Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, made his first public speech since his appointment by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year. The political environment in the country has been tense in the days leading to the ceremony, held at General Headquarters (GHQ), to commemorate the sacrifices of the country’s martyred soldiers. The Pervez Musharraf high treason case has been a constant irritant for the civil-military dynamic. Other than that, the missing persons case, the Geo-ISI controversy and disagreement over the nature of relations with India have led to speculation that the armed forces and the government are headed down a collision course. In short, three areas of concern were neatly delineated: threat to democracy, terrorism, the media.

The COAS attempted to nullify rumours by clarifying that the armed forces believed in the supremacy of the constitution and of democracy. He pointed out that all institutions will have to work together in order to take Pakistan forward. In short, he said almost all that was required to send a clear message: the armed forces do not plan to take over. First concern abated.

General Sharif spoke on the issue of terrorism and reiterated the armed forces’ support for efforts to eliminate terrorism. However, he also mentioned that all elements currently fighting the state must “unconditionally” submit before the constitution. And that the forces were very much capable of dealing with those who refuse to surrender. Translation: we support the government’s dialogue initiative, but our co-operation has its limits. Second concern begs the question: how long then, will the talks-fighting strategy continue? How long will it be tolerated?

Briefly, the General spoke on the media, whereby he commended its sacrifices and expressed support for a free media and “responsible reporting”. One doesn’t need to read between the lines to understand the clear reference. The COAS must be appreciated for holding back, as he should. The third concern then begs the question: Is the media really the concern of the armed forces? Should any real or ideological authority to judge the responsibility or irresponsibility of a free media, lie with the army chief?

The COAS’s stance on the Kashmir dispute did not deviate from established policy, and perhaps it is time to ask whether it is ill-advised for an army chief to take vocal positions on foreign policy matters. The same criticism can be made about the chief’s remarks regarding Balochistan. If indeed the armed forces are so popular in the troubled province as claimed in the speech, the Defence Minister or other government representatives should be relied on to relay the good news to the people.