Keeping the army in check – by Irfan Hussain

Routine administrative issues like the grant of an extension in the service of the ISI chief becomes headline news.

This preoccupation reflects the central role the army has come to occupy in Pakistan. As the major political player, it is no surprise that changes in the higher echelon of the military should attract fascination and scrutiny.

One reason the army is the single-most powerful institution in the country is the high threat level it perceives from India, and skilfully exploits domestically. In a thoughtful article on foreign policy, Munir Ataullah writes in a national daily:

“And the common experience of mankind tells us there is a wide gulf between the mindset of an army and that of a political leader. Normally, a country’s foreign policy is firmly rooted in its domestic political compulsions. We seem to have got it the other way round: our foreign policy has been the convenient excuse for seizing and maintaining control of the levers of power, and driving domestic policy.”

He goes on to say: “Only those who live in their own mad ideological world now believe that India is still not reconciled to the existential fact that is Pakistan.”

Apart from using this perceived threat from India to justify the enormous burden the defence forces have placed on a poor country’s resources, our generals have exploited divisions among our politicians to grab and retain power. But that’s the nature of the beast: a power vacuum is filled by any force organised enough to exploit it.

The ongoing wrangling between the ruling PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML is a case in point. When this elected government was formed two years ago, our hopes for stability were raised by the coalition forged between the two major rivals for power. Asif Zardari and Sharif showed considerable statesmanship by seeming to overcome their differences and join hands.

Unfortunately, Zardari was unable to rise above his level, and committed a number of blunders in a bid to consolidate his grip on power. In doing so, he alienated the powerful chief justice, Nawaz Sharif and the army chief, Gen Kayani. To alienate so many power centres simultaneously takes talent. Now he stumbles from one self-created crisis to another, spending more time on apologies and damage control than he does on formulating policy, and providing leadership. As a result, his government looks increasingly like a rudderless ship.

When there are cracks in a wall, all manner of creepy-crawly things slither in. In our case, the fissure that has opened up between the government and the PML-N is wide enough for tanks to pass through. Now, the army chief feels emboldened enough to make political pronouncements with impunity.

It appears that last year’s furor over the Kerry-Lugar Act was largely orchestrated by the military’s point men and women in the media, and yet the government was unable to make its case. Now that the money is in the pipeline, our ghairat brigade is silent. But the damage to the government has been done.Having written against the army’s devastating role in Pakistan’s politics for much of my adult life, I remain convinced that no other institution has inflicted as much damage. However, we need to separate the army’s political role from the military one for which it was created. Despite the fact that these roles overlap, we should remain aware that in our current predicament, the army is playing an indispensable part in confronting a ruthless foe at a huge cost in lives lost.

It is easy to argue that the Taliban monster we face is a creation of the army in the first place. However, assigning blame will not make our enemies go away: they have to be fought until they lay down their arms or are eliminated. And obviously, the army is the only institution to take them on. In this context, we should recognise how difficult the battle is, and how heroically our officers and jawans are fighting.

If one were to judge from the chat shows on our TV channels, we would never know that the country was at war: most of the discussions are about constitutional amendments, corruption and the appointments in the judiciary. While foreign journalists follow the progress their troops are making and the hardships they are undergoing, we are perpetually fixated on mundane, much-dissected issues like the NRO, Zardari’s alleged foreign accounts and Nawaz Sharif’s farcical tax returns.

Fortunately, the army does not currently have any stomach for another coup, despite the encouragement it is getting from some politicians, as well as from a section of the media. In several conversations in Karachi recently, many people have speculated on how long this government will (or should) last.

To his credit, Nawaz Sharif has consistently said he will not support or accept any unconstitutional step towards regime change. His uncompromising position on the issue has silenced some of the voices calling for immediate change. Indeed, there was feverish speculation on the date by which this government would be shown the door.

Even if some would-be Bonapartes in the army wanted to stage a coup, they are aware that US laws governing aid would block the flow of further funds and military hardware. More to the point, another election at this time is almost guaranteed to produce a substantial PML-N majority.

Given Nawaz Sharif’s distrust of the military, the army is hardly likely to prefer him to a pliant Asif Zardari. From GHQ’s perspective, it is a choice between bad and worse. So even though the army high command might loathe and despise Zardari and the PPP, they fear Nawaz Sharif and a resurgent PML-N. Another factor in the army’s calculation must be that unlike the past when a pliable judiciary gave coup-makers a blank cheque, this time they will not have an easy ride in the Supreme Court.

Clearly, both major parties have a stake in the system, and in making the military subordinate to parliament. This will not happen unless both Zardari and Sharif forge an understanding on certain basic principles. While these were enshrined in the Charter of Democracy signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, much has happened since then.

Despite their rivalry and differences, both Zardari and Sharif need to send out a clear signal to the army and the people of Pakistan that unconstitutional steps will be firmly opposed.

Courtesy : Dawn, 13 March 2010