The civilian-military rift deepens in Pakistan following a tweet from an army official who "rejected" an inquiry into leaked information. Many are urging the PM to sack the official over the "Dawn Leaks" affair.
"Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected," Major General Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman for the Pakistani army, tweeted Saturday.
When Ghafoor was writing this tweet, he probably had no idea it would anger so many people in Pakistan. The military official's tweet, particularly the "Notification is rejected" part, is largely viewed in the South Asian country as condescending and a challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's authority. Some social media users "rejected" Ghafoor's tweet:
Most analysts agree that the powerful Pakistani military calls the shots in the Islamic country, and the elected civilian government has almost no say in key policy areas, but never before has the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department so openly and publicly defied the elected premier's authority.
Political observers say the civilian-military rift in Pakistan is now reaching breaking point.
And this time around, the civilian government, which generally avoids confronting the military, had to respond to Ghafoor's tweet.
"Whatever I say will be in accordance with the law. I believe that tweets, sent out by whichever institution, are a deadly poison for Pakistan's democracy, our system and justice," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference in Karachi hours after Ghafoor's tweet.
"Institutions should not address each other through tweets," Khan said, in an apparent reference to the ISPR tweet.
Alleged support for terrorists
In his tweet, the army spokesperson referred to the "Dawn Leaks," which had put the government and the military on a collision course in October last year.
In a report published by "Dawn" newspaper on October 7 last year, Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida wrote about an increasing tension between the civilian and military leadership regarding how the country deals with Islamist terrorists.
"In a blunt, orchestrated and unprecedented warning, the civilian government has informed the military leadership of a growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought consensus on several key actions by the state," Almeida wrote, citing different sources.
"The message: military-led intelligence agencies are not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action," the journalist added.
The international community, particularly the United States, has repeatedly accused the Pakistani army of backing Islamic militants in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.
Sharif's government, however, denied the contents of the report. While the civilian authorities said no such conversation ever took place, some observers claimed the government itself "leaked" the content to the newspaper.
"… the published story was clearly in violation of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts," the government said in a statement on October 10. It also ordered an inquiry into "Dawn Leaks."
The government has not made public the inquiry committee's recommendations, however, in a notification issued by the prime minister office, Syed Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to the prime minister on foreign affairs, was removed from his post for his alleged role in "Dawn Leaks." Major General Asif Ghafoor responded to Fatemi's sacking notification.
"The [final] notification has yet to be issued by the ministry of interior, and it will be in line with the recommendations we have received from the [inquiry] committee," said the interior minister.
Pakistani journalist Imran Shirvanee told DW that Ghafoor should be tried in court for defying the PM's authority.
"The army is trying to increase pressure on PM Sharif. They want the Pakistani people to believe that the actual power lies with the army, and that it should be like that," Shirvanee told DW's Urdu Service.
Shirvanee says the main question raised in "Dawn Leaks" has not been answered: "Is Pakistan supporting terrorists? If yes, then admit it. If not, then talk about it openly. These are the main questions."
Regional and international isolation
Journalist Almeida's story came out at a particularly sensitive time for Islamabad, as its ties with New Delhi have deteriorated following the tensions on the Kashmir border. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed in a speech last year that he would work to isolate Pakistan internationally due to its alleged support for Islamic militants in Kashmir.
Almeida's report said that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI's) former chief Rizwan Akhtar was told by the civilian government that "Pakistan could only avoid international isolation if it took action against Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network" - the militant groups India and the US declared terrorist organizations. Hence, Almeida's report pretty much endorsed India's accusations about Pakistan's support for militants.
Experts say Sharif's government might have come under pressure from the army after the report was published, thus it is now denying it and trying to save face.
"Dawn" newspaper also suggested the same: "The elected government and state institutions should refrain from targeting the messenger, and scape-goating the country's most respected newspaper in a malicious campaign," the newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday.
"The civilian officials visited the US and European countries several times in the aftermath of the killings of Indian soldiers by militants in Kashmir, pleading Pakistan's case. But the diplomatic message they received from Washington and Brussels was against the Pakistani army, and that's what these officials conveyed to PM Sharif in Islamabad," Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a senior Pakistani journalist based in Brussels, told DW.
"Almeida's story actually came out of those messages from the international community," the journalist, who covers diplomatic matters for Pakistan in Brussels, added.
Farooqi also said that the army leadership is very skeptical of Nawaz Sharif due to the premier's repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed archrivals.
"Sharif has understood that liberal economic policies and good relations with neighboring countries is the only way forward for Pakistan. But there are institutions and groups in the country which do not agree with this approach," Farooqi said.
Civilian authority must be respected
It will be interesting to see who comes out stronger, the military or the civilian government, in the tussle over supremacy on political affairs. Experts say that by not extending the former army chief Raheel Sharif's tenure, the prime minister gave a strong message to the military generals that they have to respect his authority.
Opposition leader Imran Khan is pushing with the Panama Papers corruption case against Prime Minister Sharif, the government is already under a lot of pressure. Analysts say Khan has the backing of the army against Sharif.
But Sharif has the regional and international support to assert his authority. Activists say he must sack the ISPR spokesman, which will send out a clear warning to the military to respect his constitutional superiority.