Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
In the last several months, the government and its spokespersons have spared no opportunity to indulge in self-praise about the deft manner in which the corona pandemic has been handled. This has been reinforced by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) stalwarts proclaiming that this success is attributable solely to the vision and cerebral prowess of Imran Khan. It was even claimed that the success of the ‘Pakistan model’ had been acknowledged globally. Some observers had hoped that the rise in infected cases and deaths would compel policy makers to introspect whether or not the strategy dictated by them has caused more harm than benefit to the country. Instead, the government has taken the position that they have been aware from the beginning how the situation was likely to evolve and remain fully equipped to meet the emerging challenge. However, this public demonstration of bravado cannot conceal growing signs of panic as both lives and livelihoods are exposed to increasing risk.
Is Pakistan taking any pre-emptive steps to prepare for this impending crisis? Sadly, the expenditure priorities reflected in the recently announced budget give no such indication. Although the expenditure on health has been doubled, it constitutes merely 0.04 percent of total current expenditure as against the allocation of 26 percent for defence. As a percentage of GDP, Pakistan continues to incur the highest proportion on defence and the lowest on health and education among all the countries in Asia. Since the economy continues to survive on life support, the likely sharp decline in economic and social indicators as a consequence of the pandemic could lead to an unmanageable situation. However, we seem to be continuing in the ‘business as usual’ mode. We are even unmoved by the winds of change sweeping across many parts of the world where countries are adopting transformative paradigms while reviewing the basis of their past economic, social and national security policies to meet the emerging challenges.
The government, despite its weak electoral base, seeks to consolidate its position through the perpetual mantra of corruption and using the strong arm of the state to hound opposition politicians for their alleged massive corruption of the past. While the military establishment is considered the pillar of its support, the judiciary and religious orthodoxy are far from adversarial, if not partners. With increasing criticism in the media, the government seems to have adopted a ‘carrot and stick’ policy, with curbs on selected ‘non-patriotic’ journalists and TV anchorpersons while patronising others considered ‘acceptable’. This is in addition to the draconian measures to stifle free speech. The most disturbing example is the recent ‘kidnapping’ of journalist Matiullah Jan.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern about India’s aggressive posturing on Modi’s watch. State oppression and persecution of Muslims in Occupied Kashmir has intensified since August 2019. After December 2019, the same policy has been extended to the whole Muslim community within India. There was a sense of foreboding about the fate of Muslims and other minorities when Modi was first elected Prime Minister (PM) in 2014. However, it was difficult to predict that the situation could deteriorate so rapidly and to such an extent during his next term. One person who had the vision to warn of the emerging trend when the slogan of Hindutva ideology was first used after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power was Fahmida Riaz. The first line of her epic poem was: Tum bilkul ham jaisay niklay (You turned out exactly like us). The theme of the poem is not only a warning to Indian society about the dangerous consequences of promoting religious dogma but also to share her anguish about the suffering of Pakistani society because of state patronage of bigotry and obscurantism. The advent of the Corona pandemic has led to even more anger against the Muslim community for their alleged role in spreading the infection to Hindus. This may sound bizarre but is not considered so by many in India.
It is interesting to speculate that if India did not have any Muslim population today, would Modi and his coterie have shown the same hatred against what would be then the four percent minority representing Sikhs and Christians? This is not an idle speculation when we look at the fate of minorities in Pakistan where they constitute a mere two percent of the population. In an Islamic ideological state with Muslims constituting 98 percent of the population, is it not a wonder that we feel a threat to our ideology from such a small minority? Yet the harsh treatment of minorities has been increasing in scale and intensity over the years. Even fellow Muslims are being targeted as a consequence of state tyranny and societal frenzy. Neither Mashal Khan nor Naqibullah Mehsud belonged to minority sects but their fate was far worse than that of George Floyd in the US. Yet public outcry here was subdued and limited. While the wave of intolerance was initiated by Zia’s effort at ‘Islamising’ society, the tipping point was our participation in the Afghan Jihad as proxies for the US. The process of creating hordes of Taliban and then coddling them unleashed a wave of terrorism, morphing into the sectarian divide across the country. This policy has already cost the lives of over 70,000 Pakistanis, with the toll continuing. We were assured that the military operation Zarb-e-Azb had helped in breaking the back of terrorism in the country. However, recent incidents of terrorism in parts of FATA and nationalist guerrilla attacks in Balochistan might be an indication of a regrouping of such elements. Meanwhile, state oppression in both these strategic areas continues, recently extending even to interior Sindh. In all these areas, many of the persons who are being eliminated or end up as ‘missing persons’ are considered ‘enemies of the state’ merely for demanding their constitutional rights. According to independent analysts, this policy, if not abandoned, could lead to an implosion within.
