The media in Pakistan and outside was abuzz for some 48 hours over a story published by the English newspaper Dawn, regarding a meeting between heads of the civil government and the military. According to the story, the civilian government confronted the military leadership on the issue of Pakistan’s isolation due to the policy of continued support to terrorists; hence, the need to clean up the house. Furthermore, the scene was described as serious finger pointing of civilian leaders towards generals, including the head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, as a result of which it was agreed for the ISI chief to take a trip to all of his provincial directorates and instruct them regarding not obstructing police action against the Jaish or Lashkar e Taiba.
Apparently, the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was very candid and firm. But within 12 hours came the rebuttal from the offices of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, followed by the order placing journalist Cyril Almeida on the exit control list (ECL), a list maintained since General Zia ul Haq’s days for barring certain people from leaving the country.
The story reminds one of another one in which the cat did not teach the lion how to climb up a tree. Indeed, the entire development has done nothing but compromise the position of Nawaz Sharif and strengthen the sense within the armed forces that he is not to be trusted. From now on, the GHQ Rawalpindi would probably keep a more watchful eye on matters of national security, foreign policy and other issues considered strategic by the politically powerful military.
Surely, only Almeida can tell who his source was, but there are three theories doing the rounds in Islamabad. The first one is that the beans were spilt by a small team including the information minister, Pervaiz Rasheed, and the prime minister’s favourite senior bureaucrat reputed to be the de facto premier, Fawad Hassan. This was meant as a counter-coup of sorts against the military to publicly embarrass them and leave them running for cover domestically. Second, the disclosure was a result of a split in the PML-N that wanted to create trouble for Nawaz Sharif. Finally, that it is the ISI itself that briefed the journalist since what was discussed in the meeting and agreed as an agenda point belongs to the realm of the impossible. In this age of technology, what would require General Akhtar to tour the provinces? Or is it even possible for the political government to leash Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar, without active cooperation of the military? Indeed, what was being suggested was passive cooperation that amounts to no cooperation at all.
The civilian government suddenly turning up at the doors of extremist organisations to arrest people will create a ruckus which Islamabad may not be able to control. In fact, those who think some secret cell in the prime minister’s office fed the journalist forget what he wrote in his article two days later: Almeida put the blame of not managing militants in Punjab entirely at the door of the political government which amounts to a brutal analysis of, at best, a stupidly inward-looking administration.
Irrespective of which side Almeida was batting for, the entire episode indicates two crucial facts. First, Raheel Sharif will not get an extension. One of the reasons that such a risky game was played on the first hand is because elements in the military would now like to see Raheel Sharif’s back. He may have struggled hard for extending his stay through ruthless propaganda campaigns but the fact is Pakistan stands now at a critical time when a choice is imperative. As we have seen in the past 12 years, media becomes active around the time of the selection and it is not just the prime minister’s office that plays the game of feeding the media but corps commanders as well, who are interested in the job.
Second, this story of placing Almeida on the ECL is only likely to weaken the prime minister further. The conversation reported by Almeida sounds factual but not its emphasis — that is, the political government, especially Shahbaz Sharif, probably does not have it in him to talk sharply with the DG ISI. If wishes were horses! In fact, such a story is likely to put the government in greater trouble for even imagining it could consider itself politically equal to the armed forces. So, even if the chief will get changed, the newer one would have to wash his hands of such imaginations of the military’s weakness and inform his own constituency — the boys in khaki — that they are still the power to reckon with.
The political government in Islamabad can sense the isolation, but when was the last time that the military cared about what the foreign office bureaucrats said? As for the GHQ, they believe that the world would be a better place if it were not for Indian intervention, and it would turn into a nicer place with China on Pakistan’s side. It is the height of the great game in the Eurasian continent which makes everything fair in love and war. Rawalpindi needs Beijing’s patronage and provides patronage to jihadi groups to fight its battles. The police in Punjab remains a post-colonial structure, politicised and psychologically influenced by military men. In fact, there are many senior police officers in Punjab who are beholden to the Sharif government and the military. With this tension in the background, the situation is not likely to change.
As for Almeida, things are likely to blow over after some tension. The entire world is on his side and continuing to harass him will not prove good for the prime minister. It will at best bring back memories of the incarceration of a prominent journalist, Najam Sethi, in the late 1990s under Nawaz Sharif’s watch. While that old story remains a mystery too, it seems the prime minister hasn’t gotten rid of the habit of owning sins committed by the army — and then getting punished for it.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Pakistan, the siege within’)