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Bitten but not shy

Despite growing criticism over its ineptitude and alleged complicity in some of Pakistan’s biggest catastrophes, the army is unwilling to give up its key concessions.

world Updated: Jun 11, 2011 23:06 IST

At a meeting of Pakistan’s Corps Commanders at the general headquarters in Rawalpindi this week, two important messages came through.

In an unusually detailed handout on Thursday, army chief general Pervez Kayani told the nation that the army wants to share some of its aid money received from the US to help support the country’s sinking economy. This was the good news.

The bad news was that he said the army high command “is fed up of” growing criticism about its role in various public forums and “would soon put and end to it.” For most, this was a thinly veiled threat and comes at a time when the role of the army is being increasingly questioned in a country where such debates often have disastrous consequences.

In the words of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, “Enough is enough. The generals need to realise that we are in a democracy and they need to be accountable to the government and parliament.”

But Rawalpindi watchers say that the army is in no mood to bend. Possibly, this is where the country’s next crisis is going to come from

Pakistanis consider the conference of the Corps Commanders to be the country’s top decision-making body – higher than the parliament and the executive. It is here that both domestic and foreign policy issues are decided. Civilian ministers and advisors are at hand to give the briefing, but decisions are only taken by men in khaki.

Its not surprising that many jovially call them Pakistan’s “Crore Commanders” as they deal in millions of rupees daily. Giving favours, bypassing rules and procedures, winning lucrative concessions for the military and for themselves, and generally having a finger in every pie is their birthright.

But now, the media and the politicians want to see a change.

President Asif Ali Zardari and an increasingly vocal parliament and opposition are chipping away at the armour of invincibility of the army. Politicians have started questioning the perks and privileges of the army’s top brass. They want the army to come under effective civilian oversight. But this does not seem to go down too well with the army.

“The army is on the defensive,” says analyst Aisha Siddiqa.

Much of the criticism is directed at the series of failures that the country has witnessed in the past month.

The failure of the Pakistani forces to detect the entry and exit of Navy SEALs who ventured deep into Pakistani territory without being held on May 2, the military’s knowledge of Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad and the attack on the Mehran naval air base in Karachi and the military’s inability to respond or protect itself from further attacks has brought it under scathing criticism from all quarters.

In the wake of growing criticism, the army leadership first submitted itself to a briefing in the parliament in which ISI chief general Shuja Pasha explained issues surrounding the Abbottabad incident. He also made the hollow gesture of offering to resign but then followed it up by saying that the army chief did not accept his resignation.

The parliament wasn’t impressed. They booed the generals and called them names.

This led to a public spat between the ISI chief and opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in which Pasha told Nisar to shut up since he had taken too many favours from the army.

The army is not willing to learn from its past mistakes and has no intention to change its ways. This was amply proven with the killing of journalist Saleem Shehzad by the ISI because he wrote about the negotiations between the ISI and the al Qaeda over the arrest of Tehreek-e-Taliban sympathisers from enlisted ranks. Shehzad was picked up by ISI agents on May 29 and killed soon afterwards. But what the generals did not expect is the rising public displeasure over their performance. And the criticism is only getting louder.

A news story revealed this week said that the cell phone records of Shehzad had been erased from May 12 onwards. “This can only be the work of an intelligence agency as nobody else can tamper with phone records. It confirms that the ISI is responsible,” says Rana Sanaullah, a leader with the PML- N party in the provincial Punjab government.

This piece of information silences army apologists like Imran Khan, who had earlier said that Shehzad was killed to discredit the ISI.

Media commentator Ejaz Haider comments, “The ISI is widely reviled and dreaded at home. For an agency that was set up primarily for strategic intelligence, this is quite an achievement. It is accused of driving in its own lane, monitoring the media, kidnapping, torturing and sometimes killing dissenters, political and otherwise, determining arbitrarily, what Pakistan’s national interest is and how best we should go about pursuing it.”

For many, a political crisis is imminent in Pakistan if the army refuses to give up key concessions. And the Rawalpindi meeting seems to indicate that the army will not give up its privileges without a good fight.