Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Reuters
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Reuters

On October 7, Pakistan’s leading English daily newspaper Dawn published an exclusive story by top columnist Cyril Almeida on the details of an All Parties’ Conference held a day earlier.

The story highlighted the civilian leadership’s discomfort with the way terror groups have been handled in the past, as security agencies continue to interfere in anti-terror efforts of those working directly under the government, creating a situation where Pakistan is being pushed toward regional and global isolation.

While the threat of “isolation” looks strange in the face of Chinese investment worth more than US$51 billion and the role Pakistan is playing in China’s “Silk Road” initiative, Beijing, too, has reportedly expressed its concerns and questioned the logic of protecting terrorists like Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammad.

According to Almeida’s story, the civil and military leadership of Pakistan are not on the same page on the management of foreign policy and terrorism.

This story was in stark contrast to Pakistan’s claims about targeting all terror groups indiscriminately and its publication created a political storm in Pakistan, forcing some to go into hibernation and others to come out and question the way things have been happening.

It also resulted in Almeida being placed on Pakistan’s exit control list which bars him from leaving the country.

Almeida has since refused to make any statement or comment on the situation and many other investigative journalists who I contacted also refused to talk about it, except on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, other Pakistani leading newspapers, and journalist unions have not only taken a bold stance against the travel ban on Almeida but attacked the practice citing “vital state interests” as an excuse for exercising dictatorial powers.

Sources say that the details of Almeida’s story were deliberately leaked by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) to convey to the world the impression that the military is putting them under pressure and that the military is the main hurdle against countering terrorism. At the same time, sources say it has also become increasingly evident to the civilian leadership that Pakistan cannot fully reap the benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor unless the menace of terrorism is effectively countered.

This may be the reason why many ruling party MPs have recently publicly questioned the “visible presence of banned groups in Pakistan” and why possible action against Masood Azhar, or Hafiz Saeed “is a danger to national security?”

This is not the first time the PML-N has spoken about Pakistan’s official and unofficial linkages with terrorists based in the country and beyond, particularly in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said in a speech to the US’ Council of Foreign Relations that the Afghan Taliban leaders have been in Pakistan.

While adding that his government had reached the conclusion that the “Taliban coming back to power in Afghanistan is not in our own security interests,” the admission of the Afghan Taliban’s presence in Pakistan led many to question the duality of Pakistan’s approach and the role the military was playing in it.

Earlier, Sartaj Aziz had acknowledged in an interview on BBC Urdu in November 2014 that “militants not dangerous to Pakistan” were not being targeted.

This admission of the selective targeting of terrorists sent ripples of discomfort through Pakistan’s policy-making circles. As Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif was on a US tour at that time, the interview was largely seen as an attempt at discrediting the military.

That Pakistan does not have a foreign minister and General Raheel has been at the forefront of determining Pakistan’s foreign policy since 2013-14 speaks volumes about the space PML-N has lost to the country’s powerful army.

In this context, the reaction to Almeida’s story is an example of the latest twist in civil-military relations.

While PML-N is historically known for not taking strong action against Punjab-based militant groups, the presence of militants no longer fits the agenda it is following.

With just 15 months left before Pakistan’s next general elections and with Nawaz planning massive infrastructural development and better relations with neighboring states, sources say there is need for his government to stop official and unofficial support of militant groups as “strategic assets”. Such a course is likely to lead the government to a collision course with the army.

Almeida’s story, according to the sources, is a fully-fledged reflection of this very agenda and the consequent collision.