Pakistan army: declining credibility
Andy McCord; the Hindu, January 14, 2008
In the coming days and months, the Pakistan army’s role in the deterioration of the state will come under more and more scrutiny. Few will be able to repeat the canard one used to hear from outsiders that the army was the “only load-bearing institution” in the country.
In 1970, a cyclone and an accompanying tidal surge out of the Bay of Bengal hit the district of Bhola in what then was East Pakistan. The inaction and indifference of the Pakistan government and army in the aftermath of this disaster are often cited as a principal reason why East Pakistan’s last nerve frayed, and it turned overwhelmingly in favour of the movement that would in 1971 lead to Pakistan’s break-up and the independence of Bangladesh.
Now, in the wake of a relentless series of mostly man-made disasters, there is fear that the four provinces of Pakistan’s former west wing may also break up, leaving large parts of the country ripe for takeover by armed internationalist Islamist puritans. A respected friend wrote to me recently that his devastation on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was “not because of anything else but the fact that she symbolised the Federation.” But in the response to another natural disaster — the 2005 earthquake that flattened Balakot, Muzaffarabad and other places along the ceasefire line, which separates parts of Kashmir that are held by Pakistan from those held by India — there is a sign of a force that can hold Pakistan together: its people.
Last February, I visited Lahore after a long absence and spent much of my time driving to meet old friends and contacts with Riaz Shah, a driver I had employed while spending a Fulbright year there some 10 years earlier. One day, as we were passing a truck depot, Riaz said, “You should have seen this place. Truck after truck after truck was being loaded, and everyone was headed for the earthquake area. It went on for days and days.”
I had thought most of the spontaneous public response to that disaster had been among the rich. The volunteers would have to afford taking time off and have their own sturdy cars. They would have been part of the elite that has more recently been organising “civil society” for small scale demonstrations in support of Pakistan’s ousted judges and of restoration of the “rule of law.” Riaz’s excitement with his story was infectious, and as we looked out on the depot full of lavishly decorated trucks and the rough and ready drivers who command them, another image was conjured up in my mind of independent action for good on the part of common citizens — the same working people who have been underrepresented in the movement against President Pervez Musharraf, the retired General who last March ousted his country’s Supreme Court and who claims to have the people on his side, except for a few members of the elite.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in 2005, the army was preoccupied with restoring its defences along the always tense de facto border with India and with digging out its own soldiers: a friend of mine, who was educated among future army officers, told me that the talk among his classmates was that as many as 30,000 Pakistani soldiers died in the pre-dawn quake, when the timbers lining their underground bunkers caved in. General Musharraf himself was slow to respond, and while his army, after the initial delay, was active in helping tens of thousands survive a mountain winter in tents, it may have lost some of its institutional credibility as the best hope for Pakistanis in a crisis.
Whether or not the earthquake contributed to it, there is no doubt that the army’s reputation is declining. A September poll by the International Republican Institute found that the army’s favourable ratings had dropped 10 per cent to 70 per cent, behind both the media and the legal profession (both of which have been activist in response to increasing assertions of authority by General Musharraf). The army’s reputation cannot be helped by Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation or its association with the increasingly unpopular retired General.
There is also a growing awareness that as an institution with a finger in a bewildering array of economic pies — from corn flakes to road-building — the army may be biting off so much that there is not enough left for the rest of society, with an expanding population and rising expectations. A ground-breaking new book by a former bureaucrat named Ayesha Siddiqa has begun the process of tallying up just how much economic space the armed forces and connected institutions are taking up — as much as 10 per cent of the GDP, and this is without counting the agricultural, industrial and urban land given out to retired generals and the like. Ms Siddiqa has given a name to this phenomenon: “Military, Inc.”
In the coming days and months, the army’s role in the deterioration of the Pakistani state will come under more and more scrutiny. Few will be able to repeat the canard one used to hear from outsiders that the Pakistani army was the “only load-bearing institution” in the country. An outright revolt against it is a terrifying prospect, given the rise of jihadis within Pakistan and in Afghanistan, as well as the likelihood that the army would lash out chaotically if it were to feel that its cosy position was drastically threatened.
But little by little — like the trucks leaving one by one from Lahore — the rise of public opinion could convince the generals that they must give room to the rest of society if Pakistan is to survive as a 21st century nation. The mobilisation of “people power” is a tricky business, and even more so is the transformation of the instinct for democracy into a working system of government. But sometimes it does happen, as it has seemed to in Nepal since 2006.
One shouldn’t discount the resilience, intelligence or willpower of Pakistanis of lower estate and lower wattage glamour than the elite. When I travelled between Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi last February, I was struck by the active discussion going on in every place I visited, amongst the rich and middle and poor alike. Questions were being asked and wide-ranging answers were being proposed on everything from how is it that any person could become a suicide bomber to the rise of China and India in the international economy. There was a verbal vitality in the air that I had not felt in Pakistan since 1988 in the aftermath of the assassination of the unretired General-President Zia-ul Haq and during the exhilarating first campaign of Benazir Bhutto.
‘People living by wits’
The well-known and accomplished lawyer, Asma Jahangir, is wont to object when it is proposed that the average Pakistani has no strength left to assert himself or herself. After half a lifetime of, case by case, representing people from the entire range of Pakistani society, she may have a better finger on a more representative pulse than anyone in or out of Pakistan.
What she says is that the Pakistani people have incredible strength. They have survived, and, in the local and personal scale of life as we all live it individually, in many cases thrived, despite a system that is utterly unconcerned with their welfare and in many ways dependant on the siphoning off of their wealth. They are not going anywhere. As Ms Jahangir says, “They are living by their wits.” Good wits.
(Andy McCord, a freelance writer, is a fluent Urdu/Hindi speaker who has lived and worked in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. He is currently working on a biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.)