The origins of the recent crackdown by the Counter Terrorism Department of the FIA lie in a single tweet by the DGISPR: ‘Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected’. And the roots of this tweet go back to a story DAWN’s reporter Cyril Almeida broke on October 6, 2016.
The crux of the story was the civilians telling the army brass in a high level meeting, to stop providing protection to members of banned organisations, specifically Masood Azhar and the Jaish-i-Mohmmad; Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Haqqani network. This, according to the story, came at the heels of the Foreign Secretary’s presentation which had “summarised the results of the recent diplomatic outreach by Pakistan, the crux being that Pakistan faces diplomatic isolation and that the government’s talking points have been met with indifference in major world capitals.” The meeting was also told that China’s patience too was wearing thin and though for the time being China had committed to continue to block Masood Azhar’s (of JeM) ban by the UN, it had advised a change of course. The completion of the inquiry into the Pathankot attack in India was another international demand.
The breaking of this story set in motion a chain of events that finally saw the bizarre crackdown on ordinary, law abiding citizens last week (nearly eight months later), with the FIA harassing citizens with terrorism investigations and the threats of terrorism charges.
The connection? The fact that the Pakistani public and world had been told this ground shifting story – that the civilians had orchestrated this ambush, that the civilians were leading the change in direction, that the civilians had finally confronted the security establishment, that the security establishment’s policies were hurting the country – became a cause of public humiliation of the military establishment. Within hours the government denied the story. The next day the government denied it again. And the day after, a longer denial was issued in a bid to save civil-military relations. The denials from every quarter called the story baseless, made up, half-baked, with furious demands to find the leakers, the absurdity of a baseless, made up story being leaked notwithstanding.
Matters came to such a boil with the Dawngate that the Prime Minister had to order a JIT to discover who ‘leaked’ the story imagined up by a reporter sitting in his sitting room. Instead of the farce going away in time, the ‘defence analysts’ and their surrogates continued to fan the flames till the ‘real culprits’ were found, often hinting that it was someone from the Prime Minister’s own house. Said analysts and surrogates in the media are, rightly or wrongly, generally seen as unofficial spokespersons of the security establishment. This perception within the public remains strong because the ISPR has never dispelled this impression.
Right at the outset of the storm though, the Federal Information Minister, Pervez Rashid, was fired for ‘not being able to stop the (imagined) story from being published’. This, again, is not withstanding the fact that stopping stories is above his pay scale. He was called by the reporter in question, and he denied the story. Beyond this there are only a few things he could have done to stop the story: like stooping to physical treats, which does not come within the purview of his job description.
Anyhow, the DawnLeaks JIT finally submitted its report to the Prime Minister in the last week of April, who, in line with its recommendations notified the firing of his advisor on foreign affairs, Mr. Tariq Fatimi and his Principal Information Officer Rao Tehseen. Both gentlemen denied any wrongdoing. The charges against them remain unclear to this day, but it is assumed that they too were fired for failing to stop the story from going to press.
This notification brought on the ‘rejected’ tweet of the DG ISPR on April 29th, within hours of the notification hitting the media waves. The tweet stunned the world no less than the original story by Cyril. But the reaction it evoked in Pakistanis was unprecedented. There was a spontaneous ‘rejection’ of this tweet by the public, with twitterati of Pakistan questioning his authority to do so in not uncertain terms. The floodgates opened reminding him and his institution of their constitutional place in the state. The responses from public varied in tone, but not in content. Many exhibited outright anger, many condemned in measured tones. As the days went by the anger took on a mocking tone, with memes being created. A few abused the general outright. Perhaps for the first time ever, the military got an inkling that someone had moved its cheese. The public, social media activists, professionals, workers and leaders from across the political spectrum had all come together to reject the military’s insubordination and threatening posture.
Amidst all this noise was the deafening silence from government. Here you had it: not a government protecting the people, but a people protecting a government, and sane voices telling both sides to resolve this matter given tensions with three neighbours, namely India, Iran and Afghanistan heating up. Finally, on May 10, DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor issued a press release and did a press conference withdrawing the tweet.
This withdrawal and retreat sparked a different kind of storm. Whilst most people heaved a sigh of relief and went into celebration mode for a victory of the people and its government, the ‘defence analyst’ mafia went into epileptic convulsions, spittle flying. It was now the turn of their proxies on social media to pile scorn and abuse on the military for ‘surrendering’ as it did to the Indian military in 1971. This group began to taunt and abuse junior officers on social media for their COAS ‘selling out’, or being ‘defeated’.
Now here’s a crucial point. When the military was initially criticised for the ‘rejected’ tweet, it was subjected to constructive criticism in support of democracy and constitution. But when the military was criticised for withdrawing the tweet and accepting the final authority of the Prime Minister, it was being goaded to sedition and treason. There is a world of difference in the two kinds of criticisms the Pakistani military was faced with in as many weeks.
According to reliable reports, during the last darbar the COAS held in Bahawalpur, he was at the receiving end of extreme candid questioning by offended rank and file: why had he backed down? Reportedly, he allayed their questions thus: my earlier decision was a popular one but wrong; this decision may be unpopular with you but it is the right one, the constitutional one.
The news of this disquiet obviously reached government circles too, and the Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar thought of a novel solution: crackdown on social media. He announced in a press conference that insult of the army will not be tolerated and ordered the FIA to crackdown on those ‘maligning’ the Pakistan army. A randomly and stupidly, drawn list of social media accounts was provided to the FIA to begin the crackdown. I recognise a couple of names on that list that were inciting the army to act seditiously, whilst abusing it for abiding by the constitution. Many other names I recognise on the list, however, have only ever supported democracy and the rule of law and constitution.
Civil society and media have condemned the FIA and Chaudhry Nisar’s crackdown to offer the military face-saving at the expense of common citizens. But these condemnations are not differentiating between those trying to create rifts within the military ranks and those holding the military to its constitutional oath.
So this is the story of the ‘crackdown’ – an ill-advised scheme of the Interior Minister to face-save the military from a mess of its own making at the expense of the public, which includes many N league supporters. The backlash from PML-N supporters was ferocious too, ending in Chaudhry Nisar standing down too, in an apology-non-apology presser to end the crackdown.