmed the national interest" to be identified and punished.
The same night, Dawn's assistant editor and political columnist Cyril Almeida, who had reported the story, was placed on the ‘Exit Control List' (ECL) which effectively barred him from travelling abroad.
After immediate and strong denunciation of these actions from human rights groups and journalist bodies both within Pakistan and abroad, military sources tried to distance themselves from the action against Mr Almeida. They denied to the media that the military had ever asked for the reporter to be placed on the ECL, saying they simply wanted to identify those who had leaked the information from a high-level meeting.
Dawn wrote a strongly worded editorial, standing by the veracity of its report which it said had been "verified, cross-checked and fact-checked", and asking the government to remove its reporter from the ECL "to salvage some of its dignity." Journalists from across Pakistan and even arch-rival India joined in praising Dawn's stance.
As international outcry mounted, the Prime Minister claimed Mr Almeida's name had been placed on the ECL without his knowledge and ordered it to be removed. However, his own Minister of Interior refused, saying the name would stay on until the completion of an inquiry, which he said would take two or three days to complete – even though Mr Almeida and Dawn had refused to reveal their sources. Eventually the reporter's name was removed from the ECL early evening October 13.
So what exactly happened?
From all the evidence available so far, it seems Mr Almeida and Dawn became unwitting victims of the perennial attempts by civilians to assert supremacy over the powerful military and the military's reluctance to cede ground.
Given the nature of the leak, it is fairly obvious that it came from within the civilian government or those allied with it. Despite its overall positive message, the military did not take kindly to the public perception created that civilians had dared question it on national security matters, which it considers as its sole domain.
It also saw the leak as compromising secret discussions that could be used by rivals such as India to score political points. As it is, India has vowed to isolate Pakistan diplomatically after recent militant attacks in the disputed region of Kashmir and has aggressively claimed the right to hit back at Pakistan militarily. Officially admitting at the highest levels of supporting militants targeting areas under Indian control would go against Pakistan's stance of providing only diplomatic support to what it terms as the ‘freedom movement in Indian-occupied Kashmir.'
Once the military pushed back forcefully, the civilian government lost the spine to own up to its own claims and decided, probably in panic, to divert attention towards the messenger – in this case Dawn and its reporter.
Civilian governments are ever-mindful of the fact that the real power lies with the army – after all, the last military rule officially ended only eight years ago. The previous government had also aborted an ill-conceived attempt to bring the ISI under civilian control after strong pushback from the army. It too had spent the rest of its tenure in an uneasy and frosty relationship with the army. Relations with India and Afghanistan strategy in particular are often considered delicate areas for the civilians to venture into. Civilian governments take them on at their own peril.
Even as Cyril Almeida's name was removed from the ECL, the army's top leadership doubled down by announcing that it remained committed to identifying those who had "breached national security" by leaking "false and fabricated" information.
Whether the leak was factually correct or exaggerated will probably not be known any time soon. But even if it were truthful, the attempt to get public credit for itself at the expense of the military has backfired for Nawaz Sharif's government. As the government is currently discovering, the military will not soon forgive and forget.
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