FeaturedNationalVolume 13 Issue # 10

Grand dialogue begins

Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s briefing to the parliament on national and international issues has come at a time when misconceptions between the civilians and the army have widened. A smear campaign by the ruling party against the judiciary and the army after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a recent 22-day sit-in of religious parties in Islamabad forced the army leadership to allay the fears of the civilians, who wanted grand dialogue among all political parties and national institutions.

The briefing was also important in the context of a recent debate and questions raised in the parliament about Pakistan’s role in a 34-state Saudi-led coalition against terrorism, former Army Chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif’s responsibilities in it and Iran’s apprehensions against it. The army chief’s recent visit to Iran also raised many eyebrows in the parliament and Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani had expressed his annoyance over keeping the parliament in the dark. PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar had complained that when asked about the reservations of Iran on the Saudi-led coalition, the Foreign Office said that it was unaware of them and would reply after talking to the authority on the matter. “Who is the authority,” he asked. “One institution (army) is formulating policy on its own,” he alleged.

In view of the situation, it was important for the army to take the parliament into confidence and brief it about the ground realities and challenges. The in-camera briefing to the Whole House of the Senate Committee on the most sensitive issue of national security is a beginning of grand dialogue which was proposed by the Senate chairman a few months ago and welcomed by all parties and even the army. According to information leaked to the media by some senators, the army chief reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and the rule of law and denied the military was playing any role in destabilising the civilian government. Accompanied by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt.-Gen. Naveed Mukhtar, Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) Maj.-Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza and Military Intelligence (MI) Director-General Maj.-Gen. Asim Munir, the army chief defended his institution for brokering a deal between the government and the protesters at Islamabad, saying the situation could have aggravated had the military not intervened. The government had itself asked the army to help end the sit-in and when it resolved the issue amicably, some ministers and so-called liberals condemned it for not using force.

According to media reports, General Bajwa also accepted mistakes committed by former army chiefs, especially General Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, but said he could not be held responsible for their blunders. Reportedly, he even asked the parliament to frame foreign and security policies and promised to implement them. In a rare note of clarification, he distanced himself and the army from views expressed by some retired generals in their public appearances and talk shows. “These are their personal views and nothing to do with the institution,” he clarified. Many in the country believe the retired generals, appearing in talk shows daily, take guidance from their former institution and reflect its mindset.

The army chief’s view on relations with India must have shocked many parliamentarians as he reportedly said the military was ready to back the political leadership’s initiative for normalisation of relations with the archrival. In fact, relations with all neighbours should be normalised and political leaders should try to improve relations with India, he was quoted as saying. He assured that the army would completely support their efforts. It falsifies Indian propaganda that the army is against peace efforts and also negates the stance of some analysts who claim former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had lost the favour of the army for unilaterally undertaking peace overtures towards India. However, General Bajwa informed the legislators that a large part of Indian military deployment was against Pakistan and India was fomenting instability and terrorism in Pakistan. He also informed them about the nexus of India with the Afghan intelligence agency.

Speaking on one of the most important issues, General Bajwa said Iran and Pakistan could not afford strained relations and informed the senators about efforts for a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the initiative failed because of poor response from Saudi Arabia. To a question about the Saudi-led military alliance, he said terms of reference of the alliance had not been finalised and promised to share them with the parliament when they were decided. He also assured the lawmakers that the alliance would not be allowed to be tainted by sectarianism.

During the question-answer session, General Bajwa also favoured the existing parliamentary form of democracy and said it was more robust and offered a dynamic solution to challenges facing the country. To a question on accountability in the army, he informed the senators that the army had a robust system of accountability and answerable to the parliament. ISPR DG Asif Ghafoor, in his media talk, said there was a consensus that Pakistan was a strong country and “we will have to move forward together”.

The briefing on sensitive issues will strengthen the parliament and add to its confidence. The parliamentarians will have a better understanding of issues. Pakistan is passing through a critical phase and internal and external challenges require better understanding and interaction among institutions. It could help remove misconceptions between politicians and the army. It is hoped doubts in the minds of politicians must also have been removed, who feared the army wanted to delay elections and set up a national government or a technocrat government for a few years. It is a beginning of a grand dialogue and it is hoped the judiciary will also be invited to take part in it, because it is an important pillar of the state and ways should be discussed to provide inexpensive and speedy justice to all people of Pakistan. Pakistan’s armed forces maintain international standards. Its justice system should also meet international standards to join the comity of civilized and advance nations.