The standoff deepens. The simmering relations between the civil and military establishments seemingly reached the point of no-return on Wednesday with all eyes set on Constitution Avenue to monitor any unusual movement in view of a confrontation between the government and the army, as the General Headquarters (GHQ) sturdily reacted to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s statement wherein he had unambiguously charged Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt General Ahmad Shuja Pasha with violating the constitution while submitting their responses to the Supreme Court in the memo case.
“Any expectation that the COAS will not state the facts is neither constitutional nor legal. Allegiance to the State and the Constitution is and will always remain prime consideration for the respondent (the COAS), who, in this case, has followed the book,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement, unmistakably conveying to the prime minister that the COAS had not violated the constitution and also suggesting that the position of the COAS on the memo issue would remain unchanged. This also removed the ambiguity, if there was any, that the question of national security, understandably in the context of the memo, would be compromised by the army.
The already perilous situation turned even more tense when the prime minister, after the ISPR issued a strongly-worded statement, sacked Defence Secretary Lt General (r) Khalid Naeem Lodhi for also not following the rules of business in the memo case. As the prime minister gave his favourite and trusted bureaucrat Nargis Sethi, instead of a retired general as was the practice since long, the additional charge of defence secretary, it appeared as if the government would remove the two top generals as well by withdrawing the notifications granting them extensions in service as the COAS and the ISI director general.
Another coincidence, which added to the already volatile situation and suggested that it was a matter of hours before ‘the boots’ marched, was the appointment of Brigadier Sarfaraz Ali as commander of the 111 Brigade, which always played a pivotal role in military takeovers. Though it was a routine posting as the present commander of the 111 Brigade had been posted out on his promotion as major general, it was, however, also seen in the context of the developments that took place on Wednesday.
While the situation on the ground remained normal, the in-house consultations in Rawalpindi and Islamabad continued to evaluate the responses and counter-responses with uncertainty gripping the whole country. As the tension between the army and the government continued to increase, the international media closely watched the situation and the diplomatic missions in Islamabad also keenly observed the developments.
With the civil and military leadership seemingly facing off, the political parties also got alarmed and started inter- and intra-party consultations in view of the situation that was being feared would end up in a confrontation between the state institutions, threatening the democratic process in the country at a time when the memo issue was already about to take its toll as the COAS and the ISI DG were not ready to soften their positions and the government also not showing any signs of giving in. The National Assembly will meet today and the prime minister is expected to make a speech on the situation. Similarly, General Kayani has also called a meeting of his Principle Staff Officers (PSOs) at the GHQ today.
The ISPR’s statement did carry a strong message for the government and it appeared to have also been received well with the prime minister and some ministers later in the evening, explaining the government’s position to defuse the situation seeing the mood of the opposition parties and particularly that of the coalition partners, which did not robustly come forward in support of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its leadership against the army.
The ISPR statement referred to the prime minister’s interview with a Chinese newspaper wherein he had, inter alia, termed the responses given by the COAS and the ISI DG in the memo case to the Supreme Court “unconstitutional and illegal”. “There can be no allegation more serious than what the Honourable Prime Minister has leveled against the COAS and the ISI DG and has unfortunately charged the officers for violation of the Constitution of the Country. This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country,” the ISPR said.
The ISPR rejected the prime minister’s statement as false, reminding him of a press release issued by his own office after his meeting with the COAS on December 16. The PM House’s statement had said: “The Prime Minister and the Army Chief also agreed that replies forwarded by the COAS and DG ISI were in response to the notice of the Honourable Court, through proper channel and in accordance with the rules of business and should not be misconstrued as a standoff between the Army and the government.”
What made the GHQ react so strongly was that if the government had not agreed to the COAS and the ISI DG filing their responses to the Supreme Court, why had it not objected to this at that time instead of the prime minister making a statement more than three weeks after they had submitted their responses, and that too in an interview with a foreign newspaper, charging the two top generals with violation of the constitution.
The ISPR also categorically stated that the COAS and the ISI DG, in their response to the Supreme Court, were obliged to state facts as known to them on the memo issue. “The issue of jurisdiction and maintainability of the petitions was between the Supreme Court and the Federation,” the ISPR said.
The ISPR referred to the prime minister’s statement, which, it said, did not take into account important facts: i) the COAS and the ISI DG were cited as respondents in the petitions as such and after hearing the parties the Supreme Court served notices directly to the respondents. This was not objected to by the attorney general of Pakistan; ii) the responses by the respondents were sent to the Ministry of Defence for onward submission to the Supreme Court, through the attorney general (Law Ministry); iii) a letter was also dispatched to the attorney general and the Supreme Court informing that the replies had been submitted to the Ministry of Defence; iv) it is emphasised that copies of the statements of the two respondents were not forwarded directly to the Supreme Court; v) responsibility for moving summaries and obtaining approvals of the competent authority thereafter lay with the relevant ministries and not with the respondents.