Living dangerously – again

In the voluminous annals of civil-military relations in Pakistan, there is this ‘one page’ that we are now trying to read and interpret. It is a new addition to the tome, for the moving finger keeps on writing. Does it have blanks for what is not written? And who will fill the blanks?

But, first, let me just quote a press release issued on October 6, 2021 with the seal of the Inter Services Public Relations – No PR-166/2021-ISPR. Its entire text: “Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum appointed DG ISI. Lieutenant General Muhammad Saeed appointed Commander Karachi Corps. Lieutenant General Nauman Mahmood appointed President NDU. Major General Muhammad Asim Malik promoted Lieutenant General and appointed Adjutant General of Pakistan Army”.

On whatever page you put this press release, reading it is no problem. There is no riddle or word play here. Or is there something we cannot understand? Do we need a clairvoyant or a magician to tell us what the message really is? Well, I do not want to raise these questions and will not bother you much with the crisis around the appointment of the new DG ISI.

For some, there may be a touch of mystery in the fact that another episode recorded in the book on civil-military relations was launched on another sixth of October, though in 2016, exactly five years ago. On that day, English daily Dawn published a report on its front page, bylined Cyril Almeida, with this headline: “Exclusive: Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military”.

Jog your memory a little and you will recall what a bombshell this report turned out to be. Perhaps what the civilians tell the military should not be a big headline. Anyhow, you guessed it. This is how the saga of the Dawn leaks began.

I find that relevant for a number of reasons. One is that its resolution was not the end of the story. Apparently, time bombs are planted in every such event that go off after intervals. Another reason is that the climactic development in that story was a notification issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

In addition, many of the lead players in the Dawn leaks thriller are still in the game. However, one similarity between Dawn leaks and the present crisis – a prime minister having to deal with a civil-military issue – is wrapped up in a strange twist in the tale. We find Imran Khan in somewhat the same position as Nawaz Sharif was five years ago. But how can the two, the most irreconcilable antagonists in Pakistan’s politics, be cast in a potentially similar role?

Now, to return to Dawn leaks. After the controversial report had raised a storm, the government of Nawaz Sharif was compelled to control the damage. An inquiry was held, and some steps were taken. For instance, the then information minister Pervaiz Rashid lost his portfolio because he did not play his role effectively to restrain the journalist from running a story that allegedly leaked sensitive material that had a bearing on national security.

In any case, the office of the prime minister issued a notification on the decisions that had been taken. Immediately, the ISPR had its response. The DG ISPR released a tweet that said: “Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected”.

This tweet was posted on April 29, 2017 – that is how long the crisis had lingered. Those three words, “notification is rejected”, were etched in flames that appeared on the political horizon. They constituted a blatant defiance of civilian authority. Tension mounted to critical levels.

Eventually, a meeting was held between the prime minister and the chief of the army staff, with some high officials from both sides. After that, the DG ISPR held a press conference to announce the decision to withdraw the tweet. He said that the prime minister was the final authority, and his orders should be implemented.

Still, it took 11 days for that tweet to be rejected. My column published on May 14, 2017, in this space was titled ‘11 days of living dangerously’. It was also a lament for “our wasteful preoccupation with confrontational politics when so many life-and-death issues demand the nation’s attention”.

A somewhat similar situation has developed after this year’s sixth of October. But considering the bond that has existed between Imran Khan and the establishment, this discord on the appointment of the new DG ISI and its timing is not easy to explain. And if Dawn leaks are any guide to how these disagreements are resolved, what began on October 6 will not conclude with the possible resolution of the DG ISI issue with mutual consent.

Meanwhile, of course, many other threats to the existing political equilibrium are lurking in the shadows. The manner in which Imran Khan has conducted himself, as reflected in his recent initiatives, would suggest that he is not fully aware of the gathering storm, internally and externally.

In the midst of the many challenges that the present government seems unwilling to meet head-on, the reported impasse between the civil and military leadership on the issue of appointing a new spymaster appears to be a reckless distraction.

Or is this something written in the stars? No, I am not invoking remarks that Maryam Nawaz had made in Islamabad on Wednesday. However, professional astrologers had underlined the significance of the new moon of October 6. Without any reference to Pakistan, they have, in a global context, predicted radical shifts and changes. This month is critical, they insist.

But do we, in Pakistan, need a soothsayer to tell us what is coming? As Bob Dylan sang, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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