IT was only through an ISPR press release that the nation came to know that the Pakistan Army had launched Operation Raddul Fasaad across the country. The objectives, scope and focus of the operation were also described in the brief press release issued on Feb 22. The press release was, however, silent on how and at what forum the decision to launch the operation was taken and what article of the Constitution had been invoked to deploy the army, air force, navy and the civil armed forces for the operation.
Despite the fact that we have an elected government in the country which also runs a full-fledged information ministry (and a very active state minister for information though she mostly focuses on PTI or Imran Khan-specific issues), and although we have a very vocal defence minister, the subject of the armed forces called to the aid of the civil administration was either not considered important enough or considered too important to be announced by spokespersons of the elected government. It was only when Pakistani media persons accompanying the prime minister asked questions about the operation during his visit to Turkey that he clarified that the decision to launch the operation had been taken at a meeting held at Prime Minister House some days earlier.
This is not the first time that the civilian democratic government seems to be not assuming the leadership and full ownership of the operation. Earlier, in March 2016, in the aftermath of the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park terrorist attack in Lahore, in which over 70 lives were lost, it was the then army chief who had ordered the counterterrorism operation in Punjab. So much so that one newspaper headline at the time even asked ‘Did army chief consult PM on Punjab operation?’. The operation was rather short-lived and hardly anyone knows what its targets were and what it achieved. We don’t know if the operation was discussed in parliament or by one of its relevant committees such as the standing committees on the interior in both the Senate and the National Assembly.
Parliament can do more than merely endorsing or criticising a military operation.
Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan was also announced through a statement issued by the DG ISPR in June 2014. The National Assembly did debate the operation when it was launched and it passed a resolution in support of the operation although JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman expressed serious reservations about the operation. He even went on to say that parliament merely approved it because it was helpless before the security establishment.
However, political rhetoric aside, no parliamentary committee seriously discussed the objectives, timeline, achievements and lessons learnt during the operation. Until recently, the operation was branded as a great success but after the resurgence of terrorist activity across the country, questions are being asked about the extent of its success. Would it not be appropriate that the parliamentary committees on the interior hold hearings and compile reports on the challenges and achievements of the operation? The committees may meet in camera, if needed, and they may keep a part of their reports only for limited circulation but the nation would like to see its elected representatives shouldering their responsibility of oversight.
Back in 2009, the federal cabinet meeting chaired by the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had ‘endorsed’ Operation Rah-i-Rast in Malakand after it was launched. Mr Gilani, however, had conceded at that time that it was not possible to take the cabinet and parliament into confidence before the launching of the operation as it would have provided an opportunity to the miscreants to go underground. The irony in his statement was not lost when he implied that prior briefing even to the cabinet could have compromised the confidentiality of the operation.
Military operations within the country are extraordinary steps with enormous implications for life, property, human rights, scarce national resources and national integrity. Both the military and the civilian armed forces should receive the strongest support from the nation because precious lives are being laid down by them for national security. This support can be extended by various institutions in several ways. Just expressing verbal or written support through statements, press releases or resolutions is not enough. Especially when it comes to parliament and the provincial assemblies, their responsibility as institutions elected by the people is probably the greatest.
Their endorsements do carry a lot of weight but they can contribute much more than merely endorsing or criticising an action. For example, the current parliament did pass the 21st Constitutional Amendment in January 2015 paving the way for the establishment of the military courts — a highly contentious and extraordinary step for a democratic institution — but did not do enough to ensure that the government completed its promised revamping of the justice system within the two years allowed to the government for this purpose before the military courts were wound up.
Although the Senate did a commendable job to produce a detailed report on the Provision of Inexpensive and Speedy Justice in the Country after detailed deliberations in its Committee of the Whole in December 2015, parliament did not exercise its oversight role in a befitting manner. Its committees should have sought monthly reports from the government on the steps taken to reform the justice system. Had parliament done its duty at that time, it would not be discussing again today whether or not to give two more years to the government for the same purpose.
Now that Operation Raddul Fasaad has been launched, will the Senate and National Assembly committees on the interior and other relevant committees meet regularly to see that the objectives of the operation are clearly defined and that there is tangible progress achieved within the established time frame?
The writer is the president of Pildat, a Pakistani public policy think tank.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2017