South Asia

Every Assassination Makes the Army’s Grip Over Pakistan Tighter and More Lethal

The killing of PTM leader Sardar Arif Wazir and the death of exiled Baloch journalist Sajid Hussain come at a time when the army is weakening the provinces by undermining the 18th amendment to the Pakistani constitution.

“Assassination”, said George Bernard Shaw, “is the extreme form of censorship”. And I have always maintained that censorship is the milder form of political assassination. Choking free expression  strangulates the political process. In Pakistan, the country’s army is practicing both censorship and assassination with increasing impunity.

On May 1, 2020, a leading member of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM or Pashtun Defence Movement) Sardar Arif Wazir, was shot when he was strolling outside his house in Wana, in the former tribal district of South Waziristan. He later succumbed to his injuries in an Islamabad hospital. The PTM has said that the attackers were the so-called ‘good Taliban’. The good Taliban are ostensibly the ones who are considered the Pakistan army’s asset and do its dirty work, as against the ‘bad Taliban’, who had spun out of GHQ’s orbit and attacked the army by forming the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP).

Arif Wazir’s clan, along with scores of other tribal elders, has stood like a rock against the Pakistan army’s policy of using the Pashtun tribal areas as the point d’appui to launch the Taliban into Afghanistan and in the process creating a jihadist ecosystem in the Pashtun areas straddling the Durand Line. The Taliban, both the good and bad, have killed these tribal elders called the Masharan, by the hundreds, over the past 14 years.

Arif Wazir was the 18th member of his family killed at the hands of the Pakistan army’s strategic jihadist assets, and mud be in my mouth, he may not be the last one. He and his cousin Ali Wazir, who is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly (MNA) from the region, narrowly survived an armed assault last year and the army had shot and killed 13 PTM members in a separate incident.

Arif Wazir spent almost 15 months in prison, off and on since the inception of the PTM two years ago, on cooked-up charges at the behest of the army. He had just come home from the prison and had already started political activities with the PTM, the thrust of which has been to oppose the army’s policy of rehabilitating the Taliban in the region. The PTM has been calling for an end to this practice. Over the past 15 years, the Pakistan army has launched several operations in the Pashtun tribal areas, which have now been integrated into the country’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, ostensibly to purge the area of the Taliban. Local leaders, however, have lamented, including from the PTM’s podium, that the army’s operations were highly selective: they cunningly preserved and relocated all their Afghan jihadi assets and local Taliban supporters to the contiguous tribal areas and the Pashtun regions of the Balochistan province.

For example, the word about the army’s flagship Operation Zarb-e-Azb was out for months before any action started on the ground in June 2014, allowing many Taliban to make good their escape. Additionally, the army used to impose curfew in the region and literally bussed out the Haqqani Network leaders and cadres before the first shot was fired. In fact, the Pakistan army has not been able to show that it arrested or killed a single Afghan jihadist or a local ‘good Taliban’ in Zarb-e-Azb. Writing about that operation, I had noted in June 2014, “The Pakistani calculus has always been that the US will leave behind a power vacuum in which the ‘good’ Taliban, like the Haqqani Network (HQN), would lead the charge. Indications are that the HQN ringleaders, including its head honcho, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and midlevel operatives have already evacuated North Waziristan.”

Fast forward to 2020 and one can see Sirajuddin Haqqani not only finding a seat at the negotiations table with the United States, as the Taliban’s deputy emir, but also becoming the first designated terrorist to have an op-ed published in the New York Times. The Pakistan army’s calculus was right, albeit at an immeasurable cost to the local Pashtun population in their sweat, blood and treasure.

Thousands like Arif Wazir have been sacrificed at the altar of Pakistan army’s jihadi policy and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, becoming refugees in their own country. The army, however, does not seem to have any regrets and hence the current repatriation of its jihadist assets to the former tribal districts. The only thing different this time is that there is – in the form of PTM – a robust and organic political movement that is challenging the army’s narrative and calling it out for its lies.

The army’s lackeys like the governor of the Punjab province have tried to pin Arif Wazir’s brutal assassination on the Afghan intelligence service.

The governor’s verified twitter account posted that “The NDS first intended to kill Manzoor Pashteen (PTM’s top leader). But when he went into hiding, Arif Wazir’s corpse was delivered. (MNAs) Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir aided and abetted in this murder”.

After having blamed the PTM endlessly for being an NDS proxy, the irony was perhaps lost on the governor’s team! Regardless, they deleted the tweet and blamed it on unauthorised use of the account.

