Winds of change or illusions?

Published December 4, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THERE are suggestions that the new army chief has ordered a reorientation of the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate policy in what could be the fifth such change since Gen Ziaul Haq perished in an air crash in August 1988.

At the outset, let me concede, that there has been no official announcement as there never is and if this change in thrust and direction has indeed been ordered, it will show over the coming months in how the ISPR handles various issues and stories.

An informed journalist has also reported that in his first Order of the Day, Gen Asim Munir has told all formations and units to do away with pomp and show on the occasion of change of command at all levels.

The public spectacle, no more than a circus, was first introduced when Gen Pervez Musharraf doffed his uniform and passed on the baton of command to Gen Ashfaq Kayani. Perhaps, the outgoing COAS-president felt he was doing the nation such a huge favour by ending his three-year term in eight years that he was owed the ‘band-baja’.

Major changes were twice introduced after periods of military rule and tweaked with the change in command.

The ceremony continued when generals Kayani (six years), Raheel Sharif (three) and Qamar Bajwa (six) ended their extended or normal tenures in office. Coupled with the order of the day, if the suggestions regarding ISPR turn out to be correct, it will translate into a new phase for the military.

In my experience, major changes were twice introduced after periods of military rule and tweaked with the change in command and circumstances at other times. This will be the first such change after a failed hybrid regime experiment where the civil and military leaders clashed over who was the senior partner, or more accurately, which one was not prepared to be the junior partner.

The first such reorientation was evidenced when Gen Zia died and the army under Gen Mirza Aslam Beg felt under pressure to distance itself from his authoritarianism and make a fresh start, though it still couldn’t abandon the late general’s legacy and made sure there was an ‘acceptable’ election result.

Policy was steered by a brilliant officer, Brig Riazullah, and for the first time in the Pakistani context terms such as ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ were used as there were open admissions of, inter alia, meddling in politics. The military launched a massive manoeuvre named Zarb-i-Momin aimed at rehabilitating its badly tarnished image and projected itself solely in a professional mode.

This was the first example of its kind where a large number of journalists were drafted in as ‘defence correspondents’ and bedazzled with the ‘might and efficiency’ of the army. My conversations with some such journalists led me to believe it was actually the lifestyle which floored them with excellent warm food, starched white napkins and crockery and cutlery with official emblems in field messes and being addressed as ‘Sir’.

Of course, Gen Musharraf’s coup led to a tweak when Brig (later Maj Gen) Rashid Qureshi, DG ISPR, made everything about his boss. He was abrasive and lashed out at all critics and opponents of the COAS as if it was the central part of the job. Coherence wasn’t his forte.

Gen Musharraf’s exit as army chief saw the second post-military rule ‘openness’ which was presided over by the amiable armour officer Maj Gen Athar Abbas. (In the interest of full disclosure: he is a personal friend.)

His tenure was marked by easy access to military leaders as the army committed itself to counterterrorism training and then slowly began clearing out erstwhile tribal agencies and Swat of terrorists and deny them safe havens.

But, of course, this was the period when Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha, the spy chief, was playing politics, leading to more and more criticism of the military. The flak received by GHQ-Aabpara was unprecedented whether it was Pasha’s constant undermining of the elected government and/or suggestions to politicians that joining one particular political party would be good for them or Gen Kayani’s extension.

Later, Maj Gen Athar Abbas was replaced by Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) Asim Bajwa. He was the man who reportedly invested millions in state-of-the-art, mostly US-sourced multimedia production facilities at ISPR for the fifth-generation warfare. Simultaneously, his family members were growing the Papa John business empire in the US.

Bajwa was seen as the instigator of the ‘Thank You Raheel Sharif’ campaign and from day one projected his boss as a larger-than-life figure. By this time, social media platforms had millions of Pakistani users, and Twitter and Facebook (and later TikTok etc) became major tools of disseminating information as well as propaganda.

When Raheel Sharif rewarded Asim Bajwa with the third star, Asif Ghafoor was made the DG ISPR. The so-called ‘Dawn leaks’ story about the government of the day asking the military to contain militant groups as the country was facing international isolation (FATF being one example) broke during Raheel Sharif’s final days in office.

Asif Ghafoor, who remained DG under COAS Bajwa, raised eyebrows by tweeting the ‘notification is rejected’ reaction to the PM House notification about the inquiry report into the Dawn story announcing the loss of office of two top prime ministerial aides.

The tension over this tweet in the end triggered the get-Nawaz operation and the ushering in of the hybrid regime. With Gen Bajwa as chief, the two-pronged policy to attain these goals was spearheaded by Faiz Hameed in ISI and Asif Ghafoor in ISPR.

No point in recounting in detail as the events are way too recent. Suffice it to say that the policy of strong-arming media and politicians to social media trolling was the most divisive in recent decades and has split the nation in two halves which seem irreconcilable at least as we speak.

One earnestly hopes an ‘apolitical’ military leadership with its intelligence and PR arms marching to the same tune can be the first modest steps towards a healing process. Like I humbly pointed out last week, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2022

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