ISLAMABAD NOTES

Now there is another somewhat ‘meaningful’ twist over the two key four-star military appointments Premier Nawaz Sharif has to take simultaneously as per the government’s own announcement. Though his close circles keep meaningfully mum over the issue as a matter of secrecy or over-consciousness, it is being widely anticipated that he ought to announce it before his important visit to the US by this month’s end. Hopefully by then, Barrack Hussain Obama would safely be out of the government shutdown blues and feel free to focus on the assertions-cum-pleas of a powerful Pakistani premier who is fresh from tough but unpopular economic decisions and is desperately looking for some respite on the foreign diplomacy front.

Malala Yousafzai, by raising the negative impact of American drone strikes in Pakistan in her interaction with Obama and family the other day, paved way for the premier to do the hard talk. Yet the unstoppable killer American drones continue to haunt the Pakistani premier on the domestic political turf, suggesting clearly he cannot afford any negative publicity on the issue of the sensitive military appointments. Talks with Pakistani Taliban will be a hard sell for him in the American administration, what to talk about hawkish media there. Back home, his compulsory critics like Imran Khan or Jamaat-e-Islami will not waste time to dub his efforts as an effort to get tacit endorsement from Uncle Sam. So it has to be before the October 23 official visit to the United States as far as military appointments are concerned, or otherwise if Sharif has to act like good old days.

As drones coupled with 2,014 Americans pull out from Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role will keep the right wing and religio-political outfits busy in firing salvos towards the premier, post-visit announcement over the key military appointments is all set to invite criticism and more conspiracy theories in media, most Pakistani rulers get irritated in the wake of challenging economic and political scenario.

As he enters fifth month of his third-time premiership, delivery on economic and law and order front seems a catchy scenario, especially in the background of lofty election promises to the largely lower middle class PML-N vote bank, in particular, who are hit the most due to the recent power and fuel price surge.

Saner elements of Sharif’s regime believe the premier should now focus on revamping his team of ministers and bureaucrats, and should not allow some elements to de-track him in finding any scapegoats. A team of crony junior bureaucrats and those in his close circles with vested interests can paint a rosy picture, but have little capacity to deliver for sure. Even in his own office, Fawad Hassan Fawad is not proving solution to all problems in the absence of a full-time secretary to PM. Likewise, 30 plus government institutions wait for their heads as the commission to appoint them works at a pain-stacking slow pace. For now, as criticism mounts on the questions of slow delivery of his administration, some of his able ministers and bureaucrats are trying to shift part of the blame towards media, especially news channels, for its flashy and sensational coverage that officials believe adds fuel to fire. Unabated bomb blasts in Peshawar, target killings in the financial capital, Karachi and the rupee slide cannot be portrayed in a positive manner, the counter argument suggests. Even now many people question the wisdom behind delay in the appointment of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee chairman. (The post fell vacant on October 8.) The premier, who also holds portfolio of defence minister, had ample time to ponder over the most suitable candidate as everyone in his administration was continuously churning out the importance of October, November and December – retirement months of CJCSC, army chief and chief justice of Pakistan, respectively. But as the premier still keeps the cards close to his chest, the garrison seems confident that the appointments will be in line with its advice i.e. both the key four-star slots of the army chief and CJCSC going to the army in most likelihood. The powerful military would not like the Navy or Air Force to grab the CJCSC slot. At first, the Defence Ministry adopted a crude way of sending only one nominee from the military to the powerful civilian prime minister, which reportedly annoyed Sharif. As he sought a proper panel, three names were suggested. As per its recommendations, the garrison would like to see the senior most on its already furnished three-member panel of three lieutenant generals to take charge of the CJCSC. Elevation of Lt-Gen Rashid Mehmood to the coveted slot of army chief is now no hidden wish of General Kayani, background briefings suggest. A third general in this list, a Shairf nominee may be, can be accommodated as vice chief of army staff if the government wishes so, officials believe.

Going by the book is a catch word in Sharif’s close circle. But no one thought it will trickle down in a crude fashion to the junior bureaucrats, and at an alarmingly fast pace, when Sharif seems very cautious regarding civil-military relations. To the utter surprise of many, protocol and security outfits at the PM House changed the protocol priorities of the army chief’s official cavalcade as VIP guests were about to leave the sprawling compound. As if they were to implement the Charter of Democracy that day in letter and spirit, the finance minister was given precedence over the COAS’ turn much to the annoyance of the military people at the helm of affairs. Though the security outfits around Gen Kayani fumed over it, they digested it like a bitter pill. Within days the duo of Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar reportedly went to see Gen Kayani to seek his consent whether to give him another extension or ceremonially elevate him as CJCSC. The top general reportedly declined both the offers. Then the offer of post-retirement came to make him ambassador to the United States or UK. This too didn’t click in the general’s mind. As the general seemingly pre-empted the government’s positive twist on this by issuing a statement to end speculations, the effective handling from the Sharif’s information gurus was missing this time too. Proactive approach seems a missing link. Does this administration lack thinking heads? Senator Pervaiz Rashid has been with the Sharifs in thick and thin like a loyal to the core. This is why this time around, after having remained spokesman and de facto information minister of the former Punjab government for five odd years, he was elevated as a full-fledged information minister of the Sharif government at the Centre. Around three months in his new demanding job, voices of discontent are on the rise even amongst the rank and file of the ruling party circles over media projection of the government working by the team headed by the able minister. All the Wanis and Kirmanis around him have a limited vision and approach. The state media in itself seems rudderless with state television, radio and the Press Information Department (PIO himself is not sure about his fate in the coming days). Interestingly, baboos holding forts at different PTV channels are not even ready to pool resources and have made these entities their personal but inefficient fiefdoms. Some prominent ministers and party stalwarts, at this juncture, are even suggesting bringing in a minister of state like Senator Mushahidullah Khan to lessen the burden on Senator Rashid. What about Tariq Azim Khan, the man who ran the party’s election media centre efficiently. Though he is not elected to any legislative forum, the ruling party circles believe he can be very handy in tackling the media front, may be external publicity wing.

With a high-profile US visit, the looming talks with Taliban and Musharraf treason case on the cards, it is time for the government to reach out to media outlets and professional journalists in a positive manner, project policies and go for background briefings. Confrontation and shifting blame towards media may be an easy tool, but it simply won’t work.