Editorial: The army and the people
Speaking to officers at the Jhelum garrison Wednesday, President General Pervez Musharraf raised some very important questions about the relationship between the Pakistan army and the people of Pakistan. He said it was “every Pakistani’s responsibility to ensure that the sanctity and reverence of national institutions, such as the armed forces, is maintained”. He claimed that there was no role of the military in governance and that “the armed forces were in the barracks” and claims to the contrary were “unfortunate”.
He also claimed that the media was free in the country despite some incidents where journalists were intimidated in Islamabad and Karachi and some cases of dubious “disappearance” and even homicide.
General Musharraf’s claim about media freedom is broadly correct. There is no doubt that the media is not shackled the same way as in Iran and elsewhere in the third world. But then why is the world — including its media — in agreement with the negative image which the Pakistani media is projecting of the recent actions of General Musharraf?
It is true that the recent picture of Pakistan presented by the national media has been anything but sanguine. General Musharraf says: “a section of the electronic media has been spreading despondency, distortion and ambiguity and the achievements of the government are being submerged by the propaganda of vested interests aimed at personal and political gain”. This is a serious allegation but unfortunately it is indefensible, given the near-universal media consensus on the malfunction of the state for many months. In fact the Lal Masjid affair, which has cast a deep gloom over Pakistan, actually began in 2005. In such situations, there will always be a tension of choice between the moral compulsion of not spreading gloom and the duty to inform the people of the facts.
The crux of the president’s message was clear: “respect of the army”. We don’t know whether he wanted the matter discussed seriously or not, but he has put his finger on a very important issue at the present moment. If a state runs normally, the national army is an integral part of its nationalism. The institution has nothing to do with politics and there is a bipartisan consensus among the political parties and the people that the army will be respected. When a nation feels threatened it reaches out to its army and expects its soldiers to lay down their lives to save the citizens from annihilation. The army gains respect and privilege in times of natural catastrophe when its soldiers are seen by the population as endangering themselves to rescue the victims.
Pakistan gave its military a special status at the time of its birth because it was militarily threatened by its next door neighbour India. Scholars who study the subject of politicisation of the institution of armed forces are of the opinion that mistakes were made in the early phase (1947-1957) when bureaucrats rather than elected politicians ruled the state. A revisionist nationalism elevated the image of the general above the politicians who were seen as “venal and unprincipled”. The result was the overthrow of the political system and its takeover by General Ayub Khan in 1958.
The fall of General Ayub Khan happened in the wake of the 1965 war in which the people emotionally backed the armed forces. The war was not properly studied by the Pakistan army and the effects of military rule on the country, especially East Pakistan, were ignored. When the next war came around in 1971, the people were not with the army, especially not the people of East Pakistan. The armed forces entered an even more dangerous phase when General Zia abolished democracy in 1977 in the name of national security and ideology. Even if one grants that many politicians were the progeny of the GHQ, one cannot deny that at least one-half of the nation began to view the military as its enemy. The army also decided that it could not allow at least one mainstream party to come to power completely.
Today, after the defeat of Kargil and the rapidly spreading control of the civilian system by serving or retired army personnel, to say nothing of the “sealed” industrial and services sectors in which the army has emerged as the biggest single entity, the image of the army has taken a big hit in the eyes of the people. The post-Kargil quarrel between the army chief and an elected prime minister, and the post-9/11 crisis of foreign policy, gave a measure of acceptability to General Musharraf, but since 2004 the trajectory has swung downward to a point where the army must rethink its posture and worry about its popularity with the people at large.
Much of the negative fallout has come from the political decisions taken by President Musharraf who also represents the army. This fallout has also come from his failures to achieve what he had set to do with regard to law and order and political transition. On his watch, almost all the negative indicators of law and order have worsened. There is rebellion in many parts of the country, there is insurgency in Balochistan and there is a strong national movement for the rehabilitation of the political order without General Musharraf. His long incumbency is another factor in this general picture of non-success which is responsible for bringing the army into disrepute.
The army has interfered in the political system — directly or as arbiter — for the last 30 years. It must decide to reorient itself, but not before analysing those aspects of the revisionist state that provoke it to interfere in the political process in the name of national security. By giving primacy to the national economy President Musharraf has pointed the way, but he has stopped short of liberating the state from its revisionist anti-economics shackles because of his irreducible military indoctrination. Therefore the army can only win its respect back by retreating from the political system and intellectually readjusting its regional character. *