It is not clear whether the COAS ever complained about such statements to the Prime Minister although he met the PM several times but he had to finally speak through an extraordinarily candid ISPR press release on 7 April in which he complained of undue criticism of the institution of the Army and pledged to protect the dignity of his institution. It was a bold and clear message that all is not well and that rank and file in the army is uneasy about the way things were going. In this charged atmosphere, the timing of Prime Minister’s meeting with the former President and current co-chair of PPP on 16 April also sent conflicting messages. Headlines in the daily The News and Daily Jang indicated that both the leaders have decided to be united against ‘undemocratic forces’
While some damage control steps seem to have been taken and things were apparently returning to normal when an assassination attempt was made on Hamid Mir, a popular talk-show host of Geo-Jang Group, by unknown gunmen in Karachi on 19 April. The TV channel, using the sound bites of Hamid Mir’s brother, launched a 24 hours long ferocious and unprecedented campaign against Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its Director General, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul Islam blaming him personally and the ISI as an institution for the attempt on the life of Hamid Mir.
Although the ISI reports to the Prime Minister and technically works under Prime Minister’s office, Prime Minister’s office maintained a deafening silence while the media house through its popular TV channel and several newspapers went on a deadly rampage against the ISI and its head. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) simply took no notice of this vicious campaign. It was only the public relations wing of the Armed Forces, ISPR, which tried to rebut the accusations.
In a stark contrast to his and his government’s total inaction in the case of defending ISI or its chief, Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, showed extra-ordinary swiftness to convene a high level meeting on a Sunday (20 April) and announced the constitution of a very high level judicial commission consisting of three supreme court judges (The Hamood ur Rehman Judicial Commission formed to probe the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 had two judges of the Supreme Court along with a high court judge). Prime Minister also undertook an extraordinary step of visiting convalescing Hamid Mir in a Karachi Hospital the next day (21 April) along with his Minister of Defence and Minister for Information. The Information Minister, speaking to media on the occasion, said that Prime Minister’s visit to Hamid Mir was a show of solidarity with the reason (Daleel) and Intellect (Danish) opposed to the sling (Ghulail) – a message that was open to diverse and somewhat dangerous interpretations in the charged atmosphere.
A highly influential Lahore-based columnist and former ambassador who has the reputation of being very close to the Prime Minister and who currently heads a public institution in Lahore demanded in his column in daily Jang of 21 April that Director General of ISI should resign if he wanted that the ISI’s ‘blackened face is cleaned’ (Hamari ISI jis ke credit par kuch achey kaam bhi hain, apney chehrey ki yeh kalak jo Aamer Mir key bayan se wazeh taur par nazar aa rahi hai utarney kailiye sab kuch karna chahiye balkeh khood Gen Zaheer ul Islam ko chahiye ke who razakarana taur par hi sahi, apney ohdey se mustafi ho kar apni position saaf Karen). Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, as reported in Jang of 22 April, praised the courage of Aamir Mir who had accused the ISI and its head of assassination attempt on his brother Hamid Mir.
While Nawaz Sharif and his associates praised and visited Hamid Mir, the COAS visited the ISI headquarters on 22 April and praised the sacrifices and role of the ISI. Observers and commentators in the media continue to fully comprehend the messages inherent in the two visits.
Nawaz Sharif Government had taken a praiseworthy step in August 2013 to create an effective forum of civil-military consultation when it re-designated the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) as Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) and announced the establishment of a secretariat of the Committee. An experienced and dynamic diplomat was also subsequently appointed as the Secretary General of the CCNS. Unfortunately the committee met only twice in 8 months since its formation despite the fact that a pressing agenda on national security demanded much more frequent meetings. The latest meeting of the committee on 17 April was the first time when media noticed the change in the name of the committee to ‘National Security Committee’ without any formal notification about the change. In a way, the change was a positive step as it removed the anomaly earlier pointed out by PILDAT that the service chiefs could not be full members of a cabinet committee because they were not members of the cabinet. However as no rules of business or a formal notification explaining the terms of reference of the ‘National Security Committee’ was issued, this change together with its infrequent meetings, apparently seemed like diluting this important institution.
The Minister of Interior finally condemned the Geo onslaught on the ISI and its chief on 22 April, 72 hours after the campaign against the ISI had been unleashed and after the COAS paid a visit to the ISI headquarters.
It was also on 22 April that the Ministry of Defence filed a complaint with PEMRA against the Geo News and demanded action against the channel. When the Minister of Information was asked about the complaint in a Geo News TV programme, he sounded extremely apologetic and termed it as the ‘complaint from a department (implying the Army) under the Ministry of Defence’ which the Ministry had no choice but to forward to the PEMRA.
Another Federal Minister, while answering a question in a TV programme, said that the PM did not visit the ISI because he did not want to appear siding with a party in the case of shooting at Hamid Mir.
These developments form a chain of events that unmistakably point towards a disturbing trend indicating a serious trust deficit.
Although political leadership has contributed more than its share in further widening the gulf, it has not been a one-sided affair. The Army as an institution apparently helped Musharraf in resisting, if not obstructing, the course of law when it allowed the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) to be used as a refuge for Musharraf who was summoned by the special court for indictment for over a month without any apparent justification.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to build a bridge when he termed Gen. Raheel Sharif as a role model for young army cadets in his speech delivered at the passing-out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul on 19 April but the later events apparently doomed the effort.
More such efforts are needed on both sides – civil and military – to avoid distraction from security agenda of the Government and for the sake of consolidation of democracy. While the armed forces have to be clearly on the side of the rulre of law, PML-N top leadership also needs to make a conscious effort to overcome the bitterness of the past and not allow the bad taste of their dealings with Musharraf and his companions some 25 years ago to mar their relationship with the institution of the Armed Forces and the ISI today.