ISLAMABAD, Feb 11: Pakistan Army on Monday called back all its serving officers from 23 civil departments, in what is being termed here as part of a plan to improve the image of the armed forces.

“More than 300 army officers are presently working in various civil departments and majority of them have been asked to report to the General Headquarters (GHQ) immediately,” Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj-Gen Athar Abbas told Dawn here on Monday.

He said the army authorities had written a letter to the federal government asking it to relieve all serving military officers from civil departments.

The move is in line with a decision taken by the 106th Corps Commanders’ Conference on Feb 7. The conference was presided over by Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had in an earlier statement, directed army officers to “stay away from political activities.”

The army chief’s decisions about reversal of officers from civil departments and restrictions on meeting politicians have been lauded by the civil society and all major political parties.

The induction of army officers in civil organisations has always been a controversial issue and has been questioned on different forums, including parliament.

The ISPR director general said army officers would be withdrawn in phases over a period of two to six months. “We have asked the federal government to relieve those army officials immediately who can be replaced easily,” he said. “Those who cannot be replaced at once will be called back in two to six months.”

Maj-Gen Abbas said some of the officers who were serving on sensitive posts in civil departments would continue in their present positions as the government required their services for some more time. He said such officials would return to their parent department as and when the federal government relieved them.

He said the process of army officers’ induction into the civilian departments had started under a decision taken in 1981 by former president and army chief Gen Ziaul Haq. With the passage of time, he said, the number of military officers in civil departments kept rising.

Replying to a question, he said the army officers would not be inducted into the civil departments in future.

Sources told Dawn that army officers were being called back from 23 civil departments. The highest number of 61 army officers being called back is presently working in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) which was set up by Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf soon after taking over the power on October 12, 1999. Later, the NAB became a controversial organisation, and many opposition parties openly criticised its performance and termed it a tool in the hands of the military rulers to gain political advantage.

Similarly, the sources said, 21 army officers working in the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) and 18 in the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) had also been asked to report back to the GHQ.

Other departments from where army officers are being called back include the National Highways Authority, Azad Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Bureau, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Crisis Management Cell, Intelligence Bureau (IB), National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), education departments, provincial governments, National Institute of Science, Technology and Engineering (NISTE), Customs Intelligence, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Pakistan Steel Mills, Establishment Division and AJK PM Secretariat.

It may be mentioned that at the Corps Commanders’ Conference, Gen Kayani had stated that holding free and fair election was the sole responsibility of the Election Commission and that the “army will meet only its constitutional obligations and help the civil administration maintain law and order, as and when required”.