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Survival of the self-centered

June 15, 2011

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In this Thursday, May 5, 2011 photo provided by Inter Services Public Relation department, Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, center, presides the Corps Commander conference at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. — AP Photo

Even the loudest voices get lost in a pandemonium. Those wishing to send across their points of view over a cacophony of confusion, therefore, need to do something other than talking.

However, the Pakistan Army seems to be thinking otherwise. With its press release issued at the end of June 9 meeting of its Corps Commanders, it appears to have tried talking down its critics and talking up its own pro-people and patriotic credentials. But in the process of making loud declarations about the need for people-centered policies and raising hue and cry against the ‘divisive’ impact of the criticism being hurled at it, the army has talked about exactly what it is being accused of – overstepping its institutional limits and running rampant on the territory it should avoid.

To begin with, Pakistan Army is not a people’s army or a revolutionary force in the same vein as armies in countries like China, North Korea and Iran are. Young men, now also young women, join its ranks out of their own choice, not under ideological compulsions or due to a revolutionary fervor.

But by its own claim the army is as much the custodian of Pakistan’s geographical boundaries as it is of the country’s ideological frontiers. The corps commanders have reconfirmed – as if there was ever any doubt about it – that they are out to secure the ideological identity of Pakistan. They say they will do whatever it takes to “secure the future of Pakistan which undoubtedly lies in an Islamic Republic”. The focus of the sentence on securing the future – as opposed to the present – and on ideology – as opposed to the physical boundaries and the internal security of the state – is unmistakable.

And it is in this perplexing admixture of the here with the hereafter, the concrete with the abstract and security with identity and religion that the nub of the problems facing Pakistan lies. The country has almost always neglected its present for the future and endangered its security for its ideology. This fatal order of priorities led it to overrule, in fact brutally suppress, the will of the majority of its population living in East Pakistan; to fight an American-funded religious war in Afghanistan; to sponsor and train local and foreign fighters to foment and create trouble for the neighboring states; and, in its latest bout of regression into a self-pitying cocoon of national honor and sovereignty under threat, to fan an anti-Americanism that nobody knows the end result of.

Sadly the Pakistan Army has been leading all this from the front, creating destructive demons in the name of ideology and letting them loose on the hapless people of Pakistan. While this is going way beyond what the army should have, there are indications – as the press release confirms by including loud and clear references to how the American military presence in Pakistan has been curtailed, intelligence sharing with Washington put on hold and training and other American military assistance stopped – that this will continue the same way as before.

Here is a question? How long should the people of Pakistan wait before their future can be ‘secured’ and Pakistan’s sovereignty and ideological identity saved? No one has the answer but nor should anyone hazard a guess whether the promised security and sovereignty will materialise as is being promised because Pakistan’s history has more than once proven such seemingly infallible calculus as being fatally flawed from the word go. It is here and now of the country that need to be protected and mainly from terrorists who are flagrantly challenging the writ and the geography of the state – here and now.

This raises an even more fundamental issue: what is the basic function that the army is supposed to perform? In theory, it is a government department and is supposed to function like other departments by carrying out the orders and policies of the elected governments in areas of national defence and internal security. In reality, as everyone knows, the Pakistan Army does much more than that. Let us start with a short sentence in the press release that “reaffirmed [the military’s] resolve to continue supporting the democratic system.” Doesn’t it have the sobering effect of underscoring the most unpalatable fact about democracy in Pakistan that it cannot survive without the military’s support? In the past, this support has been withdrawn more than once and, needless to elaborate, with disastrous consequences.

But even under civilian regimes, the army keeps ruling from behind the scenes by monopolising large tracts of national polity. These include civilian administration (read Frontier Constabulary’s rule in Balochistan), electoral politics (read interference by the army’s intelligence agencies in making and breaking political parties and civilian governments), regional policy (read Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan and India) and foreign policy (read relations with the United States of America) as well as economic and financial affairs (read recommendations to the government on turning American aid into economic assistance rather than a military one). The press release has, indeed, touched upon most of these areas, lest the people forget about the fact that it is the army whose word should count therein.

There is another aspect to the problem with the army taking charge of the country’s ideology. In spite of being a government department with a tangible function to perform, the army elevates itself to a highly exclusive position by assigning itself the intangible – and thereby unquantifiable – task of protecting and preserving the national ideology. With such abstract duties the issue of its performance and accountability never arise and questions about limiting its functions while protecting the national ideology never get discussed.

In another indication that the army continues to overstep institutional boundaries, the press release has invoked popular endorsement for the army. The question is why it needs such an endorsement if it is carrying out its official functions of maintaining national defence and internal security as it should. Is it hankering after direct public support because it does not operate under a constitutional arrangement in which a people’s will is solicited and channeled into the policies of the government through democratically elected institutions? Effectively the army has become a supra-constitutional organisation that bypasses, and sometimes also subverts, the writ of the people in their very name.

If the army is a government department, with its rights and responsibilities laid down under the constitution mandated by the people of Pakistan, does it then perform as a government department? No, it is not. Postal services, for example, do not set ideological goals for them and they do not seek direct public support in discharging their duties; they just deliver letters as they are supposed to do under the legal, institutional and constitutional provisions that govern their functioning.

The army, indeed, needs to do what it is supposed to do under the law and the constitution – and that excludes a lot of what it is doing now. First and foremost, it needs to start observing its institutional limits and stop talking and acting beyond its constitutional mandate. If it cannot do that, and it seems it does not want to, no amount of loud declarations about its pious intentions and even louder condemnations of the ‘divisive designs’ of its alleged detractors will improve its image and performance.

Badar Alam is editor of the political monthly magazine, Herald.