We Should Respect Army

Appeared in Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on June 12, 2011

Maj. Gen Athar Abbas, Director General ISPR (Photo: ISPR)

Dubious policies of the uniformed establishment, their unchallenged influence on strategic decision making of the country and their sickening obsession with ‘security’ from foreign elements and from regional enemies is now being questioned. Not only that, the efficiency, preparedness and professionalism of this unbridled holy cow is under public criticism. Although public denigration of the army has been rampant in recent days, it has not been without trepidation of possible consequences. It has not been with certainty too. The incertitude has mainly been caused by myriad editorials and op-ed pieces in the Urdu press and daily harangues by ghairat (honour)-infested chest thumping TV anchors, a section of which is the permanent recipient of ‘uniformed’ favours.
After a month of sequential insults inflicted on the ‘professional’ armed forces, we had to exhume a badly tortured body of one of the finest investigative journalists of this country after more than 48 hours of going missing. The autopsy of Syed Saleem Shahzad’s body suggests he was killed sometime early Monday. The time when most of the senior journalists in Islamabad were being assured by the ‘interlocutors’ that Shahzad will be out later that day. Shahzad’s crime was doing his duty professionally — reporting. After the US SEALs’ operation in Abbottabad followed by a ‘botched’ militant attack on PNS Mehran that kept our Special Services Group’s most trained commandos busy for over 17 hours, Shahzad had reported something that trampled on someone high and mighty. One wonders what is so wrong in asking questions on it? Why are the hyper-nationalists condemning those who are raising questions?
It would be, however, unfair to accuse just the media of denying the right of the taxpayer to question an institution that runs on their money. The Pakistan army proved its narcissism and self-righteousness once again by issuing a bizarre statement last week. The statement was issued after the 139th Corps Commanders Conference on June 9 and “noted with regret that despite briefing the joint session of the parliament and deferring the ultimate findings to the commission appointed by the government, some quarters because of their perpetual bias, were trying to deliberately run down the armed forces and army in particular.” The sentence communicates a lot about this institution, the rot of which seems quite apparent now.
One’s disappointment mounts higher than the Himalayas seeing the extent to which contempt for civilians has rooted itself among our kernails and jernails (rank and file as called in colloquial Punjabi, where colonels and generals mostly come from). As if presenting to parliament is enough of an expense for the armed forces, any further questioning is unjustifiable. The commission referred to here, it must be remembered, could not be constituted without the ‘active participation’ of the army, which took special care to keep it free of all the elements with ‘perpetual bias’ against it (read, who question a lot). One cannot help asking why did the army act to usurp power in 1977 and then in 1999 on the pretext of ‘incompetence’ of the then civilian governments? If incompetence justifies ousting from office, why do some people still enjoy offices in Rawalpindi, Aabpara and Karachi?
If constitution of a commission is enough, should the nation be told what happened to the report of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission? Where is the commission for the Ojhri Camp disaster, Kargil misadventure and high treason committed in 1958, 1977 and 1999? If going to parliament and presenting the case is enough, when are the armed forces coming to tell people the truth on how and why was the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) used against a civilian government, Islami Jamhuri Ittehad created against a popular political party and an elected prime minister was made to flee overnight? If these questions have to remain unanswered, let us, dear generals and colonels, introspect and evaluate you. People are in no mood to invest in new camera and lights to make you look better instead of making you cure your warts.
The statement goes on to describe the importance of unity among important institutions of the country. One is impressed by the sagacity. But one still has a question. Where was this penchant for unity when the civilian government was being wrongly and unjustly criticised for being inactive during the floods of 2010 while the army was all out to help the people? We were hoping, then, that our good generals and colonels would come forward and tell the media that the armed forces did all this service on the orders of the government, and on payment. People were also hoping that in those difficult days, the armed forces would come forward and make the exchequer stronger by at least not charging for their services and not getting paid for around $ 0.5 million on routine defence purchases in July, August and September of 2010.
A highly placed source in GHQ tells the tale of a ‘troika’ meeting last week in the presidency. Our man in uniform was heard telling the president and the prime minister how disappointed the armed forces were on the sparing and weak defence the government is presenting on behalf of the army after a dreadful month that was for the army. Amazingly audacious does it sound after all those briefings that our beloved ‘men at their best’ have been having with odd media persons, in which the civilian government was accused of being weak and noncommittal in dealing with the enemy (which in this case is the US). How I recall a senior journalist prostrating mockingly in front of the US embassy when a man from a spy agency intercepted him. When the man asked why he was doing that, the journalist replied, we used to be intercepted like this only in front of the Russian and Indian embassies. It is a miracle that it is now happening in front of the US embassy, he said.
And, finally, references to Pakistan’s relationship with the US, the policy on war on terror (the statement called it ‘fight on terror’) and the commitment to assist other agencies responsible for law and order in the country, made the statement more amusing. One would look for instances for hours in which some other democratic country has an army that decides terms of partnership and policy of engagement with foreign countries. The narrative that perhaps is in construction right now, of the responsibility of agencies other than the army for fighting terror seems encouraging however. Would it mean that most of the Coalition Support Fund would now go to the interior ministry for police and other law enforcing agencies that our high and mighty army thinks should ‘fight the terror’?
If that is the case, the statement should not have made references to those statistics that would be used by un-uniformed (apparently) media to further create confusion, which are in no way going to be to the benefit of the army either. We have over 63 years to show how miserably these tactics have failed the army itself. One agrees that such a strong criticism on the armed forces of a country is not healthy. Why not remove the reason for criticism rather than putting journalists’ tortured bodies in canals? Or complaining against civilian governments for not defending the incompetence of the ultimate defenders? Introspect dear generals and divorce solipsism for a change.