There is an undeclared ban on media coverage of the PTM’s political activities and its leaders have been tacitly denied any screen or airtime. Newspapers have purged, under duress, columns and even columnists for writing about the PTM. The PTM has, however, been getting its message across through the deft use of social media and its leaders have penned op-eds for international publications. So, when curbs on media and coercing journalists didn’t work, the establishment through its jihadist henchmen, appears to have resorted to the extreme form of censorship – assassinations. And Arif Wazir might not be the only one whose blood trail leads towards the army and its unsavoury allies.

Baloch journalist targeted

A Baloch journalist, Sajid Hussain, who was living in exile in Sweden and edited an online publication, The Balochistan Times, had gone missing in March. His body was found in a river near the Swedish town of Uppsala on April 23,2020. The New York Times wrote: “Reporters Without Borders suggested in a statement that Mr. Hussain’s death could have followed an abduction “at the behest of a Pakistani intelligence agency…. Taliban and Islamic State militants operate in Mr. Hussain’s home province in Pakistan, as do criminal groups.” It is, therefore, critical to understand the nature of the army’s involvement with the jihadists, drug barons and criminal groups.

Hussain had reported extensively on the Pakistan army’s dirty war in Balochistan, the Baloch separatist movement and how it challenged an international drug lord named Imam Bheel’s sway in Balochistan. In 2009, President Barrack Obama’s administration had sanctioned Bheel as one of the four international drug-trafficking kingpins under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. But drugs weren’t Bheel’s only act. He hobnobbed with Pakistani politicians including those friendly to the military establishment, and with the army itself. One of General Pervez Musharraf’s ministers,  Zubeida Jalal, allegedly got him off the hook in a hijacking case. Ironically, Bheel’s son defeated the minister in the next general elections. But Bheel’s importance for and collaboration with the army has been two-fold: firstly, he worked with the army against the secular Baloch militant separatists, and secondly, by helping with the Afghan Taliban’s drug trade and trafficking to bankroll their war.

Without the autopsy report it is difficulty to say if indeed there was any foul play involved in the death of the journalist. However, Sajid Hussain sure had many enemies including the Pakistani intelligence agencies and its narco-mafia collaborators. Though the army has refrained from going after dissidents abroad, in 2018, the US, UK and European law enforcement agencies had personally warned dozens of Pakistani dissident writers, intellectuals and activists living in self-exile against traveling back to Pakistan or certain Middle Eastern and European countries. Before that, the former army dictator General Pervez Musharraf – ironically absconding from Pakistan’s courts and now in Dubai – had called for assassinations of Pakistani dissent leaders and cadres living abroad.

Army-driven disinformation and worse

Add to this mix, the recent appointment of Lt. General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa as the special assistant to the prime minister for information, and one can see that the army’s vice-like grip over the narrative is only going get tighter, with specific goals in their mind. General Asim Bajwa – no relation to the incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa – is currently serving as the chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA), effectively ensuring the army’s control over the mega-billion project. But his real claim to fame is that as the director general of Inter-services Public Relations (DG ISPR) he was the architect of media censorship and coercion in the post-Musharraf dictatorship era. He prodded, induced, cajoled and coerced media houses and newspapers to self-censor. In my own case, he literally ordered Pakistan’s Daily Times, where I had written a weekly column for six years, to shut it down along with my co-columnist and Baloch rights campaigner Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur’s weekly piece. He created a culture of purging dissident voices from the electronic media through duress.

Another one of his nefarious contributions was building social media troll armies to hound, harass, smear and drown out the voices that oppose the army’s hegemony in politics. As DG ISPR, he created a larger-than-life public persona of the then COAS, General Raheel Shareef, through sheer projection and propaganda. According to the respected military historian, Hamid Hussain, “This was resented by professional officers and he was ridiculed by fellow officers as ‘twitter-in-chief’ and ‘Goebbels of Pakistan’. Current army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa realised the error and has ordered toning down the projection.”

But General Qamar Bajwa had his own Goebbels, albeit a rather crude and unlettered one: Major General Asif Ghafoor. General Ghafoor was a volatile and often times petty man, who picked personal vendettas on Twitter, only to be chastised and ridiculed. He, however, carried on relentlessly with the troll farming and media control with great success. Large media and publishing houses were cowed down, one after the other. However, since General Ghafoor was posted out earlier this year, his replacement, Major General Babar Iftikhar, has been struggling to find his feet. It seems that while General Iftikhar is learning on the job, General Asim Bajwa has been sent in as reinforcement. Another reason for buttressing the (dis)information front is that the army-friendly Prime Minister Imran Khan’s spokespersons and information ministers have fumbled and faltered. They have been replaced more times than one can remember. The brass – perennially obsessed with image and least concerned with changing the reality – was not happy with its puppet’s failure to put lipstick on the pig.

