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Pak in for major civil-military face-off: Army rejects Sharif action on Dawn leaks

Tilak Devasher | Updated on: 29 April 2017, 20:34 IST

 This tweet dated 29 April 2017 from the DG Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor came almost immediately after the Prime Minister’s Office released a notice stating PM Nawaz Sharif had accepted the inquiry committee’s recommendations into the Dawn Leaks.

Cyril Almeida of the Dawn had authored a story in the newspapers’ October 6, 2016 issue about a high-level civil-military meeting on national security held on 03 October 2016. The meeting had discussed the impact of terrorist outfits operating in Pakistan with the civilian leaders speaking about the ‘growing diplomatic isolation’ of Pakistan for lack of action against such groups.

The impression created was that while the civilians wanted action against terrorist groups it was the Army that was resisting it.

The Prime Minister's Office initially rejected the story as fabricated but ham-handedly put the journalist on the Exit Control List, a move that had to be later retracted.

The Editor of Dawn, however, stuck to the story and in a note published on October 11, 2016,  clarified the paper’s position and stated on the record that the story "was verified, cross-checked and fact-checked."

The Corps Commanders rejected that PM’s claim of the story being ‘fabricated and planted’, and instead called it a breach of national security and demanded a probe into the issue, including the identification of those involved in disclosing the details of the meeting and appropriate action against them.

The elephant in the room was Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz who heads the media cell in the PMO. She is also being groomed by Sharif to step into his shoes. Most believe that the leak of the story was due to Maryam.

To shield Maryam Nawaz, the Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid was sacked for failing to prevent the story from being published.

This, however, did not appease the Army.

Resultantly, the Sharif government formed a seven-member committee headed by a retired judge Aamer Raza Khan on 07 November 2016 to probe the matter. The committee was assigned the job to establish the identity of those who planted the story

One member each from the ISI, Military Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau were included in the panel that also included bureaucrats.

Sharif’s purpose in forming the committee was basically to sit-out the retirement of the previous Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif.

Nawaz Sharif had calculated that by superseding two other officers to appoint Gen Bajwa as Army Chief would make him ‘apna banda’ (his man). Despite appointing his sixth army chief, Sharif forgot that the Army chief is no one’s man.

Even if Gen Bajwa wanted to go slow on the case, in several cantonments that he visited, like Kharian and Lahore, he was invariably asked about the status of the inquiry report. For the sake of his own reputation, Gen Bajwa could not underplay the issue.

Unable to delay the report any further, Nawaz sought to take the softer option by ordering on 29 April 2017 (i) Investigations to be carried out on Rao Tehseen Ali, the principal information officer at the Foreign Ministry based on the report findings. (ii) The role of Daily Dawn/ Mr Zafar Abbas/ Mr Cyril Almeida in the matter shall be referred to All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) for necessary disciplinary action to be taken against them. (iii) Allocation of portfolio of Foreign Affairs to Syed Tariq Fatemi, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, shall be withdrawn.

What is significant is that no one has been blamed for the leaks though media reports suggest that the blame for leaking details of the meeting to Dawn has been put on Fatemi.

With the Army rejecting the action taken as not being in line with the inquiry report, the stage has been set for the first major confrontation between the civilian government led by PM Nawaz Sharif and the Army under its 5-months old Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The ISPR’s blunt rejection of the notification is unprecedented even by Pak standards where the Army calls the shots. Even in the heyday of past Army Chiefs’ like Generals Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Raheel Sharif, the army had not crushed the civilians so brazenly, impudently and with such imperiousness.

Till the time of writing, the PMO has not reacted to the open challenge to its authority. According to media reports, Sharif is likely to chair a meeting on Sunday on the issue to take stock of the matter.

That the civilian government is in a tizzy is obvious by the assertion of the Interior Minister in a press conference after the ISPR tweet that, “the PM's Secretariat or the PM's Office need to read the rules of business: they cannot issue notifications. The 'notification' that is being circulated is actually addressed to the Ministry of Interior…The [final] notification has yet to be issued by the ministry of interior, and it will be in line with the recommendations we have received from the [inquiry] committee."

After the ISPR, is the Interior Minister now questioning the authority of the PM?

Given such an open challenge by the ISPR to the authority of the elected PM, Sharif is left with very few options. He cannot continue as if nothing has happened. He will either have to back-down and withdraw the notification that will only underline his helplessness or he will have to make the DG ISPR sacked/removed as a scapegoat. Since the DG ISPR must have tweeted the rejection only after getting the Army Chief’s nod, it is unlikely that Gen Bajwa will sacrifice him. If he does, his own position as Army Chief will become untenable.

Sharif, as the third time elected PM, with a solid base in Punjab and a majority in the National Assembly, will have to show some spine and act against the army as also his Interior Minister.

This, in fact, is not about Nawaz Sharif anymore. It is the hour of reckoning for the entire political class in Pakistan and the edifice of a shaky democracy there.

Tilak Devasher is the author of ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’ and a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India

First published: 29 April 2017, 20:34 IST
Tilak Devasher @catchhindi

Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, to the Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is releasing shortly.