PM, army chief discuss impasse over Punjab operation

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif on Monday to discuss the civil-military impasse over the authorisation of military-led counter-terrorism operations in Punjab.

“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presided over a high-level meeting on security. Matters related to national and internal security were discussed during the meeting,” a brief statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said.

Mr Sharif was assisted at the meeting by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, while ISI Director General Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar accompanied Gen Raheel Sharif.

Although some saw the third meeting between the political and military leadership on the issue since last Thursday — particularly the latest in the series being at the highest level having been chaired by the prime minister — as a sign of progress in the dialogue between the two sides on Punjab operations, others were sceptical about either of the sides budging in the row.

In first of the earlier two meetings, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar visited Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, while in the second Finance Minister Ishaq Dar met Gen Sharif at the GHQ for ‘discussing budgetary issues’.

In these meetings, the army has been pushing the civilian side to take ownership of the operations that it unilaterally launched in the province after the Lahore bombing which left some 78 people dead.

The army, it is claimed, was compelled to start the operations on its own because of the continuing resistance from the Punjab government and capacity issues of the provincial law-enforcement agencies, particularly police. But, a bigger element, which is rarely talked about, is the distrust that the two had developed. In their private discussions, some officials allege that Punjab police, some time back, leaked some critical intelligence compromising operations.

The government is, meanwhile, adamant that it is the provincial government’s prerogative to seek the help of armed forces and that it would do it depending on the nature of the threat.

One cannot say how far this chasm has been bridged in the three civil-military meetings over the past few days because neither side is ready to say anything publicly on the matter. Some, however, read the absence of any reference to Punjab operations in the PMO statement as an indication of continuing stalemate.

The intensity of the operations over the next few days will, however, tell about their future.

The vibes from the military were that the operations would continue with the same scale and strength with which they started on March 28.

The military says it has undertaken operations throughout Punjab during this period using different force configurations involving military intelligence agencies, army and Rangers and, at some places, in cooperation with police. But, the military is not ready to share the number of operations which have been carried out so far and the arrests made during the crackdown.

People aware of the thinking within the military say that its primary objective is to get the job done for which it would preferably like to win the government’s cooperation.

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