DAWN - Editorial; 17 September, 2004

Published September 17, 2004

The uniform tangle

"After giving it serious thought, I have decided to give up my uniform before Dec 31, 2004, for creating political harmony in the country. I will select the date myself within this period." - General Pervez Musharraf in a nationwide radio/television address following his agreement with the MMA, Dec 24, 2003.

"The cabinet of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz at its first meeting made it clear that there was no constitutional restriction on General Musharraf remaining the president in uniform." - news item, Sept 16, 2004.

Federal information minister and chief spokesman for the government, Shaikh Rashid Ahmad, was more categoric while briefing the media on the cabinet meeting. He said the government had decided that the president should stay as army chief beyond Dec 31, although the minister later added the word 'hopefully' - saying hopefully the president would agree with the cabinet's proposition.

What has happened between Dec 2003 and now to make General Musharraf change his mind is not known. Intimations of his thinking were available as far back as September last year when, talking to the press in New York during his annual visit for the UN General Assembly session (he is going there again later this month), the general had said: "I am not going to give up my uniform."

Recently we have seen statements from various PML and PPP Patriots urging the president to retain his office of COAS. Since then the provincial assembly of Punjab - famously described by the late Mr Z.A. Bhutto as one of his two bastions of power (the other being Sindh) - has passed a resolution by majority urging the president to continue in uniform.

The Sindh assembly is expected to follow suit, but the MMA-controlled NWFP assembly has in a retort to Punjab insisted in a resolution that the president should keep only one office after Dec 31. Whether the Balochistan government will manage to get a pro-COAS resolution through the provincial assembly is difficult to predict at this stage.

Interestingly, President Musharraf, in his speech after the agreement with the MMA on the 17th Amendment, admitted that the decision was a difficult one to take, but said moments came in a nation's life when decisions had to be taken by rising above personal considerations.

"Such an occasion had arisen, and I took the decision in the greater national interest," he said. Far be it from us to suggest that a reversal of the undertaking, if it happens, would be in anything other than the 'national interest'.

But this vague and often politically convenient term needs to be fully explained to the nation and the representative forum of the people - the parliament. If there is an agenda that requires the president to remain as army chief, we need to be told about it; more, the opposition should be taken into confidence.

Is there something that the president feels he can implement only by remaining in command of the army? Or, notwithstanding the setting up of the National Security Council, is there a sense among the generals that the time is not yet ripe for real authority to be transferred to the elected representatives of the people? Or is it that further changes are contemplated to the existing system to make it even more centralized and presidential? Such questions need to be asked and honest answers sought to prevent what appears to be a looming confrontation between the military and the ruling party on one hand and the forces of civil society on the other.

The MMA, which was a party to the LFO agreement following which President Musharraf made his announcement regarding his uniform, will smart from the hurt if the president now backpedals on what the MMA believes was a commitment on his part.

The ARD never agreed to the terms of the 17th Amendment, and will now find further ammunition against both the MMA and the government. The opposition as a whole may be disorganized and, in terms of mustering popular support on constitutional matters, ineffective.

But to draw satisfaction from the opposition's disarrayed state and act unilaterally, without considering the damage that may be inflicted on the political system, will be a terrible mistake. We will continue to be called a quasi and immature democracy.

There should be no illusions that the offices of army chief and president must remain with one person because we are not yet a stable democracy: we are not one precisely because of uniformed rulers.

Choice before ECO

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's plea that Eco's policies must be result-oriented underlines the problem bedevilling many regional groupings. Large and, in some cases, unwieldy, regional groups like the Economic Cooperation Organization or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation do not have much to show by way of results.

Saarc, one can say, has been held back by tensions and mistrust between two of its principal members - India and Pakistan. Founded in 1985, it has failed to even partially achieve the aims set out at the landmark summit in Dhaka. Fortunately, no major political problems exist among Eco members.

Still, this 10-member organization has failed to make much headway. A summit conference is held every year, but when the leaders meet again, resolutions passed and pious intentions expressed a year ago remain just that. This is not the case with all regional groupings.

The European Union, for example, is an outstanding example of what a regional body can achieve if the member-countries show a resolve to step up economic and political cooperation.

Another success story is the Association of South-East Asian Nations. In spite of religious, cultural and linguistic diversities, Asean has been outstanding success because its members have shown sincerity of purpose and focussed on the benefits that would accrue to their peoples from regional cooperation in areas of common interest. Regrettably, the Eco members have shown no such awareness and initiatives.

Passed on Tuesday, the Dushanbe declaration visualizes a free-trade area by 2015 and lays emphasis on developing transport and communications links among member-states. One doubts, however, if the two aims would be pursued with vigour and tenacity of purpose. Basically, developing transport links is dependent on the level of the member-countries' own infrastructures.

Easy travel among EU members is possible because every EU state has a highly developed infrastructure. If the Eco states want to improve travel links, every country must first improve its own system before linking it to that of other Eco members.

Another factor militating against people-to-people contact is the authoritarian nature of the regimes of all Eco countries, with the possible exception of Turkey. Lack of civil liberties invariably serves to discourage interaction among the Eco countries' journalists, parliamentarians and intellectuals.

Here one recalls the fate of the Regional Cooperation for Development among Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. After two decades of existence of that body it was wound up, having nothing to show for its long years of existence.

One hopes Eco will not suffer the RCD's fate and will try to develop a mechanism for implementing approved plans of cooperation as emphasized by Pakistan's prime minister.

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