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No distractions, please

November 14, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AT a time when all major players in the country’s ever-evolving power structure should be unshakably focusing on terrorism, extremism and intolerance, a silly and almost pointless press release skirmish has captured the media’s attention.

Let me talk you through what happened. Most of this has been in the main headlines over this week. The prime minister and his key civilian advisers and the army chief accompanied by his principal staff officers have a meeting where the internal security situation and the state of play in Pakistan’s ongoing war against terrorism are discussed.

There is also speculation that a civil-military leadership joint brainstorm also might have happened because the army chief is about to embark on a visit to the US which, a Pentagon spokesman told the Voice of America, is coming at his request. Media reports have suggested that the US is concerned at the rate Pakistan is stockpiling tactical nuclear warheads.

Some tension is to be expected as both the government and its ‘subordinate’ institution work towards a new equilibrium.

Gen Raheel Sharif is expected to ask the US to see this development in the broader context of Indian policies in the region, particularly its military doctrines such as ‘Cold Start’ which is Pakistan-specific, forcing the latter to take whatever measures necessary to protect its territory against a force which has a huge numerical-cum-conventional weapons superiority.

The army chief perhaps plans to articulate ‘more forcefully’ allegations of Indian involvement in fomenting unrest in his country than, in his view, the prime minister did during his recent US visit. The visit saw a dossier ostensibly carrying ‘evidence’ of Indian involvement said to have been prepared with ‘painstaking input’ from the military being handed over by a relatively lowly state functionary to the UN secretary-general.

In brief, there has been some unhappiness within the military high command that the dossier cow has not been effectively milked by the civilian leadership. Some wonder if it has been milked at all. Whatever the facts here, historically civilian leaders have often fallen way short of the military’s exacting standards. Of course, this is during the interludes the military has shared power with the civilians and hasn’t been in the driving seat itself.

Anyway whatever unhappiness over the dossier issue or matters relating to the implementation of the National Action Plan, there was time and space for it to be expressed and shared within the confines of the meeting which the prime minister chaired. Or did he?

The new seating arrangement creates some ambiguity as the army chief always seems to sit parallel to the prime minister; then facing each other in two rows of seats sit the two sets of top aides to the two men.

But as a long-term believer in the rights of elected representatives to govern, my heart says there is no co-chairman ambiguity here and the civilian leader is in the chair. Anyway entities that have opted for the ‘co-chairman’ model are in dire straits these days as multiple power centres within the same enterprise are replete with disasters.

Let’s move on to the next day. The COAS presides over a meeting of his formation commanders. The meeting is followed by a press release issued by the ISPR. I may never have met the DG ISPR Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa but see him as a consummate professional. If the army high command had not implied criticism of the civilian government’s ‘governance’ the word would not have figured in the release. It wasn’t accidentally included.

After facing a barrage of statements in parliament, some of which were patently opportunistic, the government asserted its own authority, reminding its khaki critics, without naming them, to remain within the ‘ambit of the Constitution’ and shoulder their shared responsibility.

A spate of speculation was expected. Depending on the agenda of the politician airing their views or the TV anchor-pundit holding forth, the spectrum of comment ranged from a breakdown in the civil-military equation to ‘the army’s statement was directed at Sindh government’s inaction in corruption cases’.

Frankly, to me it didn’t appear to be either of the extremes. The exchange may have been rooted in some unhappiness but that it took place in the public domain was no more than a juvenile tantrum. Yes, regardless of what the Constitution says, our reality dictates lots of compromises, a fair bit of give and take.

The areas where the government has conceded space to the military are ever-expanding. The appointment of a just-retired lieutenant-general as national security adviser, the fascinating account of parliamentary committee on Fata reforms written by Khawar Ghumman in Friday’s Dawn, all hint at the military’s dominance. We haven’t even discussed who is running our foreign policy.

But one is also aware the flak the government is taking for example in the so-far mostly ineffective Nacta (National Counter Terrorism Authority) is not its fault alone.

For example, soon after the PML-N government was formed following the 2013 elections I heard from a top government source that it wanted to appoint a former police officer with impeccable credentials as Nacta head. His appointment was apparently blocked by the military. One isn’t even sure of the reason why this happened. Some sources suggested GHQ wanted an ex-armed forces person appointed to the position as it only fully trusts its own.

In a country which has see-sawed between civil and military rule almost its entire life, some tension is to be expected as both the government and its ‘subordinate’ institution work towards a new equilibrium. But anything that serves to divert attention from what is an existential fight is being silly, even juvenile.

I say this because from their actions in recent months it is clear that both the civil and military leaderships are committed to rooting out terrorism and intolerance from the country. They both need to demonstrate their commitment to this cause, and this cause alone in perpetuity. Anything less is unacceptable.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2015

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