There are advantages and disadvantages in living abroad some of the time: on the one hand, I am distanced from a few of the events I write about; on the other, this distance gives me some perspective.

When I returned to Pakistan in October after several months abroad, I was amazed over the furore caused by the incident triggered by Constable Nazir Dogar when, in accordance with the law, he stopped a car with tinted windows in Lahore, only to discover, much to his dismay no doubt, that he had inadvertently stopped a vehicle carrying a serving major-general's family. I do not have to repeat the facts as everybody in Pakistan is by now familiar with the fate of the unfortunate policeman and his superiors.

The fact that an army officer (and his family) should consider themselves to be above the law comes as no surprise: what is different today is how the public has reacted to this case. Newspapers and magazines have carried comments and criticism about the matter for weeks, and angry letters from readers continue to be published.

Apart from carrying three letters from readers denouncing the military's highhandedness, this month's Herald magazine has also run a long story about an alleged 'land grab' in Karachi's Defence Housing Society presided over by a serving brigadier.

The whole question of military officers being allotted prime urban and rural land at rock-bottom prices came up in a recent discussion between the anchor of a private TV channel and an army spokesman. While the latter defended this practice, I am sure the defence establishment could not have been pleased at the pointed questions their man had to face.

One of these questions related to the standoff between the Rangers and the peasants tilling Punjab government land in Okara that had been leased to the army decades ago for a military dairy farm.

Over the last year or so, the Rangers have been trying to force the farmers to renounce their existing tenancy rights; several have been killed, and many have alleged that they were tortured.

Nobody denies the right of military personnel to acquire enough property over their career to retire comfortably; what people increasingly resent is the land hunger that seems to drive senior officers as they obtain plot after plot in every major city.

If GHQ is in any way concerned over this widening gulf between the army and the people of Pakistan, the high command needs to reflect on the fact that when its officers are placed in charge of virtually every institution, they will be blamed when things go wrong.

Thus, when the Pakistani cricket team performs dismally in the World Cup, who are we supposed to hold responsible but the chief of the cricket board? And if he happens to be a serving lieutenant general, then some of the blame gets rubbed off on the army as well. Similarly, when the electricity is erratic, another general in charge of WAPDA is criticized.

Mercifully, both these gentlemen have called it a day. Now I am not suggesting that their civilian successors will do much better, but at least the army won't be blamed for the failure of the organizations they run. Perhaps General Musharraf will now consider asking more of his serving and retired colleagues to go home or to their units.

A continuing problem with army-civilian relations has been the arrogance military officers display when dealing with civilians. To all intents and purposes, they could be a colonial force lording their innate superiority over the backward natives.

All armies are insulated from civilian life to some extent, but our officers are also taught to despise politicians and bureaucrats as soon as they enter the military academy.

Another reason for the antagonism that has built up against our defence forces is the gradual accumulation of perks by officers. For instance, brigadiers are entitled to a staff car and a jeep, the former being used to ferry the children and the 'begum'. Until recently, chiefs of services could import a car duty free.

There is a network of excellent medical facilities for the military. Officers and their families are entitled to reduction in fares on trains and on PIA. The list is long and expensive to the taxpayer.

Again, although most people would not resent normal perks associated with military service, they feel the gap between the way ordinary Pakistanis live and the lifestyle of their uniformed overlords is growing too wide to be palatable.

In developing countries, the military is usually the most organized and cohesive force around, and this perception of superiority often impels it to intervene in politics.

Using civilian incompetence and/or corruption as a pretext, Third World armies have staged scores of coups over the last five decades to satisfy the ambitions of generals full of self-importance and a messianic vision. While they have entered the field as saviours and reformers, they have invariably left a trail of destruction and despair behind them. Given this track record, it is small wonder that military coups are no longer fashionable.

Pakistan has a sorrier record of military intervention than many; but each time a new general takes over, he is welcomed by the majority in the vain hope that he might offer better governance than his predecessors. Invariably, this hope is dashed and the people realize they have been taken for a ride yet again.

The next stage in this unending cycle is for a weak civilian government to be inducted through dubious elections which are fiddled to ensure that an army-friendly party comes to power. These ineffective leaders are unable to deliver and are soon discredited, usually through dirty tricks that are the stock-in- trade of our rogue intelligence agencies. These politicians are then turfed out to general acclaim and the cycle is repeated yet again.

Even the army's staunchest supporters will agree that the present rancour against the armed forces is unhealthy. The only way to reduce it is for soldiers and generals to return to the jobs they were hired and trained for.


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