Unpacking the Pakistan Army's Twitter War With Nawaz Sharif

The Pakistan army’s public rejection of Nawaz Sharif’s decision to sack top aide Tariq Fatemi reveals the extent it goes to protect its control over the country's national security and foreign policies.

If there was any doubt that the Pakistan army is a rouge entity unanswerable to the country’s civilian leadership, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) put it to rest last week by virtually declaring a war on the country’s elected prime minister. Major General Asif Ghafoor took to Twitter to rebuke Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in perhaps the harshest terms uttered by a two-star general to the holder of the highest office in the land.

However, there is no way that a major general could take on the thrice-elected prime minister without the backing of the chief of army staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. For all practical purposes, the ISPR tweet was a frontal attack on the office of the prime minister by the Pakistani army chief himself. The chatter among the Pakistani intelligentsia and in the Western media has been that Bajwa is a pro-democracy general who wishes to steer clear of politics but there might be elements within the army from the ex chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif’s era who may be trying to pitch him against the prime minister.

Contrary to such musings, the Pakistan army is an extremely disciplined outfit, which acts in unison under the chief of army staff. It is impossible to conceive that such blatant insubordination and subversion could have taken place without the prior knowledge and approval of the army chief. The mere fact that Ghafoor is still in the saddle and tweeting about the army chief’s travels to the front lines indicates that his outfit has got his back. Let’s look at it another way. Hypothetically, if the same officer had tweeted these same words about a report by the army chief, he would have been toast before he was done tweeting something so insubordinate.

The controversy started in October when the English newspaper Dawn reported that in a closed-door meeting the civilian leadership, specifically the Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, had confronted the then director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Rizwan Akhtar, over the army’s cherry picking of which jihadis to groom and which ones to act against. The civilians, reportedly, told the army officials that the world, including China, has little patience for continued use of jihadi proxies and would like to see a course correction. When the director general of ISI responded that civilians can feel free to act against any jihadi, Shehbaz is said to have complained that whenever the act, the army works surreptitiously to get them freed.

The Dawn story cannot be independently vetted but the reported position taken by the civilians in the meeting is in line with what the leadership of almost all Pakistani political parties complains of privately. That it was said in a formal meeting to the face of the ISI chief was what was newsworthy and, therefore, leaked to the press. The military, then under Raheel, was infuriated and demanded that civilian heads must roll. Nawaz commissioned an inquiry, the findings of which have not been made public yet. However, ostensibly acting on the recommendations of the said inquiry committee, the prime minister issued a directive to relieve one of his confidants, Tariq Fatemi of his advisory position. The current ruckus arose out of that directive getting leaked to the media. Army seems to have considered the action a mere rap on the knuckles and chose to throw a fit very publicly on Twitter.

While this time the army’s insubordination and subversion is very public thanks to the instant magnification of the message by the micro-blogging site, the message is not an aberration, but a norm. In the post-General Musharraf era, the Pakistan army has decided to maintain the military rule without actually imposing a martial law. The Pakistani army has perfected the art of ruling from behind the scenes over the past decade, using the civilian leaders virtually as human shields when the international pressure mounts, such as in the case of Osama bin Laden being found next door to the army’s officers training academy.

But when the civilians try to assert themselves in the national security and foreign policy matters, the army fires back directly and indirectly. One of the key components of such tutelary role is the army defining and retaining what it calls the national security matters. To that end, the Pakistan army uses various ploys to protect its absolute control of the national security and foreign policies and the tantrum over the so-called ‘Dawn Leaks’ is no different than similar episodes in the recent past where the military-managed media and pliant political and religious forces were used to browbeat the government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) into submission. For example, in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, where the US – largely upon the insistence of the then Pakistani ambassador to Washington – attached stipulations to military aid to Pakistan, the army went berserk and mobilised both media and the street to shake down the PPP government. The army eventually did exact its pound of flesh when it engineered the so-called Memogate crisis against the PPP and its ambassador, at the culmination of which, the latter had to step down.

Recent furor over an alleged Indian spy and then over a meeting between an Indian businessman and Nawaz have been the army’s attempts to undercut the Pakistani civilian leadership’s attempts for rapprochement with India. The reason for jealously guarding its self-anointed position as the arbiter of Pakistan’s national security is that army gets to remain not only a powerful political player but perhaps the country’s largest business enterprise. And the Pakistan army is not just the biggest business house but one of the most corrupt ones too. A reasonable level of Pakistani ties and trade with India, Iran, Afghanistan would suck the oxygen right out of army’s raison d’être i.e. to counter external threats and therefore its business enterprise too.

Pakistan army acts virtually as an economic class and in doing so it has no qualms about deploying and using jihadi proxies both at home and across the borders. No less than a former director general of ISI justified the domestic blowback from using the jihadists such as a brutal massacre of 144 schoolchildren in my hometown as mere “collateral damage” or the cost of doing business. Not only that but as recently as last week the Pakistani army trotted out Ehsanullah Ehsan, the notorious spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban who claimed killing thousands of Pakistanis, to allege that India was somehow fuelling jihadist terror in Pakistan.

A Pakistani newspaper has indicated that instead of being brought to book, the brutal Taliban thug may have been given an amnesty and a stipend by the army. Contrast this kid-glove treatment to a self-confessed terrorist with the brutal treatment meted out to the secular-liberal bloggers recently abducted by the army for criticising its role. One of the bloggers alleged that they were sodomised and tortured by the army. The Punjab chief minister Shehbaz had a point when he complained that whenever the civilians try to apprehend the jihadist terrorists, the army gets them off the hook and that it protects many jihadists while going after only the ones that buck its diktat.

The Pakistani civilians, on their part, have failed to rein in the army for a multitude of reasons, which range from dissipation of popular support due to terrible governance such as in the PPP era, dubious past financial practices as such the ones that have marred the incumbent government, and simply getting undercut by the political rivals who are too keen to make common cause with the army.

PM Nawaz indulged in the latter practice when he became the army’s cheerleader in the Memogate case against the PPP. The PPP, on the other hand, has found the current spat an opportune moment to get even with Nawaz and it is siding with the army. In terms of regional stability, the Pakistan army getting its way would translate into ongoing jihadist proxy warfare in Afghanistan and perhaps in India too. For the common Pakistanis the stakes are incredibly high since this would mean the army carrying on with its jihadist project for which it has developed a full extremist ecosystem, which has become so poisonous that common university students have no qualms about lynching their fellows in the name of religion as happened last month in the case of Mashal Khan. In an ideal situation, the civilians would have closed ranks, drawn a line in the sand and insisted on the director general of ISPR’s immediate dismissal to send a strong message to the military brass. Unless PM Nawaz opts to dig in, one of that seems to be happening however, indicating that the lopsided civil-military relationship will continue for the foreseeable future with a quasi-democratic plodding along under the army’s tutelage.

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