DAWN - Editorial; 29 April, 2004

April 29, 2004

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Defence cuts

As part of a restructuring plan, the Pakistan Army has announced that it is reducing its manpower by 50,000, which will allow a "sizable saving in funds". The reduction, it is said, will not affect the army's capability as a fighting force; indeed it will lead to greater modernization and increased combat efficiency.

The decision was taken at a meeting of formation commanders presided over by President General Pervez Musharraf. It was also agreed that staff such as batmen would be released to return to the main body of the army and be replaced by civilians on contract.

The proposed reduction, given the overall strength of the armed forces (including the army, navy, and air force) of half a million, may not mark a very deep cut, but its value as a symbolic move should be recognized and welcomed.

The trend all over the world is to opt for learner armies with greater and more sophisticated firepower. The other branches of the armed forces will also presumably be subjected to similar downsizing and this will have the effect of reducing the country's defence expenditure, which has always been a source of debate, and in the long term enable more funds to be available for development.

The army's political role inevitably made the money spent on it even more controversial. Cuts in expenditure or manpower will win greater public appreciation if these are accompanied by the army's withdrawal from politics and a less pervasive presence in civilian affairs than has been the case for long years.

The colonial trappings and perks and privileges inherited and assiduously preserved by the civilian and military bureaucracy since independence in any case require a thorough review.

Some of us have had it far too good for a long time and need to share the austerity that we have imposed on large sections of the people by our extravagant lifestyles.

The size of Pakistan's armed forces has been directly linked to the security threat perception of the country. We have been engaged in bruising conflicts with India and faced pressure also on the western front.

The latter remains restive, but with India relations have been improving over the past few months, and the peace momentum is likely to go forward, barring any untoward development. Both countries have faced the same dilemma of balancing defence with development, with India adding to its problems because of the vision of its role as a regional superpower, with well over a million men under arms.

This may sound far-fetched, but Pakistan's gesture, if taken in the right spirit, can be a stepping stone to a more acceptable level of militarization in the subcontinent. The Musharraf-Vajpayee initiative needs to be built upon, and it should be followed by quick agreements at least on issues such as Siachen, whose forbidding heights represent another aspect of wasteful defence expenditure for both sides.

New Delhi should also look rationally at a reduction in the armed forces deployed on its side of Kashmir. Strife and confrontation have prevented efforts and initiatives towards meaningfully addressing the socio-economic problems besetting the people of the two countries and encouraged bigotry and militancy and a psychology of mutual obduracy. The consequences are before us, and it's time to leave the past behind.

Damascus bombing

A veil of secrecy surrounds Tuesday's grenade attacks and the bombing that rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus. The attack took place in city's affluent Mazze district where many embassies and houses of the ruling Baath party leaders are located.

Security forces reportedly tried to corner what they called a group of terrorists after the latter set off a bomb under a car outside an abandoned building that used to house the UN's country headquarters.

A gun battle then ensued between the assailants and the security forces during which the terrorists hurled grenades at the former. Later at night Syrian security forces confirmed that two terrorists and two passers-by were killed in the operation.

Analysts say that the Syrian government usually uses the term 'terrorists' for Islamic militants. There is some logic in this perception because, earlier this month, Jordan foiled an attack on its security services headquarters in Amman which it blamed on Islamic extremists who, it said, had crossed over from Syria.

However, the last time one heard of a crackdown on Islamists in Syria was in the early 1980s, when Damascus said it had wiped out Muslim Brotherhood from its territory. But these are dangerous times, what with the worsening situation in neighbouring Iraq under American occupation and the Israelis intensifying their persecution of the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the fact that only Israel and the US stand to gain politically from any prospects of destabilization of Syria cannot be denied. Since the occupation of Iraq began last year, the US has repeatedly accused Damascus of harbouring militants and fugitives from Iraq.

The action taken against a group of 'terrorists' by the Syrian government on Tuesday may well have come about as a result of American pressure. But this still leaves the riddle of the timing, motive and choice of the target in Damascus unresolved.

New teachers for Sindh

According to the Sindh education minister, the provincial government plans to hire 24,000 teachers. Speaking to a group of students, the minister said that after this measure the "shortage of teachers would be overcome".

One hopes that in its efforts to provide basic education to schoolchildren in the province, the Sindh government will not overlook the very important issue of quality and qualifications when it recruits teachers in such large numbers.

There is a reason why most developed societies treat teachers with respect and place a premium on their training and qualifications. Teachers are role models for their students and trained and properly qualified ones can play a crucial role in increasing the quality of education in a country like Pakistan.

To achieve that end, it is imperative that the recruitment process be transparent, above board and teachers are chosen purely on merit. Regrettably, however, in Sindh's case, various developments have meant that the process has so far not been very transparent.

Initially, the education department insisted on hiring teachers without involving the Sindh Public Service Commission. Later, it allowed representatives of the commission to sit in on recruitment interviews.

Then, stories kept appearing of applicants claiming that they would be chosen provided they paid a bribe. Furthermore, the perception that the process of selecting teachers was guided by factors other than merit was reinforced by remarks in private by certain officials of the education department who seemed to confirm such stories.

The provincial government must ensure that the process of recruiting new teachers is kept transparent and free from any kind of political or other influence and that applicants are selected purely on merit. Sindh cannot afford another exercise in futility, something that will surely set the province's record in education further back.