12/10/2016 10:58 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

Why Cyril Almeida's Story Has Created A Political Storm In Pakistan

Everyone’s questioning the ‘timing’ - who benefits from the story?

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan removes his eyeglasses after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The Pakistani government has put Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida on its exit control list, preventing him from going abroad. The reason for this was his 6 October story which said the civilian government had asked the military to go after anti-India militants, otherwise the Pakistani government risked international isolation.

Ever since the story came out, the speculation has been about who leaked the story, and why. It is not everyday that such a sensitive story comes out, showing the civilians were strongly standing up to the army. Who benefits from the story?

The army chief, Raheel Sharif, will retire on 29 November. Whether he will get an extension, and if not, will the next army chief be of his choosing, are questions that are being raised.

Cyril Almeida/Facebook

Many Pakistanis on Twitter suggested that it was Nawaz Sharif and the civilians who leaked the story to embarrass the army, and to show the world it wasn't Sharif who was responsible for the rising tensions with India. It was the army that was leading Pakistan into global isolation, and the civilians needed to salvage the situation, it suggested.

Some suggested the army, to show Sharif in poor light, must have leaked the story. The story showed how the civilian government wanted the army to go after its Kashmir assets at a time when Pakistanis were angered by the Indian clampdown in Kashmir. It therefore weakens Sharif before public opinion, and strengthens the hand of Raheel Sharif.

READ: Convinced The Pakistan Government Is Planning To Take Further, Uglier Actions, Says Dawn Journalist Cyril Almeida

At any rate, the Sharif versus Sharif conflict was out in the open. As the days passed by, it seemed clear that the story seemed to benefit the army more. As the civilians got blamed for leaking the story, many questioned its timing. The attention the story got in India, was in particular upsetting for Pakistanis who thought national interest was being compromised by the leak. When India is threatening military action against Pakistan, is it really the right to highlight civil-military disjunction before the world?

Columnist Ayaz Amir, for instance, thinks the talk of Pakistani getting isolated is a bogey, "a chance to get back at the army command for all the acute discomfort caused to the government over the last three years by Gen Raheel Sharif's public standing... his popular hero status."

On Monday, general Raheel Sharif and ISI chief general Rizwan Akhtar called on Nawaz Sharif and the "participants" of the meeting expressed concern over the "fabricated" story in Dawn. The prime minister's official release was his third denial of the story.

While the first denial had said the army and ISI were working in accordance with the state policy on counter-terrorism, the third release especially noted the army and intelligence agencies had a lead role in doing so. Clearly, Nawaz Sharif is the one on the backfoot over the story.

Faisal Mahmood / Reuters
Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif attends a ceremony at the Nur Khan air base in Islamabad, Pakistan May 9, 2015.

The joke is that civil-military conflict has been turned into Cyril-military conflict. But the army has sought to deflect focus away from Cyril and back to civilians. In a story on Tuesday, Geo News said authoritative army sources had told them they had no problem with Cyril Almeida or Dawn, and had not asked him to be put on the exit control list. The channel claimed the army wanted action not against the reporter but against those who leaked it. Notably, the unnamed sources did not tell Geo News that the story was fabricated, only that it was distorted.

"Eventually," Najam Sethi writes, "he can build up his forces to gherao the "illegitimate" parliament and provoke the government to use force to establish its writ, confirming a serious "law and order" crisis and compelling the courts and military to come to the "rescue" of the people."

This isn't the last of it. On 30 October, opposition leader Imran Khan has asked for Islamabad to be shut down. The protests, he has promised, will continue until Nawaz Sharif is unseated. Khan's grouse is the Panama Papers leak that showed Nawaz Sharif's family owning offshore wealth. The protest is being called exactly one month before Raheel Sharif's retirement. That is around the time Nawaz Sharif would have to announce who the next army chief is, or if Raheel Sharif is getting an extension.

"Eventually," Najam Sethi writes, "he can build up his forces to gherao the "illegitimate" parliament and provoke the government to use force to establish its writ, confirming a serious "law and order" crisis and compelling the courts and military to come to the "rescue" of the people."

As for the army's role, Sethi writes, "This time round, however, there is a powerful sense of disaffection in the military with the prime minister, suggesting that the establishment is egging on Imran Khan and wouldn't mind weakening the prime minister if not seeing his back even if there is no covert conspiracy to seize direct power."

The next few weeks in Pakistan are going to be very interesting.