With each new domestic crisis, the civilian government’s political space keeps shrinking.
New Delhi: In a move that is seen by analysts as further restricting the political space of the civilian government in Pakistan, the country’s army has publicly “rejected” a notification issued by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif removing foreign affairs advisor Tariq Fatemi since this was apparently not in line with proposals made by a panel probing anti-army ‘leaks’ to the media.
The latest ‘breach’ in the crumbling compact between the beleaguered prime minister and the all-powerful military comes at a time when Nawaz Sharif, arguably the strongest politician in Pakistan, is already facing a barrage of criticism from the opposition over his meeting with Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal – news of which was apparently leaked by the security agencies.
On Saturday, Sharif’s secretary issued an order after an inquiry committee tasked with investigating the provenance of a controversial article published in Dawn on October 6, 2016, submitted its report to the government. The front-page article in Dawn, the country’s most respected newspaper, had reported on the proceedings of a high-level meeting where there had allegedly been sharp disagreements between the civilian and military establishments over the question of Pakistan-based terror groups targeting India and Afghanistan.
Details of the committee’s findings have not been made public but it was widely being speculated in the Pakistani media that Fatemi – a confidante of Nawaz – was going to be made to fall on the sword over the leak, which the army had taken strong objection to.
It is now apparent that Fatemi’s tame ouster from the government may not satisfy the army.
Just over an hour after Sharif’s order became public, the head of Inter-Services Public Relations wing of the military, Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted that the military had “rejected” the “notification” as it did not follow the recommendations of the inquiry committee.
In the order, it was stated that that the Sharif had “considered the findings” of the inquiry committee and “approved” the recommendations of “para 18” of the report. Before listing the four points, the one-page order said the prime minister had given direction “further as follows” – indicating that those were in addition to the recommendations.
The order said that the “allocation of portfolio of foreign affairs to Syed Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to the prime minister, shall be withdrawn”. There was no mention of the reason for the change in Fatemi’s situation.
According to Pakistan PMO sources, Fatemi, who is known to be close to Nawaz Sharif, is likely to remain as a special assistant, but with another portfolio.
Incidentally, the Pakistan foreign office had on Monday described reports that Fatemi would be fired over the ‘Dawn Leaks’ as “irresponsible and malicious allegations”.
The PMO order also called for action against Rao Tehsin Ali, principal information officer of the ministry of information “on the charges based on findings in the instant report”.
A senior Pakistani official told The Wire that the matter of Fatemi’s exit – and the stated reasons for it – are important because there will also be pressure to prosecute Sharif’s special assistant for the ‘leak’ which, by bringing the army into ‘disrepute’, can be presented as something that undermined the country’s national security. “It is one thing for him to be quietly dropped, and another for the government to officially pin the leak on the him,” the official said. In the latter case, Fatemi would almost certainly be exposed legal action.
Media a target too
The other two points in the order related to the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), to whom the role of “Daily Dawn/Mr Zafar Abbas/Mr Cyril Almeida” has been referred for “necessary disciplinary action”. Abbas is the editor of Dawn, while Almeida was the author of the article, who had even been put on country’s ‘Exit Control list’ – effectively barring him from foreign travel – for a short period of time. Almeida has since travelled abroad without hindrance.
The APNS has also been asked to draft a code of conduct for the “print media especially when dealing with issues related to security of Pakistan and to ensure that stories on issues of national importance and security are published by abiding to basic journalistic and editorial norms”.
The Dawn article had already forced the Nawaz Sharif government to sack information minister Pervaiz Rasheed, but that is clearly not enough for the Pakistan military which had been pressing for further action.
An inquiry committee was subsequently formed to check who ‘leaked’ the information about the high-level meeting as reported in the newspaper, even though the government and military claimed that none of its contents was true.
Warfare by tweets
After the tweet from the Pakistan army’s media wing, interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan sought to de-escalate the matter by saying that there was no “final notification” in the ‘Dawn Leaks’ case. “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 and have come after the briefings I have given to the prime minister,” he told reporters in Karachi on Saturday evening. The final notification, which has yet to be issued by the interior ministry, “will be in line with the recommendations we have received from the committee,” he said.
