Discomforting conclusions

One can even interpret the ISPR chief's silence on Dastgir's disclosures to mean that the institution of armed forces was in total agreement with the Defence Minister's assessment that there is indeed tension in civil military relations in Pakistan

Going by the quick- on- the- toe responses to any mention of the armed forces in the public domain by successive ISPR chiefs since the days of Major General (Retd) Ather Abbas one had expected the current ISPR Chief Major General Asif Ghafoor who has been known to be quicker on the draw than his two immediate predecessors, to shoot an ‘appropriate’ rejoinder without wasting much time to Federal Minister of Defence, Engr. Khurram Dastgir Khan’s highly significant pronouncements on December 30, 20017 on civil-military relations and the role of Minister of Defence.

But wonder of wonders there was none which, it is assumed, could mean that the ISPR Chief did not find anything objectionable or praise worthy to respond to what the Defence Minister had said talking to Saleem Safi in his talk show Jirga.

One can even interpret the ISPR Chief’s silence on Dastgir’s disclosures to mean that the institution of armed forces was in total agreement with the Defence Minister’s assessment that there is indeed tension in civil military relations in Pakistan, that Defence Minister is not the boss or in-charge of Defence Organization, as is ordained in the Constitution and that Defence Minister is merely a facilitator at best and most of the time even marginalised at that, while Prime Minister directly deals with the top leadership of the Armed Forces.

I recall that once during his exile in the UK the former Defence Minister Ghous Ali Shah had told me as much in one of his rare off -guard moments.

“I attended office only to sign on the dotted lines and move the files,” he said.

Referring to Defence Minister Dastgir’s disclosures the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a Pakistan think tank in its monitor on civil-military relation for the month of December, 2017 released on Wednesday had said that it was difficult to recall a more candid interview by a Pakistani Defence Minister on the subject of civil-military relations.

The ISPR’s silence on Musharraf’s admission sounds too significant to be ignored as in Pakistan the term establishment most often than not is used to imply the Armed Forces

“This is a sensitive and serious matter, seldom discussed in the open by a sitting Defence Minister in the past, leading the country to an almost definitive but discomforting conclusion that civil-military relations may be moving towards an era of ‘open warfare’. No country can allow such tensions between State institutions or between popular political parties and the security establishment, especially given the prevailing tense relations with a superpower and some neighboring countries,” added the PILDAT monitor.

Following are some of the key excerpts from Dastgir’s interview paraphrased by PILDAT:

  1. We [PML-N] have learnt that individually good relations between Services Chiefs and PM do not solve issues in civil-military relations. There have to be good inter-institutional relations
  2. We have to “search for truth in facts;” that while the Constitution is an ideal and inspiration but facts, on the ground, are different

iii.            National Security Committee (NSC) is perhaps the best forum for dialogue on civil-military relations and now we [PML-N Government] are using it more regularly

  1. PML-N party leader Nawaz Sharif felt that merely winning the next election would be meaningless unless the people’s right to rule was not established and accepted. PML-N will go to the next General Election with the manifesto of supremacy of people
  2. When asked what is the ‘minor’ difference of opinion on foreign relations between the civilian Government and the Armed Forces, he said that they are absolutely on the same page as far as relations with the US are concerned but on Afghanistan there are ‘minor issues’. He rather profoundly said that ” ham bar bar yeh clarity chahtey hain Afwaj-e-Pakistan sey keh jo kuch bhi Afghanistan mein ho raha hai, us ka koi ta’aluq Pakistan sey nahin hona chahiyey.”

While in his wisdom he had preferred to let go unanswered such significant pronouncements by the Defence Minister the ISPR Chief was too quick to debunk in a highly uncharitable language the December 24, 2017 statement by Federal Railway Minister Saad Rafique which seemed to imply that subordinate institutions under the Army Chief created occasional mischief although the stated policy of the Army Chief was pro-democracy and in harmony with the civilian government’s policies.

The DG ISPR did not waste much time in declaring the Federal Minister’s statement ‘irresponsible’.

Saad Rafique, in a ceremony marking his father’s death anniversary had said that Gen Bajwa’s appearance before Senators on December 19 was a confidence-boosting move as he upheld the democratic norms and continuity of democratic system in the country. He added that democratic ethos of the COAS must be commended and appreciated by everyone – including by those upon whom his command is mandatory and that institutions under the COAS must desist from mischief making against democratic governments.

“We take this statement with concern,” retorted the DG ISPR. Adding he said that the Minister’s statement “does not appear to be un-intended; it is irresponsible and unwarranted, because it is targeting chain of command and subordination system of Pakistan Army.” He also said that Federal Minister’s statement “violated the Constitution,” and added that “If such a line is taken, there will be reverberations/repercussions.”

At the same time the ISPR Chief intriguingly ignored former President Pervez Musharraf’s almost similar aspersion on his Institution as the former military ruler admitted that some ‘rogue’ elements within establishment could have been involved in the conspiracy to kill Benazir Bhutto.

When asked by the BBC on Bhutto’s 10th death anniversary (December 27, 2017) if rogue elements within the establishment could have been in touch with the Taliban about the killing, Pervez Musharraf responded: “Possibility. Yes, indeed. Because the society is polarised on religious lines.”

Adding that his assessment was a hunch rather than solid proof, he said: “I don’t have any facts available. But my assessment is very accurate I think… A lady who is known to be inclined towards the West is seen suspiciously by those elements.”

The ISPR’s silence on Musharraf’s admission sounds too significant to be ignored as in Pakistan the term establishment most often than not is used to imply the Armed Forces.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He served as the Executive Editor of Express Tribune until 2014

Published in Daily Times, January 13th 2018.