ISLAMABAD: Laying bare their differences over the army’s involvement in a crackdown on extremist and militant organisations in Punjab, the government and military spokesmen, at a joint press conference on Tuesday, diverged over who could decide about engaging the army.

Although the press conference was convened to release a video recording of confessional statement made by captured Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav, the very first question about the government permitting a military operation in Punjab exposed the gap in the positions of the civilian and military leadership on the issue.

Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, who is also federal government’s spokesman, said it was the provincial government’s prerogative to decide “which force and how much of the force” would be required to act against a group or a person found by intelligence agencies to be involved in terrorism.

He said the provincial administration took decision on the basis of intelligence available to it about the nature and extent of threat. “If they think necessary they can get the job done through police … at other places Rangers may have to be involved while in more difficult situations services of the Pakistan Army can also be requisitioned,” he maintained.

Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif had at a security meeting of the military on Sunday night, in the aftermath of the Lahore park bombing which claimed 72 lives, ordered the army and intelligence agencies to start an operation in the light of information available to him.

The objective of the military crackdown, as stated by ISPR, was to bring the masterminds and perpetrators of the Lahore attack to justice and prevent “savages” from “overrunning our life and liberty”.

Since then the army together with Rangers, which is a paramilitary force, and military intelligence agencies have conducted a number of raids in Lahore, Faisalabad, Muzzafargarh, Multan and Rawalpindi and rounded up dozens of suspects.

The military’s decision to unilaterally go ahead with the operation for which it had been pressing the civilian leaders for months did not go down well with the government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to cancel his visit to the United States for attending the Nuclear Security Summit was partly due to the start of military operation in Punjab. Over the past couple of days he has been consulting his aides over the developing situation.

Military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa recalled at the press conference that it had been agreed while initiating the National Action Plan (NAP) on counter-terrorism that there would be action against terrorists, their sleeper cells, hideouts, facilitators, abettors and financiers in every part of the country irrespective of where they were.

The 20-point NAP announced in December 2014 after the Army Public School tragedy has a clause stating that like the rest of the country, no space will be given to extremism in any part of the Punjab.

“Punjab operations have already been started with a larger scope. On the first day there were five operations and as we speak operations are under way in Rawalpindi and Multan. Intelligence agencies, army and Rangers are carrying out those operations,” the military spokesman said.

“There is an overarching objective of eradicating terrorism. Therefore, whatever force is required and wherever it is required, operations will be conducted,” he added.

Gen Bajwa refused to share military’s assessment of the extremism and militancy situation in Punjab which is thought to have become the hub of militant and terrorist outfits.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016