Can such an imminent threat be pre-empted? To answer this question, one needs to analyse why we are faced with this predicament. In my opinion, the two key factors are: our futile quest to seek ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and the transformation of the originally conceived welfare state into a national security state. Unless there is a reversal of these policies, the people of Pakistan would continue to suffer and we would be bequeathing a horrible environment for future generations. But at present, it seems difficult to conceive how such a change could come about.
In a functional democracy that we claim to be, why cannot such a policy be debated or reviewed by the ‘sovereign’ parliament? The harsh reality is that all the three pillars of any democratic set-up, the executive authority represented by the PM and the cabinet, parliament, and the judiciary are, in fact, dysfunctional. The PM seems comfortable with the increasingly dominant role of the military in formulating defence and foreign policy. Members of parliament, even on the opposition benches, are reluctant to raise any issue that could be interpreted as stepping on the ‘sensitive’ toes of the military. The history of our superior judiciary is replete with examples of being on the right side of the military. The conduct of our superior judiciary can best be described by a quote from Voltaire: “While judges are wedded to law, they sleep with the rich and the powerful.” Judges of the Supreme Court must be deriving considerable pleasure from the generous praise showered on the bench by the media recently for the ‘bold’ observations on the conduct of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). But could one expect any similar observation on the issue of missing persons or on the role of institutions responsible for such unlawful actions? A solitary judge, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who chose to act otherwise, is facing dire consequences.
After our return to a democratic order at the end of the Zia era, political parties that came to power failed in their constitutional obligation to address the civil-military imbalance for fear of falling victim to dismissal under Article 58(2)(b) as happened to Benazir’s first government. Even after that provision was reversed under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, civilian political governments have remained wary of using parliament or the relevant committees to debate national policy issues. Only on two occasions has parliament played an effective role: recognising the autonomy of the provinces as a result of the 18th Amendment and declining the request of the Saudi government for our troops to participate in the war in Yemen. The 18th Amendment has since become a red rag for the military. The current Chief of Army Staff even dubbed this Amendment “worse than Mujib’s six-points”. The decision not to send troops to Saudi Arabia was subverted by allowing General Raheel Sharif to head a ‘coalition force’ based in Saudi Arabia.
The freedom to operate without any constitutional restraints has encouraged the military to extend its sphere of influence even beyond defence and foreign policy. The corporate interests of the military in industry, banking and insurance have been well documented by Ayesha Siddiqa in her book Military Inc. The sprawling defence housing schemes have proliferated in most urban areas and Askari (Military) Villas increasingly dot our landscape as do Shadi (Marriage) Halls. The lucrative infrastructure contracts awarded to the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), at times even in violation of Public Procurement Rules, is also public information. The relatively lesser known military assets are the luxurious Officers Messes and golf courses. With allotment of huge tracts of agricultural land to serving and retired senior officers, a new class of absentee landlords has emerged. In brief, the lifestyle of military officers could only be envied by the personnel serving in the armed forces of other countries. Yes, an island of the privileged elite has been created amidst a sea of poverty in the country. To pre-empt any criticism of the lavish use of state resources by one institution, the role of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has been activated in recent years. Even without any creative input from ‘consultants’ of the like of Cynthia Ritchie, ISPR has managed to create a favourable image of the military as saviours of the lives of citizens even during times of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and most recently, the locust invasion. The fawning mainstream media is happy to reinforce that image while unaware of the fact that for each such operation, expenditure incurred is charged to the civilian budget. There have even been reports that at times more personnel are deployed than needed because the amount charged represents an extra bonus for the institution. Yet it has not been possible to prevent the increasingly vibrant social media from informing the public about the realities. Hence the increasing ‘discomfort’ regarding independent bloggers and conscientious journalists.