Nisar also took a swipe at the army. “I believe that tweets, sent out by whichever institution, are a deadly poison for Pakistan’s democracy, our system and justice,” he said, apparently in answer to another question which was not related to the ‘Dawn Leaks’, adding, “Institutions should not address each other through tweets”.
Stating that it was “regrettable that a non-issue has been turned into a huge deal”, he also seemingly contradicted himself, noting, “these are monumental issues, and we are handling them with tweets.”
Asserting that “nobody will be shielded”, the minister said that the ‘black and white’ recommendations of the inquiry committee will be used for the notification.
The Jindal factor
Nisar also answered questions on the matter of Sharif’s meeting with Indian steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal on Wednesday. The Pakistan PM’s close friendship with the businessman has apparently not gone down well in Rawalpindi.
According to Radio Pakistan, the interior minister said that “prime minister does not become suspicious after holding a meeting with an Indian citizen and any speculations in this regard are uncalled for”.
Whether Jindal met Sharif on behalf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – as is being speculated by the Pakistani opposition and media – over the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, or to further his own business investments in Afghanistan, Sharif’s apparent proximity to the Indian tycoon is seen as a red rag to the army brass.
Toughest army statement to date
Observers note that the public “rejection” was unprecedented for the Pakistan army, which has dealt with previous disagreements either through behind-the-scenes manipulation or through carefully couched public statements.
In April 2014, after former President Pervez Musharraf was charged on five counts of treason and was prevented by the government from going abroad, the ISPR issued a statement which had then been described as “extraordinarily hard-hitting”, though it pales in comparison with the its latest tweet.
General Raheel Sharif, who was Pakistan army chief at the time, was quoted in the ISPR press release as saying that the military would “resolutely preserve its own dignity and institutional pride”. His words were apparently in response to “concerns of the soldiers on undue criticism of the Institution in recent days”.
Raheel Sharif’s statement was interpreted as a sharp rebuke, since ISPR releases are usually banal and sanitised.
After Pakistan’s Supreme Court made some observations on the funding of politicians by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in November 2012, the then Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had issued a long statement asserting that “any effort which wittingly or unwittingly draws a wedge between the people and the armed forces of Pakistan undermines the larger national interest”.
Pressure on Nawaz
After the PMLN-led government of Nawaz Sharif was elected in 2013, it has faced several challenges, including the ‘dharna’ by PTI leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, which lasted for four months in Islamabad. The general consensus was that the ‘Azadi march’ had the blessings of the army establishment, which did not want to see Sharif get too big for his boots.
When Raheel Sharif was succeeded by Qamar Bajwa as army chief last year, the general perception was that there was now a greater rapport between the new army chief and Nawaz Sharif and that the military was willing to let the civilian government play a greater role, especially on domestic security management. However, observers had warned that despite any change at the top leadership, the institutionalised instincts of the Pakistan army have remained consistent and that it would be reluctant to cede space on foreign policy issues, especially in the neighbourhood, and on ‘national security’ in general.
With Sharif and PMLN continuing to be the strongest political force in Pakistan, observers believe that there would continue to be more similar ‘developments’, where the civilian government will find that its space for diplomatic or political manoeuvring has been restricted.
The April 10 announcement of the death sentence on Jadhav for espionage is seen as constricting Sharif’s plans for outreach towards India, when relations were at their lowest in recent times.
The April 21 Pakistani Supreme Court verdict on the Panama offshore accounts of Sharif family members has also given the army more leverage over Sharif. The court announced that a joint investigation team, which includes members from the ISI and military intelligence, would be set up to probe the money trail and submit its report within two months.
Three days later, ISPR issued a release that the corps commander conference had discussed the Supreme Court’s decision. “The forum pledged that [the] institution through its members in JIT shall play its due role in a legal and transparent manner fulfilling confidence reposed by the apex court of Pakistan,” it said.
The latest developments “amplify, emphatically and vividly, just how widely imbalanced civil-military relations are in Pakistan”, Michael Kugelman of the US-based Wilson Center told The Wire. “It appears that by trying to weaken the premier, the military wishes to paint Nawaz Sharif deeper and deeper into a corner, perhaps in the hope that he’ll conclude it’s best that he step down. But if history is any guide, Sharif will simply dig in his heels,” he said.