Sunday, January 13, 2008

How Pakistanis view their Army?

Angry Pakistanis turn against army
Christina Lamb in Islamabad; Sunday Times January 13, 2008

IT IS the most expensive - and talked about - property development in Pakistan, but few can get near it. Hidden behind barbed wire, the new state-of-the-art army headquarter to replace a garrison in Rawalpindi is costing a reputed £1 billion and will cover 2,400 acres of prime land in Islamabad, including lakes, a residential complex, schools and clinics.

Originally intended to represent the best of Pakistan, the new army HQ is now being seen as a symbol of all that is wrong with the country.

Amid nationwide anger over the killing of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and a widespread belief that the country’s military or intelligence may have been involved, the population is turning against the army for the first time.

From the wailing rice-pickers at Bhutto’s grave in the dusty village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in the southern province of Sindh to the western-educated elite sipping whisky and soda in the drawing rooms of Lahore, the message is the same: General Pervez Musharraf, the president, must go and the army must return to its barracks.

Feelings are running so high that officers have been advised not to venture into the bazaar in uniform for fear of reprisals.

“The interests of the people of Pakistan are now totally at odds with those of the army,” said Asma Jahangir, the head of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, who was one of hundreds of lawyers placed under house arrest in November.

“If a civilian president had done what Musharraf has done, he would have been dragged by his hair to the sea.”

It is not just civilians who argue that, if the country is to stay together, power must go back into the hands of the politicians, however corrupt or inept.

Asad Durrani, a retired general, headed the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) bureau during the 1990 elections when, he admits, it spent millions of dollars to prevent Bhutto being voted back into power. Now he believes the army should step back.

“If you’re in charge for such a long time, you can’t blame anyone else for the state of the country,” he said. “You have to take responsibility for the situation.”

“We’re all trying to get across the message [to Musharraf] that ‘you are the problem’,” said another retired general. “I’m hearing the same from serving generals.”

For decades children in Pakistan have grown up on text-books glorifying the Pakistani army and glossing over its defeat in three wars and loss of half the country in 1971 (to become Bangladesh). When army chiefs have seized power they have generally been welcomed. The news of Musharraf’s takeover in 1999 was greeted with people handing out sweets. But none of Pakistan’s military rulers have stepped down voluntarily and Musharraf, it seems, is no different, picking an unpopular fight with the country’s judiciary when they tried to take him on.

Elections scheduled for last week were delayed after Bhutto’s assassination. The new date is February 18, but there is scepticism about whether they will go ahead. A suicide bomb that killed 22 in Lahore last week was seen as another step in creating a climate of insecurity that makes voting impossible.

Even if they do go ahead, the elections are widely expected to be rigged in favour of Musharraf’s allies. Last Wednesday the head of the European Union observer mission visited the president with a list of 10 concerns about a lack of transparency.

Bhutto’s death has left her one-time rival Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, as the main opposition figure. Although he emerged on the political scene in the 1980s under the patronage of Pakistan’s last military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, he now insists the army must stop interfering in politics. “The only way to move forward is for people to defy the army and to realise that these generals who keep staging coups are our real enemies,” he told The Sunday Times in an interview at his heavily guarded farmhouse outside Lahore.

“It is not the job of generals to hold the prime minister, cabinet or parliament accountable,” he added. “They are accountable to the people. The army has to go back to barracks or we’ll never have a functioning state.”

Resentment against the men in khaki is particularly acute in Bhutto’s home province of Sindh. To Sindhis, she was killed not because of her stand for democracy and against terrorism but because of where she came from. After her death many Sindhis went on the rampage, burning lorries, trains and banks.

They have been reined in by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, who has taken over running her Pakistan People’s party. But he warns: “If elections are rigged or don’t go ahead, this may be impossible to contain.”

Those close to Musharraf say he still believes he is the only person able to sort out Pakistan, even though under his rule suicide bombs have become an almost daily occurrence.

“The problem is that 9/11 went to his head,” said Durrani. “After that I found him a changed man. He went from being a pariah to applause, saviour of Pakistan and the West.”

Washington and London are clinging to Musharraf for want of other options and the belief that he represents the best hope of preventing Pakistan’s 50 or so nuclear warheads falling into militant hands. The West had hoped that Bhutto would be brought in as prime minister to provide his regime with a democratic face, but are now working on co-opting Sharif or Zardari.

Sharif, who has received three calls from David Miliband, the foreign secretary, since Bhutto’s assassination, was the prime minister ousted by Musharraf in 1999. He insists that working with Musharraf is not an option.

Were free elections to go ahead and the opposition parties to achieve a two-thirds majority, they would be in a position to impeach the president. But few believe that, with Musharraf’s hand-picked caretaker government overseeing the elections, this is a realistic possibility.

The only way he might go is if the army were to decide he had outlived his purpose.

More than 700 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the fight in the tribal areas against militants said to be linked to Al-Qaeda, and officers admit that morale has not been so low since they lost Bangladesh in 1971.

“We’re being asked to bomb our own people and shrug it off as collateral damage,” said a Mirage pilot. “I call it killing women and children.”

Hope rests on General Ashfaq Kayani, who took command of the army in late November when Musharraf succumbed to pressure to take off his uniform and become a civilian president.

Little is known about Kayani apart from his love of golf and his professionalism as a soldier. He is said to be unhappy about the army’s involvement in politics and might pull back if elections proceed smoothly.

“Nobody is anyone’s man once he becomes commander-in-chief with 700,000 soldiers under his command,” says Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician.

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