The PMLN has shot itself in the foot.
It seems that the government wanted the world to know that it was nudging its military leaders to stop propping up the jihadi network because it is the cause of Pakistan’s international isolation as a country that minimally condones or maximally, supports terrorism in the region. So someone apparently leaked the content of a high-level national security meeting to Cyril Almeida, a respected assistant editor at Dawn, in which the problem and its solution was squarely laid by the civilian leadership at the military’s door.
The trouble began when the military protested the leak which made it look like the villain of the piece in the eyes of the world. So the government issued strong denials and accused the journalist of fabricating the story and undermining “national security”. But the newspaper stood its ground while the military demanded to know the source of the leak. So, in order to prove its innocence and also placate the military, the government announced an inquiry into the matter. But it shot itself in the foot when it placed Cyril Almeida on the Exit Control List, which meant that it intended to focus on the messenger rather than the source of the leak, an unacceptable course of action both to the media and the military. When the military quickly distanced itself from the ECL, the media opened its guns on the ruling party.
Now the prime minister is squirming in his seat: damned if he throws a PMLN loyalist (who leaked the story) under the bus, and damned if he goes after the messenger by interrogating him and restricting his freedom. The government’s dilemma is that it doesn’t want to be seen as being anti-military at home at a time when the military is seriously “engaged” with the “enemy” on its borders; it doesn’t want to degrade its democratic credentials as a great defender of media freedom and rights; but it also doesn’t want to own up to a clever-by-half move that has rebounded on it.
The interesting thing is that the facts of the leaked conversations are no secret. Everyone and his aunt knows that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, wants to snatch back foreign and national security policy from the military and direct it himself because he thinks these policies have outlived their cold-war relevance and are now dangerously misplaced. It is also believed that these policies are a leading cause of Pakistan’s regional conflicts, international isolation and domestic instability. Indeed, the PM’s argument that Pakistan is doomed without a significant regional “peace dividend” cannot be denied. In fact, few serious and independent analysts would quarrel with this re-assessment of the meaning of national security as a dimension of national power that encompasses a strong and self-reliant economy built on the certainty of regional peace and political stability. And even in the top echelons of the military, there is an increasing realisation that it is time to amend long cherished notions of India as the “eternal or existential enemy”, Afghanistan as a dependent base area for “strategic depth”, and America as a long term “strategic ally”.
But the problem is threefold. First, the military doesn’t think Nawaz Sharif is intellectually qualified to command change of strategic course that entails rigorous tactical maneuvers; second, the military is unwilling or unable to offer a credible alternative because it is hamstrung by decades of self-indoctrinated notions of national security, civilian corruption/incompetence and Indian perfidy; third, it is afraid of taking on and degrading the jihadi and Haqqani networks unilaterally without assured regional and international guarantees of reciprocity from India and Afghanistan viz non-state actor proxy wars that have laid all three countries low. So when the military’s sense of propriety or self-righteousness is challenged it tends to react like a wounded tiger.
In this particular case, the government did the right thing by asking the military leadership to put a lid on jihadi or Afghan Taliban non-state actors in order to assuage world opinion and give Pakistan’s diplomats a better chance to counter India’s campaign to isolate Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism. The leak was meant to signal the ruling party’s resolve in this matter and win international and regional friends. But the manner in which the leak was manipulated by the government or communicated by the source ended up embarrassing and alienating the military leadership, which duly registered its anger by protesting to the prime minister. At that stage, the government should have tried to cool tempers by issuing a strong denial and burying the matter by ordering an internal inquiry into the source of the leak, no more. But by dithering on the first count and then targeting the messenger, the government incurred the wrath of both the military and the media.
Cyril Almeida is a sensible and brave reporter. His name should be removed forthwith from the ECL and he should not be hounded.