SALMAN MASOOD

ISLAMABAD - The ‘Dawn leaks’ kerfuffle has ended in a dramatic — almost unimaginable — manner. For months, the frenzy over the so-called ‘national security breach’ dominated headlines and destabilised the civil-military relations. This was despite the fact that Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has time and again expressed firm faith in democracy and his desire for civil-military harmony. However, as an institution, the pressures effected by the rank and file appeared to eclipse the good intentions of the Chief. A section of the military pressured the army chief to hold the government accountable for the alleged national security breach. But as the dust over the matter has started settling down, it appears that the pressure was originated by (the coterie of) a previous army chief who desired an extension in his military tenure. The controversy over the newspaper article presented the perfect opportunity to pin the prime minister down.

There has also been a steady thrum of allegations, propagated by some in the media and elements of the ‘deep state,' that have cast Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a security risk himself. PM Sharif’s policy predilections towards India and personal friendships with an Indian business tycoon have fuelled the impression. Furthermore, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the heiress to Sharif political dynasty, has been a target of a vicious smear campaign. Rumours swirled loud and hard that it was she who masterminded the Dawn leaks to embarrass and ridicule the military. Denials from the ruling family have done little to dilute this propaganda campaign. However, the Joint Investigation Team probing the Dawn leaks found no smoking gun that linked the first daughter to the leaks. Two close aides of the prime minister had to face the axe, and a senior bureaucrat was the collateral damage. But the notification from the prime minister’s office last week was still deemed as insufficient and consequently “rejected” in the now infamous tweet.

The resultant political storm was inevitable. The opposition political parties lapped up, relishing the prospect of a showdown between the military and the ruling party.

PM Sharif, however, kept his nerves — and continued with his visits across the country, inaugurating his signature development projects. The prime minister , despite the Panama Papers controversy, continues to enjoy considerable popular support and he used the rallies to show to his opponents, both in the establishment and political arena, that he won’t be cowed down.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the ISPR tweet and the strong social media reaction against it came as a surprise to the military establishment. The contrarian voices, critical of the tone of the tweet and its crossing of the constitutional line, were especially disconcerting. The pressure on PM Sharif could become insurmountable had the political opposition been united or Imran Khan, the leading player, was effective enough to create an unstable political situation. But Imran Khan’s followers suffer from attrition and unable to mount a sustained campaign like the 2007 lawyers’ movement. So, while the anti-government anchors fumed and frowned on TV screens, creating a faux image of the government buckling down, in the realm of realpolitik PM Sharif still managed to withstand the pressure. Having sacrificed two of his close aides, the prime minister was unwilling to concede any further.

The ruling party sent out calculated media leaks and feelers that threw the gauntlet back at their challengers. The PML-N conveyed to the other side that now that a deadlock had emerged, the party was ready for the consequences. It was indicated that no new notification would be issued.

Meanwhile, there was a realisation within the military that it had overplayed its hand with the tweet. The army chief and the DG ISPR had taken a tough posture towards the government, pressed by comparisons with their predecessors, who basked in the confrontational and overarching roles. It was also decided that at a time when security challenges at the eastern and western borders have suddenly flared up, continued political instability and fractious political environment within the country would only exacerbate the challenges faced by the state.

By early Wednesday, backchannel negotiation and contacts helped reached an understanding. Both sides decided to take one step backward to come out of the stalemate. Official sources say that Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and PM Sharif agreed to uphold the sanctity of all institutions and not allow the current crisis to bring the whole system down. The government agreed to issue a notification, through the interior ministry, that detailed steps taken in accordance with the findings of the inquiry report. The military agreed to take the tweet back, calling it “infructuous.” DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor held a press conference where he said that the efforts by some to pit the army and civilian government against one another were ‘regrettable’ and he reaffirmed the armed forces commitment to democracy. It was enough of a hint to some in the political opposition to also make a course correction. But Imran Khan, in his characteristic unhinged style, has refused to take the advice. In a series of tweets Wednesday evening, the PTI leader accused the army and the government of having reached a “settlement.” It is an ugly interpretation of Wednesday’s developments.