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Pakistani PM 'forces' military to back off

May 11, 2017

The Pakistani army has recanted its statement on a "Dawn Leaks" civilian-military rift that purportedly undermined the premier's authority. Pro-democracy groups say it's a rare victory for Sharif over the army generals.

Nawaz Sharif 13.05.2013
Image: Reuters

The Pakistani military said in a statement on Wednesday it had resolved the "Dawn Leaks" dispute with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government and had withdrawn a tweet that "rejected" the PM-established inquiry commission's report over the matter.

On April 29, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman for the Pakistani army's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department, expressed his institution's dissatisfaction over the government's probe into the leak that put the Islamic country's powerful military and the civilian government on a collision course.

"Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected," Ghafoor said on Twitter.

When Ghafoor was writing this tweet, he probably had no idea it would anger a large number of people in Pakistan. The military official's tweet, particularly the "Notification is rejected" part, was widely viewed in the South Asian country as condescending and a challenge to Prime Minister Sharif's authority.

"The tweet [posted by the Inter-Services Public Relations director general] on April 29, 2017 was not aimed at any government office or person," the military's media wing said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Recommendations as contained in para 18 of the Inquiry Committee Report, duly approved by the prime minister, have been implemented, which has settled the Dawn Leaks issue. Accordingly, ISPR's said Twitter post stands withdrawn and has become infructuous."

The ISPR statement added that the Pakistani army "reiterates its firm commitment and continued resolve to uphold the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and support the democratic process."

"Unnecessary hype was created regarding the ISPR tweet," Ghafoor told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday. He said some sections created an impression that the military and the civilian government were locked in a "face-to-face" confrontation.

Alleged support for terrorists

Most analysts agree that the powerful Pakistani military calls the shots in the South Asian country, and the elected civilian government has almost no say in key policy areas, but never before had the military so openly and publicly defied the elected premier's authority.

Political observers say the civilian-military rift in Pakistan had reached breaking point prior to the military's withdrawal of the Dawn Leaks tweet.

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 over 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.

Pakistan Mehr als hundert Extremisten nach Anschlag auf Sufi-Schrein in Pakistan getötet
Pakistan is facing multiple security challengesImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Majeed

It was not a new allegation as the international community, particularly the United States, has repeatedly accused the Pakistani army of backing Islamic militants in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir. What made Dawn's report unusual was that Pakistan's civilian government itself was criticizing the military.

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.

But the government has not made public the inquiry committee's recommendations in a notification issued by the prime minister's 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."

Unanswered questions

Pakistan's pro-democracy activists say that the withdrawal of the statement by the army is not enough and that the PM should dismiss ISPR's Ghafoor.

Pakistani journalist Imran Shirvanee said 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 in a response to the April 29 tweet.

Shirvanee said 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."

But some political observers say the military and PM Sharif should avoid further confrontation, as it is not in the interest of the country that is facing multiple security challenges.

Nepal SAARC Gipfel in Kathmandu 2014
Experts say PM Sharif (right) is being pressured for seeking better ties with regional rival IndiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Shrestha

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 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 former chief of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), 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 denied it and tried to save face.

"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.

Pakistan Qamar Javed Bajwa
Most analysts agree that the powerful Pakistani military calls the shots in the Islamic countryImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Yousuf

"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

For the first time, an elected civilian prime minister has managed to force the mighty Pakistani army to retreat.

Sharif could not complete his second term in office in the late 1990s as then army chief Pervez Musharraf staged a coup against his government and later sent Sharif into exile to Saudi Arabia. In the latest civilian-military tug-of-war, PM Sharif has emerged victorious. But experts say it does not mean the civilian government has gained an upper hand in all affairs of governance. The military generals will continue to call the shots, they say.

At the same time, opposition leader Imran Khan is pushing with the Panama Papers corruption case against Prime Minister Sharif, and the government is already under a lot of pressure. Analysts say Khan has the backing of the army.

"After the Dawn leaks issue, the military must allow the prime minister to deal with the foreign policy also. It will help him forge close relations with the neighboring countries. The military's policies have so far kept Pakistan in constant state of war," Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based activist, wrote on Facebook.