Dawn Editorial 18 December 2019

Extension verdict

THE 42-page detailed Supreme Court verdict has provided further clarity in the imbroglio surrounding the extension of the army chief’s tenure. Its short order on Nov 28 had granted Gen Qamar Bajwa a six-month extension and directed parliament to enact within that time necessary legislation regulating the terms and conditions of the office of COAS. The judgement announced on Monday holds that failure to comply will mean the incumbent army chief would stand retired from the time his tenure ended in November. Once again, the court expressed incredulity that there exists no provision in the law for extending the army’s chief tenure. In his additional note, Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa pointed out that the office of the COAS is “powerful … in ways more than one” and that “unbridled power or position, like unstructured discretion, is dangerous”.
The PTI government and parliament must consider the situation carefully. After all, the outcome will have profound implications, not only for civilian supremacy, but for the military itself. Tenure extensions sanctioned by parliament would acquire a legitimacy that could upend a promotion process that should be marked by transparency and predictability. The Supreme Court has in its verdict sagaciously observed that “…in strengthening institutions, nations prosper”. Indeed, Imran Khan had himself taken the same position when it came to the extension of then COAS Gen Ashfaq Kayani during the PPP government. And yet, a few weeks ago, Mr Khan remarked during an interview that he had decided to give Gen Bajwa an extension soon after assuming office. That gave the unfortunate impression that factors other than the “regional security environment” — the official reason given for the extension — accounted for the prime minister having made up his mind so prematurely. Perhaps Mr Khan should consider the views of the other principal character in this saga, the army chief himself — or at least, his views as articulated by the military’s public relations arm. The ISPR has more than once asserted that the COAS was reluctant to accept an extension. Even after the spectacle that the government made of itself in its handling of the issue, the ISPR assured the public that it was not Gen Bajwa but the government that was hell-bent on having him continue to head the army. That may well be the case: one would hope that every military official considers the interests of his country and his institution above those of his own.

 
 

Cyberwars

CONTEMPORARY propagandists seem to understand one ancient truism better than others: ‘all warfare is based on deception’. Battles for winning the minds of people are increasingly fought in cyberspace, but the underlying motive behind propaganda has remained unchanged over the centuries. Today, undiscerning ‘consumers’ of news often believe whatever they stumble upon, particularly if it confirms an existing bias, without bothering to do a background check on the authenticity or credibility of the source. Luckily, there are a few organisations that act as watchdogs, helping us distinguish the real from the ‘fake news’ in the sea of information. On Monday, the Brussels-based not-for-profit EU DisinfoLab published a startling report on its unearthing of 265 ‘fake news’ websites that were promoted by a handful of ‘fake NGOs’ and ‘fake think tanks’ — all linked to a single, controversial Indian company. This network predominantly propagated an anti-Pakistan agenda to decision-makers in the EU and US. While the discovery of such propagandistic, and often blatantly plagiaristic, websites is not all that unexpected, what stands out is just how far this particular network went to create the illusion of authenticity — and just how easily so many, presumably intelligent, people fell for it. Even more worrying is the shameless exploitation of very real human rights abuses faced by marginalised groups to further jingoistic arguments and claims of superiority on the other side.
Earlier this month, this paper had published an article that looked into how the majority of Twitter hashtags were manufactured by coordinated groups in an attempt to deceive the public about genuine support for certain causes, individuals or institutions. And last year, Science published its findings on the largest-ever study on fake news, which examined the behaviour of Twitter users. Confirming the worst, they found a much greater proclivity in humans for sharing false information over the truth, particularly when it came to political news. That is not an encouraging reality to live with.

 
 

PM’s bad diplomacy

IN perhaps the umpteenth U-turn of his prime ministerial career, Imran Khan has decided not to attend the Kuala Lumpur summit hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The pretext, provided by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to journalists yesterday, was that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had reservations about the meeting and Pakistan was playing a role in addressing them. However, he said, since these concerns could not be addressed within the time that was available, Pakistan was stepping back from the summit.
The concerns apparently revolved around two questions: first, would the summit divide the ummah; and second, was it an effort to create an organisation parallel to the OIC. He said Pakistan would continue its efforts to bridge these gaps.
That may be so, but the fact is that Pakistan has already painted itself into a corner and cut a sorry figure.
Prime Minister Khan’s urge to play the mediator may be a noble one but the course of action he has taken should have been thought out better. The divisions between blocs of Muslim countries are no secret and neither are those issues that are sources of disagreement.
If Mr Khan thought he could successfully manage a diplomatic tightrope act between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Malaysia and Turkey on the other, then he should have acted on a well-crafted plan that allowed for such diplomatic finesse. Yet he had jumped the gun at the UN General Assembly session in New York where he made plans with prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan for joint collaborations in various fields including launching a channel together.
Why were the ramifications of these diplomatic initiatives not considered then? Why were the reactions of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE not factored into this policy? Why did Mr Khan accept the invitation to attend the Malaysian summit before understanding how this would be perceived by the leadership of the Gulf countries?
As a result of its amateurish diplomatic manoeuvres, Pakistan has placed itself between a rock and a hard place. It has in the process alienated both sides without gaining anything in return except a red face. This despite the personal investment that Mr Khan had made in reaching out to the leaderships of these countries.
Pakistan should learn the right diplomatic lessons from this debacle.
We may harbour noble intentions about playing a role as mediator in various conflicts but, as this foreign policy faux pas has shown, greater thinking is needed about the costs and benefits of such ambitious adventures.
It will now take some delicate diplomacy to smooth ruffled feathers and mend fences that were needlessly fractured.
It may also be an opportune time for the Prime Minister’s Office to start relying more on advice from professionals in the Foreign Office and less on whims and fancies.

 
 
 

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