SPEAKING FREELY Rationality deserts Pakistani military mindset
By Malik Basharat Awan
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The urge to launch military expeditions against its own civilian government distinguishes the Pakistan military from most other professional armies. While most of its operations outside the country have been misadventures - the expedition that led to the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the separation of the east wing of the country in 1971, and the 1999 limited war in Kargil spring to mind - Pakistan's generals can describe the army's record in launching
and executing coups in the country as beyond successful.
While most of the rest of the world's armies are faithful to their country and their generals vow to fight for the dignity of their land, Pakistan's military leaders prefer to put loyalty to the institution above national interest. The dignity of a fellow officer of higher rank, for them, matters more than the dignity of the nation.
Officers understand this unwritten rule that a general is always supreme: whatever he says is constitutional, whatever he does is law, he is never wrong and is always above challenge, particularly if the questions come from a civilian. The army's stance over the current prosecution of the former dictator and chief of the army staff General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf backs such a view.
Over the past 60 years, it had been a tradition in the Pakistan Army in almost every decade for a general to try to topple the civilian government and suspend the constitution, judging the civilians incapable of running complex affairs of state. The military has imposed its rule in every decade since the 1950s.
Yet all the armed struggles and conspiracies against the state - be it the Balochistan conflict, Mukti Bahni, the Sindhu Desh Conspiracy, or the growth of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - evolved during military rule. The demise of the country into Bangladesh and Pakistan at the hands of Indian-backed guerrillas took place under the successive military regimes of general Yahya Khan, who had assumed powers after the archetype for martial law in Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, had stepped down after ruling for nearly 11 years.
The militant organization Tehrik-e-Taliban, which is responsible for killing more than 40,000 innocent people, gained strength during the military regime of Musharraf. General (Ret'd) Rashid Qureshi, a close aide to Musharraf during his autocratic rule, has gone so far as to reason that the failure of previous and current civilian governments to grant full authority to the military in troubled areas was behind the army's inability to eliminate terrorism, then and now.
That asks Pakistanis to excuse Musharraf for nearly nine years of absolute authority in which the army had free rein but was not able to curb the militant organizations. Despite the list of their failures staring them in the face, the generals are not willing to accept the reality that it is longer than the failure list of the politicians.
The present civilian government has determinedly decided to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and seems willing, if not quite so determined, to convict Musharraf in court for abrogating the constitution in 2007. Under Article 6 of the constitution, its suspension or abrogation is tantamount to treason, and it recommends capital punishment for the guilty.
No sooner had the court indicted Musharraf late last month than the present Chief of the Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, came forward to defend his former boss, with the media department of the armed forces issuing an ambiguous press release, stating that the army would defend the dignity of its institution at every cost. The statement was a signal for the civilian government to step back and give the former dictator a safe exit.
The statement rang the warning bells for the civilian government, and a new wave of speculation started that another period of martial law lies ahead unless the charges against the former dictator are dropped. If the military chief were to take the extreme step and topple the government over the Musarraf issue, the outcome, for both the country and the army, would indeed be destructive.
Though the army's top brass would deny it, there exists a sense of deprivation among the troops that their commissioned officers enjoy real prestige and incentives while they as cadres are there to serve and fight for them. If the army chief topples an elected civilian government to protect his former military boss from the weight of the law, the lower cadre would expect the same kind of legal protection. It is unlikely that the army would intervene to protect a retired member of the lower cadre from a civil court - and hence the roots of the divide between officers and Jawans (non-commissioned forces) would gain further strength.
It would also create misunderstanding between the army and the other two forces - the air force and the navy - the latter's chief was convicted for corruption by the Musharraf regime. If trying a former head of a military force in court is tantamount to disgracing the institution, why was Admiral (Ret'd) Mansoor ul-Haq convicted, and were he a general instead of an admiral would he have ever faced trial? A safe exit for Musharraf would germinate the feeling among the other two forces that they are less privileged than the army.
The people of Pakistan consider Musharraf to be the country's worst dictator, with a shameful rule. His sudden shift in policies on Kashmir and Afghanistan, his military action in the bloody siege of Islamabad's Lal Mosque in 2007, the killing of Baloch nationalist Akbar Bugti, the removal and detention of Supreme Court judges, and the banning of media, are some of the deeds that incurred public wrath. Musharraf is a villain for the media, political parties, nationalists, lawyers, the judiciary, civil society, liberals, and religious leaders. Every circle of civil society wants Musharraf to receive a fair trial. If the army were to take extreme action to favor Musharraf, it would turn all these circles against it.
There's a strong feeling among the people, however, that the army is trying to protect its former boss and has no legal or moral grounds to stand on. The feeling is growing among civilians that the army considers itself to be above the law and that armed personnel will never be prosecuted. In the event of martial law, the popularity of the army among the public would slump further. The act would expose that the generals are not loyal to the people but only to their personal interests and that the law is different for the armed forces.
People once again will start disowning their army. The army would face resistance not only from the political parties - who are not willing to give any space to the army in politics - but also from the Taliban, for whom the army is a real mischief maker.
The record of three successful coups since 1958, and numerous unsuccessful attempts, shows, however, that those with the power to impose martial law do not care for the consequences, nor do they require any rationality or public approval.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Malik Basharat Awan recently completed an M Phil in defense and strategic studies in Islamabad.