Has there been any opportunity for any civilian government to ensure that the military as an institution remains confined to its constitutional role of acting strictly in accordance with the dictate of those holding constitutional authority? Yes, there was indeed one such opportunity. Unfortunately, this opportunity was lost when Bhutto was persuaded by the senior Generals of the army to withhold the publication of the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report on the East Pakistan crisis in 1971, using the argument that the release would further lower the ‘morale’ of the military that had suffered a humiliating defeat. The findings of the Report could have revealed to the public the real character of the officer cadre of the military. In its final recommendations, the Commission suggested initiation of court martial proceedings against 12 Generals and three Brigadiers. While most of the Generals were found guilty for their conduct in operations in East Pakistan, two Generals were indicted for surrendering as many as 598 villages in the Sialkot sector without a fight! The recommendations were preceded by the following incriminating observation:
“There is a consensus on the imperative need of bringing to book those senior Army Commanders who have brought disgrace and defeat to Pakistan by their subversion of the constitution, negligence and wilful neglect in the performance of their duties and cowardice in abandoning the fight when they had the capability and resources to resist the enemy. Firm and proper action would not only satisfy the nation’s demand for punishment where it is deserved, but would also ensure against any future recurrence of the kind of shameful conduct displayed during the 1971 war.”
At this stage, it would be pointless to rue that lost opportunity. All we can hope for is that the military leadership itself goes through a much needed process of introspection. It is now for the strategic thinkers among the leadership to objectively evaluate our foreign and defence policies pursued since 1977. Have these policies made our western and eastern borders more secure, has it improved our global image, have they helped in strengthening our stance on Occupied Kashmir or providing any tangible help to those resisting Indian atrocities or have we not lost opportunities for promoting durable peace with India by directly or indirectly subverting peace overtures by India? It is no longer relevant what could be the likely answers to these questions in the court of public opinion. It is now the sole prerogative of our military leadership to respond. It is hoped that while embarking on this process, military strategists would not feel burdened with the past legacy during which spymasters like General Hamid Gul and General Asad Durrani were among the architects of both policies. Even after retirement, General Durrani continues to take credit for creating and protecting ‘strategic assets’ for strengthening national security. In his address to a gathering in Oxford University, he was asked to comment on how policies followed by the military leadership led to the advent of terrorism in the country, causing massive deaths of military personnel as well as civilians. Even the massacre of the students of Army Public School Peshawar was cited as yet another consequence of that questionable policy. In his glib but chilling comment, the General responded that this should be considered as collateral damage in the pursuit of protecting the strategic interests of the state. Previously, in the published Spy Chronicles, he had stated that protecting the Haqqani Network was also in pursuance of national interest. If the current military leadership were to take a U-turn on these past policies, this would be perhaps the first U-turn in present times that would be widely welcomed by civil society. Unfortunately, the prospects of such a U-turn do not appear very promising given the recent development of the mysterious ‘escape’ of Ehsanullah Ehsan, a confessed terrorist who was under the Army’s ‘protective’ custody.
Despite scepticism about any radical change in policy, a new catalyst of change has emerged. The military cannot be unaware of the current dire state of the economy or of the imminent worsening of future prospects in the wake of the corona epidemic. In the most recent study by the Institute of Business Administration (Dawn, July 26, 2020), it is projected that 98 million people can fall below the poverty line. With massive unemployment, declining exports, likely fall in foreign remittances, rising population and increasing food insecurity owing to imminent water scarcity, we are headed for an unprecedented economic meltdown which could lead to social turmoil. At the same time the sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) continues to remain a threat to future prospects. Under these circumstances, it would be imperative to consider a radical change in our national expenditure priorities. Yes it is indeed a wake-up call and if it still remains unheeded, it would be difficult to overcome the existential challenge of an implosion from within.
Javed Masud holds a Masters in Economics from Boston University. He is the former CEO of Pakistan Credit Rating Agency and a former consul general of Pakistan in South Korea. He is the recipient of a Sitar-e-Imtiaz Award.