Why the constitution’s 18th amendment is a red rag for GHQ

But there is more to these attempts to gag the media and silence the dissenters, quite literally, at this juncture. The army is extremely unhappy with the landmark 18th Constitutional Amendment, which was passed unanimously 10 years ago and signed into law by the then president, Asif Ali Zardari. The 18th amendment is one of the most detailed parts of the constitution. It remedied many malicious mutations inducted into the Pakistani constitution by military rulers, including arrogating the power of dissolving the national assembly and thus the government to the president. President Zardari voluntarily gave up that power through this amendment.

In 1972, when the rump Pakistani parliament got to the business of framing a new constitution in the aftermath of East Pakistan’s secession and independence, it agreed on a federal structure. It was also agreed that for a set period of time, various subjects would fall under the domain of both the federal government and the federating units i.e. the provincial governments. This concurrent list was to be abolished in due course but thanks to two bouts of martial law spanning 20 years in total, and a decade of controlled democracy, that never happened. Finally, when the 18th amendment devolved the bulk of the joint subjects to the provinces, that along with the National Finance Commission (NFC) award did not go down well with the army, and many in the civil bureaucracy. So much so that the current distributions have essentially remained frozen at what the 7th NFC award had granted in 2010.

The Business Recorder’s columnist, Rashed Rahman, recently wrote: Under this 7th NFC award, the Centre receives 42.5% of the divisible pool, while the remaining 57.5 percent is distributed amongst the provinces on the formula of shares being determined as follows: 82% on the basis of population, 10.3% on the basis of poverty and backwardness, 5% on revenue collection and 2.7% on inverse population.”

The premise of devolution was that the federal government would increase the tax-to-GDP ratio and cut expenditure in redundant ministries. With the army’s Imran Khan project going bust, the economic outlook remains in the doldrums and the tax base has actually shrunk, making the army – the biggest beneficiary of the federal largesse – nervous. But unwilling to jettison its disastrous venture, the army has opted to attempt to claw back what was duly awarded to the provinces through the 18th amendment. To this end, the Imran-Bajwa regime’s ministers have already been commissioned to impugn the 18th amendment and the NFC Award, with the ultimate goal of rolling back many of their provisions.

With Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) holding on to a parliamentary majority with the skin of its teeth, let alone having the required two-thirds majority, and almost all other parties opposing a rollback, the plot seems to be to coerce major political parties like the former PM Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to fall in line. Both the PMLN and PPP leadership face cooked-up graft charges, for which they have been in and out of prison. A get-out-of-jail carrot will likely be dangled along with the stick of more cases, should they refuse to play ball.

A senior PMLN leader very close Nawaz Sharif recently told me that they don’t see any reason to undo the 18th amendment and if there are issues in delivery and application, the provinces should be asked to review. But a camp within the PMLN allied with Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif seems a bit more amenable to the army’s demands. The ethno-national Baloch and Pashtun parties and the PPP, which has its stronghold in Sindh province, are likely to resist a change in the quantum of provincial autonomy and divisible pool allocations.

While a complete roll back of the 18th amendment would be improbable, the army through Imran Khan is most likely going to shake down the opposition parties to get maximum concessions. The army is essentially out to regain all the political space it lost after the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf and restoration of democracy. It knows full well that tinkering with the 18th amendment effectively means weakening the federation and triggering political chaos. But its plan seems to be to manage this – through brute force, gagging the media, and blackmailing the political parties already hamstrung by concocted legal cases. And to make the power grab complete, the vestiges of dissident voices, especially in the Pashtun and Baloch areas, are to be handled with lethal force.

This not-so-surreptitious attempt at usurpation comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when local and global attention is on fighting the deadly disease. But Pakistan’s democratic forces will be well-advised to close ranks and keep an eye out for the army’s virulent moves. Mischief is afoot and only a robust, cohesive political opposition can counter it. Otherwise, the censorship, assassinations and power grab will go on.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets at @mazdaki

Note: In an earlier version of this article, the photo of Ali Wazir was inadvertently used instead of Arif Wazir.