By Iftikhar A. Khan
Thursday, 08 Oct, 2009 (Dawn)
The Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani presiding over the 122 Corps Commanders Conference held at General Headquarters on Wednesday. —ISPR
ISLAMABAD: The military-government differences on the conditions attached to an aid legislation approved by the US Congress, the so-called Kerry-Lugar bill, became more pronounced on Wednesday after the army’s top commanders, through a carefully drafted press statement, expressed their ‘serious concerns’ on some of the clauses of the bill that they believe would affect ‘national security’.
At the same time they asked the government to build a national response on the controversial bill through a debate in the parliament.
Unlike a benign two-line statement that is usually issued after most of the corps commanders’ meetings, the one released to the media on Wednesday left absolutely no doubt that the top brass was not only gravely disturbed over the conditions linked to the American aid legislation, they wanted to make their views public instead of just communicating them to the government through a formal channel.
The corps commanders’ meeting, presided over by Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, decided to provide a formal input to the government. Mindful of the way the world views Pakistan and its nascent democratic institutions, the corps commanders’ forum observed that the parliament, which represented the will of the people, would deliberate on the issue, ‘enabling the government to develop a national response’.
Unusual as the army commanders’ statement may be, it came against the backdrop of a raging debate in the country on the finer points of the Kerry-Lugar bill, which aims to provide billions of dollars in aid for social uplift in the country, particularly in areas directly affected by militancy and terrorism.
The army’s objections mainly related to the clauses about the country’s nuclear programme, suggestions of Pakistan’s support for cross-border militancy and civilian government’s role in military promotions and appointments.
Although it was nearly impossible to find out what really transpired at the closed-door meeting of the corps commanders, or who said what during the debate on the US aid bill, the statement issued by the Inter-services Public Relations (ISPR) captured to some extent the essence of what might have been discussed by the high command. But even before a formal reaction from the military, a number of opposition politicians and some analysts had started targeting the aid package. A number of critics, e.g. Chaudhry Shujaat, describe it as a ‘sell-out’. A few others from the main opposition PML-N, e.g. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said the conditions amounted to a compromise on national sovereignty.
However, senior government leaders, from President Asif Ali Zardari down to Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, thought it was a great piece of legislation and a pro-democracy bill, which might go a long way in strengthening pro-public institutions in the country.
Even on Wednesday after the issuance of the statement by the ISPR about corps commanders’ reservations, presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar took pains to explain that most of the criticism of the government was unfounded as it was a piece of US legislation, and not something signed by the Pakistani president or prime minister.
When asked if the development was indicative of deteriorating relations between the army and the government, he said: ‘I have learnt not to make public comments on civil-military relations.’ However, he said the Kerry Lugar bill had been passed by the US Congress. ‘There is no commitment by the Pakistani government.’
His own view of the bill was that ‘If some people think that they should not accept even economic aid, under the directions of the US Congress to the US administration, then they should have their own choice.’
The spokesman said security forces would neither undermine the democratic process nor support militancy. ‘This is something we have promised to ourselves. There is no harm in it if we are sincere with our promises.’
The presidential spokesman dispelled a perception that accepting aid under the bill would amount to admission that the army and the intelligence agencies were still abetting terrorists. He pointed out that former president Pervez Musharraf had on Jan 6, 2004, signed with then Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee a document pledging that Pakistani territory would not be allowed to be used for militant activities. ‘If it was not considered an admission that time, why this fuss now,’ he wondered.
The government, which describes the passage of the Kerry-Lugar bill as a major foreign policy success, succumbed to the pressure of the opposition when it announced earlier this week that the bill would be presented before parliament.
A PML-N leader said the army, through its apex forum, had raised ‘genuine concerns’ about the country’s security. He said the position taken by the army had been welcomed in party circles. The government had failed to take the stakeholders on board about security-related issues. ‘Had parliament been sovereign the president would have been answerable to it,’ the PML-N leader remarked.
But even when some opponents of the government were quite pleased with the ISPR statement, with a few even suggesting that a ‘countdown’ for the government might have started, the tone of debate on the Kerry-Lugar bill somehow negated this impression.
Although the main opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar was quite critical of the US legislation, he declared at the very outset that under no circumstances his party would support any extra-constitutional move to remove or even destabilise the government.
Premier Gilani adopted an equally conciliatory tone. He referred to the ISPR statement and criticism of the bill, declaring that he would try to evolve a consensus on the matter.
However, sources told Dawn that during a late-night meeting at the Aiwan-i-Sadr, President Zardari once again told the participants, including Prime Minister Gilani, that the bill was a ‘pro-democracy aid package’ which needed to be defended in parliament and at other public forums.
It was not clear to what extent the government would be willing to go to defend the bill, or whether a compromise would be reached through parliament to defuse the situation. But until then, many seasoned analysts believe that tension will continue to mount between the civilian government and the military leadership on ways of tackling the controversial issue.