Fair Enough!

Fair Enough!
Two major developments cry out for fair comment. The first is the public “revelation” by Brig (retd) Samson Simon Sharaf, a member of the PTI’s Central Executive Committee, that General Zaheer ul Islam, as DGISI in 2014, was actually conspiring more against the sitting army chief, General Raheel Sharif, than against PM Nawaz Sharif, when he allegedly egged on Imran Khan to try and provoke violent mischief during his dharna last year. The second is the sudden revelation — on the eve of the second round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government in Murree — of the death of Mullah Umar two years ago in Karachi. Both raise important questions that have a significant bearing on the strategic direction taken by Pakistan under the current civil-military leadership.

Allegations of ISI manipulation of domestic politics are not new. At some stage or the other, every party has made them when it has been at the receiving end of the Agency’s ire. During the dharna, after Imran Khan publicly promised his expectant supporters that “the third umpire” would raise his finger against the Sharif regime, reports began to circulate of the invisible hand of ex-spy master Ahmed Shuja Pasha and the then DG, General Zaheer, behind the politics of agitation to overthrow the PMLN government. Later, it was widely accepted that the conspiracy had failed because General Raheel Sharif, the army chief, had not bought into it. This prompted Khawaja Asif, the Defence Minister, to recently accuse both Generals in question of conspiring with Imran Khan to oust the legitimately elected government of the day. When CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, who is known never to say anything to displease the military establishment, chimed in demanding an inquiry into the matter, it was logical to assume that both Khwaja Asif and Shahbaz Sharif must have sounded out the current military leadership before pointing an accusing finger at two top generals. A problem, it seems, arose when Brig (retd) Simon Sharaf, a PTI insider and military loyalist, declared that Gen Zaheerul Islam was actually conspiring not just against the government but also against his own army chief in the expectation of manipulating events to the detriment of both Gen Sharif and Mr Sharif. He has based this assessment on some recorded evidence provided by DGIB, Aftab Sultan, to the PM, which the PM gave Gen Sharif in the presence of Gen Zaheer, which apparently proves that the conspiracy was against both Gen Sharif and Mr Sharif.

The conspiracy theory was apparently ok as long as it focused on two ex-Generals and the PM. But when it is enlarged to include the sitting army chief, it became “problematic” and “objectionable”. The fact is that, regardless of the truth, the army doesn’t like its internal dissent being discussed in public, especially if they concern its chief, even if he seems to emerge as the best man of all. That is why, Ishaq Dar, the PM’s closest confidante, first tried to plug the discussions and now Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who has lately become the military’s spokesman, has given a “shut-up” call “in the national interest”. Fair enough. The point has been made and there is no need to flog it when the civil-military leadership is fighting on so many existential fronts at this time. Equally, the military leadership should not get overly agitated about the debate on such issues in the media. This is the way the independent media works and this is how it often interprets information and disseminates it in its own view of the national interest. That too is fair.

The second issue is, perhaps, more significant in practical terms. In effect, the sudden announcement of Mullah Umar’s death two years ago has set back the joint effort by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the civil-military leadership in Pakistan to launch the peace process with the Taliban and end the civil war that has cast a dark shadow on both countries. It has provoked accusations against Pakistan and led to a split in the Taliban over the succession principle between those who support the talks and those who don’t. The only beneficiaries of this inspired “leak” are the opponents of President Ghani in Afghanistan – mostly non-Pakhtun vested interests led by Abdullah Abdullah – and India, which is cut up because it has been ousted from the round table by Pakistan. Islamabad’s main concern right now is to try and keep the Taliban from splintering so that renewed efforts can be made to bring a unified leadership to the table once again. But a lot of work needs to be done behind the scenes to consolidate Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and Sirajuddin Haqqani as the new faces of the Taliban movement after Mullah Umar.

Pakistan is headed in the right direction under the new civil-military leaders. We should appreciate their joint efforts to stabilize the country, rebuild its foreign relations in the neighbourhood, and cleanse it of all manner of terrorists and mischief-making conspirators at home.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.