Last week’s convulsive but conclusive end to the Dawn leaks controversy has some obvious positives. The national decision-making system, not exactly exemplary in the best of times, is not hostage to useless wrangling over a pointless event (the publication of the story).
With one distraction less, the government and the army can now get on with at least debating the precarious, three-front border situation. Beyond our borders with Afghanistan, India and Iran, the Saudi-led alliance’s growing anti-Iranian posture requires utmost attention and deft handling. After having committed its military and advisory resources to the alliance, Islamabad’s options are becoming narrower by the day, especially as Washington brings its own containment plans on the agenda of the alliance.
Then there is China. The productivity of Beijing’s engagement with Pakistan depends on Islamabad’s internal stability and a balance in its bilateral ties with all its neighbours. That can only be achieved if the army works in tandem with a functional and democratically elected government. Chaos is the enemy of the mutuality of Pak-China interests. Neither country can afford it. We certainly can’t.
Internally, small-scale yet crucial operations in agencies like Kurram and the challenge of winding up the unfinished work of the Raheel Sharif era require a totally smooth functional relationship at all levels of policy formulation. Operation Raddul Fasaad’s potency and the National Action Plan’s centrality to the country’s long-term interests are both tied to uniformity of outlook between the civilian and army leadership. The Friday attack on a JUI-F leader’s convoy in Mastung, Balochistan indicates the winding road that lies ahead for Pakistan’s effort for internal stability.
Seen dispassionately, these positives have only an incidental link with the political interests of the Nawaz Sharif government. India, Afghanistan, Iran, Washington, the Gulf tensions, the war against terror are enduring issues. These issues go beyond individuals in power now; they stretch way into the future. Disharmony, friction or outright collapse of the equation between the army and civilian leaders, present or future, will only bring joy to the vast array of Pakistan’s ill-wishers. The only loser in case of dysfunctionality in civil-military ties will be Pakistan. Those who insist on seeing the drama-less denouement of Dawn leaks in the Nawaz-Gen Qamar context are blind to reason. Their ignorance or ill-will is profoundly detrimental to Pakistan’s strategic interests.
These positives aside, this controversy, and its particularly unsavoury bent in the last three weeks, has other dimensions that cannot be ignored just because the issue has been resolved.
One aspect concerns state-level communication – not personal but institutional. For all the rhetoric about the need for both sides to be on the same page, there has been little or no effort to have the communication methodology sorted out. The larger burden of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Sharif government, which is in charge of all the platforms of institutionalised communication. This is the third time it is in power. It has dealt with seven army chiefs. Its leadership has cut their political teeth during the Zia era. They ought to know how to engage with the army and create a decision-making process that takes in the army’s input without creating either a crisis of authority or of mutual confidence.
The Dawn leaks saga has highlighted how little the Sharif government has learnt about the value of the institutionalisation of interaction with the army. It continues to skate on the thin ice of bare minimum mutual trust. Its first instinct is to pander to the military high command; its second instinct is to cry foul and play the victim. In countries with complex histories, such as Pakistan, this is a recipe for disasters. If one is averted, it does not mean another one won’t strike any time soon.
For the army, the communication side of its institutional functioning is no less crucial. For years, the army has been talking only to itself, and in an efficient way, but has not developed any workable module to engage its civilian counterparts. The overly simple and, at times, misleading theory of civilian incompetence has spawned a culture of contempt, triggering an endless game of one-upmanship. We have seen no evidence of this strategy bearing any useful national fruit; it has served narrow personal interests, though, such as Raheel Sharif’s inflated image of a saviour, which he then cashed by landing a job in Saudi Arabia.
Other than that, the army suffers the tremors of a constant tug of war with the civilians. It gets sucked into situations it has no control over and is made to carry crosses it cannot lift. From showing pictures of meetings to budget allocation to dealing with defence challenges, everything is a manoeuvre to show how the brass outshines the waistcoat. This is exhausting. Expending national energies on trivial pursuits is meaningless. The army remains a formidable force. It enjoys national prestige. It is indispensible to national defence. These facts ensure the army a special place on the table of power.
Constitutionalists (and I dare put myself in that category) still have a long way to win the argument against the contextualists who treat the reality of the army’s preponderance as a given that every civilian government has to accept. If that is the case, what is the problem then? Why project and exhibit power needlessly? What does it achieve in the end? What did Gen Raheel Sharif achieve? Or Gen Musharraf for that matter? They made fissures wider and rooted mutual hatred deeper than ever by showing that the leaders people elect can be treated worse than doormats. If Pakistan is to function like a modern state the battle of the institutions must end.
But be sure that this battle will perpetuate as long as traffickers of scandals and purveyors of chaos continue to operate with impunity. When the DG ISPR’s tweet came out, a vast group of politicians, mediapersons, and anchors declared early Christmas. They put celebratory drinks on ice and started to dance to welcome the beginning of the end of another civilian government. That one tweet could set off a tsunami of wild joy tells how shameless this tribe has become. Praises were showered on the chief of army staff and the DG ISPR was promoted to the media rank of seven stars. Their glee was obvious as their plea was clear: the PM must resign because the army has rejected its take on Dawn leaks. This stampede that trampled on reality and flattened all cannons of the constitution raged for well after the tweet.
And then came May 10. The resolution (by no means ideal) of the tweet issue returned the system to its normal functioning, but for the dance party this was no less than 9/11. They mourned and wailed, bleated and cursed. They ridiculed the very institution that they had said a few days ago was the ultimate guarantor of Pakistan as a sovereign state. One drew parallels between the 1971 militant debacle and the withdrawal of the tweet; another cut cruel jokes about the weakness of the GHQ. Yet another said the army could not fight India and a few openly alleged ‘deal’. Aitzaz Ahsan wanted the DG ISPR to resign and Imran Khan stoked suspicions that the issue had been resolved on account of some underhand and shady understanding and therefore demanded explanations.
We understand that politicians will milk every opportunity to harness the opponent’s disadvantage so the PTI and PPP’s take on the resolution wasn’t unexpected. However, the foul campaign on social media against the army leadership was unbelievable. Ironically, almost all of these so-called critics either belonged to the establishment’s media assets or were retired servicemen. Both these categories never tire of claiming abiding love for the army and faking super-patriotism. That they turned on the army showed prompting, deliberate agenda and mal-intent that went beyond degrading the Dawn leaks issue. It seemed directed at perpetuating the civil-military divide.
The same group had urged the army to take over during the first PTI dharna. The same combination of analysts and politicos were active during the second dharna. They are precisely those who expected the judiciary to clash violently with the executive, and goad the army to ‘take charge of the situation.’ They play a dangerous game. Their incendiary rhetoric poisons the minds of the army’s rank and file who are made to cast a suspicious eye on their high command every time a decision is made that involves the civilian authority’s compliance. This group, this tribe, this lot, is forever engaged at wrecking the strategic harmony the country needs to face the tidal wave of upcoming challenges ahead. Their fasaad must be brought to an end. This is a national need.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.