Lessons of Dawnleaks | Najam Sethi

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“Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected.” Thus spake DG ISPR. The notification in question is signed by the Principal Secretary to the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. It is “rejected” by a Maj-Gen on the orders of the Army Chief nominated by the Prime Minister. Clearly, power in Pakistan flows from the barrel of a gun and not from elections and parliament and constitution. The irony is that the objectionable “national security” leak in question was, essentially, the loudest whisper about whether the civilians or the military call the shots on critical issues of “national interest”.

This episode is terribly unfortunate. The PM had already agreed to sacrifice two trusted and competent aides and a senior civil servant on the say-so of the military. If his notification didn’t spell out details of the censure attached to the three, which would have added insult to injury, it was perfectly excusable. What was the purpose of humiliating the prime minister by rubbing his nose in the dust?

But the episode is not just unfortunate for reminding us of such bitter realities. It is also unfortunate because it has muddied a genuine attempt by both sides to stabilize civil-military relations in the “national interest” after a turbulent period of tensions in the recent past. Why, then, has the new military leadership jumped the gun and jeopardized the goodwill generated by the prospect of a fresh start?

The three good generals at the heart of the military establishment – the COAS, DGISI and DGISPR – are especially vulnerable in the current political situation. For a variety of reasons, they are under pressure from within their institution and from outside political forces to take a “hard line” (which is equated to a “correct line”) against Nawaz Sharif. But there is also a personal and rather “defensive” dimension writ into their stakes. The COAS was unfairly controverted just before his elevation. The DGISI is dogged by allegations of “close” personal relations with the ruling family. The DGISPR is burdened by the legacy of his predecessor who was a hostile TweetMaster. This “defensive-aggressive” posture is borne out by the statement on behalf of the corps commanders that the two military officers in the Panamaleaks JIT will conduct themselves “transparently and neutrally” no less than the spat over the current notification from the PMO.

To be sure, there must be other sources of disquiet. For instance, there is continuing consternation over the alleged “anti-military” tweets emanating from Sharifs’ social media outfit. More likely, however, the fact that the prime minister hadn’t taken the brass into confidence over Sajjan Jindal’s trip must rankle with the suspicious hardliners in the ISI. It is also interesting, isn’t it, that the COAS who made an optimistically “soft” statement vis a vis border tensions with India on the day he became army chief has now returned from a trip to the border areas during which he postured in an unusually aggressive headline-making manner.

That is why Tariq Fatemi’s farewell letter to his colleagues in the foreign office is illuminating. Explicitly, it rejects allegations, innuendos and insinuations of distrust and wrong doing levelled against him by the military establishment. Implicitly, it pegs his own credibility and achievements with that of the foreign office and its legion of distinguished diplomats who have conscientiously defended and promoted Pakistan’s “national interest”. But here’s the rub. The “national interest” has always been defined by the military establishment and the FO has always defended it brilliantly but blindly. Now the civilians are stumbling into their own and haltingly challenging this definition of the “national interest” – which is the origin of the Dawnleaks. This is creating a gulf of distrust between the foreign office led by independent thinking diplomats (like Mr Fatemi who report to the elected prime minister instead of the ISI like other careerists) and the military establishment.

The uproar over Dawnleaks is therefore very significant. It is billed as a “national security leak” by the military establishment because it is the harbinger of an unacceptable change in the scope, definition and ownership of the concept of the “national interest” by the elected civilians of the day. The fact that an upright politician like Senator Pervez Rashid and an independent-minded diplomat like Tariq Fatemi thought little of plugging the leak that calls for a change in national interest policy on a subject of global importance is a crime in the eyes of the military establishment and cannot go unpunished. Much the same sort of attitude is evident in the hostile response of the military establishment to the “secret diplomacy” conducted through the aegis of Sajjan Jindal.

The civilians should learn the right lessons from this episode. They need to devise an appropriate forum and mechanism to dialogue with the military and win its trust and support on critical issues relating to the national interest. Civil-Military relations will never be on an even keel in the absence of a mutually trusting and productive ongoing dialogue.