Sakariya Kareem explores how a young journalist working with Pakistan’s most respectable newspaper rocked the country by exposing the uneasy civil-military relations… An exclusive for Asian Lite News
Pakistan’s most popular English-language daily DAWN, founded by the father of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in old Delhi’s Darya Ganj area just before the creation of this country, is in trouble. It all started with the publication on October 6 of a common-knowledge front page report about uneasy civil-military relations that have been dragging the country to diplomatic isolation. The DAWN story gave an impression of separate stands of the civilian government and the Army on cross-border-terrorism. The civilian government is under tremendous pressure to rein in cross-border terrorists, but the Army patronises them as a useful tool in helping their idea of national security. That this has overstrained in Pakistan’s situation.
The DAWN story was authored by its Assistant Editor Cyril Almeida who talked to the people who attended a high-level meeting of civilian and government leaders to discuss country’s security. This meeting presided over by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took over the falling international image especially after the cross-LoC terrorist attack on the Indian Army camp in Uri on September 18 killing 19 Indian soldiers. Ironically, this happened when Pakistani civilians were patting themselves on the presumption that they had put India in the dock for human rights violations in Kashmir. This excitement slumped suddenly after the Uri attack by Pak Army’s minion, the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The DAWN’s assistant editor learnt from the officials, who attended the meeting, that the ruling PML(N) showed signs of a mood to assert itself vis-à-vis the Army.
Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of Punjab province, had a tiff with the ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar. The lead decision of this meeting was the Prime Minister’s unprecedented warning to the Army and the ISI not to shield banned militant groups. He said fresh attempts be made to conclude investigation into the Pathankot attack on January 2nd this year and reopen the trial of those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai carnage.
Two developments apparently weighed heavy on Sharif’s mind when he ultimately decided to warn the Army. They were: (1) a debate in the joint session of the Pakistan Parliament accusing the government of bringing about the diplomatic isolation of the country by hobnobbing with non-state actors. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) senator Aitzaz Ahsan squarely blamed the Prime minister (he and his cabinet colleagues chose to stay away from Parliament during this debate) for this isolation. He said: “Pakistan is isolated because it gives freedom to non-state actors”. He slammed cabinet’s denial of Pakistani involvement in the Uri attack ; and (2) On October 3rd, the DAWN report said the Pak Foreign Secretary Aizaz Choudhary made a presentation to a small group of civilian and military officials. This presentation based on recent diplomatic outreach by Pakistan said, in brief, that the officials who had gone to different major world capitals to sell Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir and terrorism drew blank. Choudhary said relations with the United States were likely to further deteriorate because of its persistent demand for action against the Haqqani network. The Chinese response was disheartening. The Chinese leaders reportedly told Pakistani emissaries that they would keep on putting technical hold on a United Nations (UN) ban on JeM Chief Masood Azhar, but questioned the logic of doing so repeatedly. They hinted that Pakistan change its course.
On October 10th, Prime Minister Sharif presided over a meeting attended by the Pak CoAS General Raheel Sharif, ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Akhtar and senior cabinet colleagues. The meeting called the DAWN story a fabrication and against the principle of reporting of national security matters. The story enraged the Prime Minister, who ordered authorities to take stern action against those who were responsible for the publication of this “fabricated” report. The maverick Interior Minister of Pakistan, Choudhary Nisar Ali Khan made haste and the very next day placed Cyril Almeida on the Exit Control List (ECL) and banned his travel abroad. Neither the participants in the meeting nor the Interior Minister bothered to remind themselves that the country had an institution called the Press Council which deals with such cases.
The hurry showed by Choudhary Nisar smacked of a hidden dark design. He justified the hurry by telling newsmen that he learnt that Cyril was going abroad next morning. He quoted Delhi’s newspapers to show how his story was reported by them thereby creating an impression that India could be behind this story. Earlier, the Pak CoAS Gen Raheel Sharif had also tried to create this impression when in reaction to the DAWN story of October 6, he accused India of spreading a “litany of falsehood” and warned any aggression or a strategic miscalculation against Pakistan would not go unpunished.
Choudhary Nisar’s reference to Delhi newspapers and Gen Sharif’s accusation of India gave an impression that Cyril was in for a treason trial. But the ECL boomeranged. It immortalised and internationalised the DAWN story and united newspaper owners, journalists and the civil society and ultimately mortified the Nawaz Sharif government. The ban also subverted the countrywide debate on Pakistan’s isolation because of the patronisation of cross-border terrorists by the Army and the ISI. Thus within 48 hours of imposing the travel ban on Cyril, it was lifted while the Army was still smarting under the impact of the DAWN story. When the travel ban was lifted, Corps Commanders met at their GHQ in Rawalpindi to express their discomfort at the DAWN story.
The establishment and its supporters’ hostile reaction to the DAWN story notwithstanding, this DAWN story has indeed indicated a positive development in a section of ruling politicians in Pakistan. That is, the boldness to stand up to the Army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, to tell them to stop shielding cross-border terrorists to prevent Pakistan’s fast drift to isolation. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s warning to the Army may be dismissed as only a one-time fit of boldness but it will certainly give weight to the ongoing debate on what ails the country’s image abroad. Sharif’s warning could be a message to the Army: let the civilian government run the foreign affairs.
The Goa resolution of the BRICS, despite China’s protective stand, said it was the responsibility of all states to prevent terrorist actions being launched from their terrorists. Although, under the Chinese pressure, the Resolution eschewed naming Pakistan, using the phrase cross-border terrorism and not referring to JeM while talking about the Islamic State (IS), it indirectly referred to the policy of cross-border terrorism when it said: “We strongly condemned the recent several attacks against some BRICS countries including that in India.” Here the reference to cross-border attacks on the Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot and the Army’s camp in Uri was very transparent.
That only one country, China, because of its stark vested interest covers up Pakistan’s policy of cross-border terrorism does not stop Pakistan’s drift to isolation. The people in Pakistan, including lawmakers, have already started complaining about the freedom enjoyed by terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar and bring bad name to the country. China stands for them thus pushing its all-weather friend, Pakistan, to isolation in the guise of its best friend.
Irrespective of the latest development like sacking the federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed on this account, just to appease the Army and intelligence top brass, the DAWN story should ignite a positive thinking among the people of Pakistan for the sake of their country.