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Old Friday, November 29, 2013
Mehwish Pervez's Avatar
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Default Army chief or soap opera?

Was it the advent of the messiah the nation awaited or something less spectacular? From the media frenzy surrounding the appointment of the new army chief it indeed seemed as if a fresh revelation on Mount Sinai was at hand.

This was the media and the glum faces of commentators and analysts who pass for evening entertainment in this country (then we say this is getting to be a sick society…with such entertainment, why shouldn’t it be a sick society?) What about the tomato, onion and potato-hit public of Pakistan? With more pressing matters to attend to, was it really bothered who the next army chief was going to be?

Gen Musharraf is about to be tried for treason. If there was any justice in the world he would be tried for the freedom he gave the Pakistani media, not that anyone in the media would acknowledge this. The fiction that the media holds close to its heart is that it struggled mightily for the space it has. Pray, where is that sacred spot where all that blood was spilled for the freedom which allowed private television channels to proliferate?

Some of the mindlessness being promoted on the media is because of this proliferation, a cut-throat competition between channels for favourable ratings. In which other country would the impending appointment of an army chief be discussed so avidly, minutiae dissected with such a fine scalpel?

Granted we have our history of coups. But on the face of which incoming chief can the country’s future be divined? Zia didn’t look coup material when he was chosen army chief by Bhutto. Nor did Musharraf look the part when a cabal of intriguers whispered his name in Nawaz Sharif’s ear.

No one is born a coup-maker. Circumstances maketh the man and the moment. Musharraf, egged on by God knows which strategic genius, went into Kargil and that’s where his troubles with the then government began. But, and this is worth remembering, when the army command finally revealed all to a clueless prime minister at a briefing in Ojhri Camp, Rawalpindi, all that came to the PM’s mind was to praise the excellence of the sandwiches placed thoughtfully before him. True or false, this at least is the legend.

This much is certain, Musharraf was asked no tough questions, much less put on the mat. The time for cashiering him was then, not six months later when the move boomeranged and everything was turned upside down. But when you are out of your depth, you are almost asking for trouble…because it is your cluelessness which plants ideas in the minds of your generals.

It’s like Bhutto in 1977. When during the anti-rigging agitation he started inviting his generals to his cabinet meetings, they sensed his weakness and started exchanging glances with each other (Maulana Kausar Niazi has a good take on this in his ‘Aur Line Kut Gaye’…and the line was cut). From then on the coup that came was virtually a foregone conclusion.

Let’s not hark back to those evil memories. Democracy, against the odds, is surviving. Let it survive some more and let no coup darken Pakistan’s horizon. But there is only a measure of half-truth in that other myth elements in the media are busy promoting currently: Kayani as democracy’s defender and champion.

Gen Kayani’s spy-masters weren’t plotting any coup but they were feeding things to the media and hoping that Zardari would just collapse under the strain or simply run away. He didn’t run away and the regional situation, with an American army spread across in Afghanistan, wasn’t exactly favourable for that kind of military adventure.

Memogate was the last serious effort to get rid of Zardari but that move turned into a damp squib and nothing came of it except Haqqani’s much sought-after scalp in Washington. Kayani has many good things to his credit, like restoring army morale and carrying out the Swat operation and the offensive in South Waziristan. Champion of democracy is a less shining medal on his breast. It is there but circumstances played their part.

And in the end, having earned his laurels and having done well by the army, Kayani looked a slightly tired figure, going through the motions of command but with nothing really new to offer. That is why extensions are not a good thing. Crops grow tired and weak if you keep growing them in the same field…hence crop rotation. It was time for a change and the change has come and the new chief, Raheel Sharif, from an army family, looks the part.

As that Urdu expression goes, may success kiss his feet. There are problems aplenty and we need not just a competent army chief but a vigorous one…someone who can come up not just to the expectations of the Sharifs, but that of the nation.

The army chief, however, is just one actor on a broad stage. He can present options to the civilian leadership. In the present setting he cannot shove them down their throat. War and peace, what to do about the Taliban threat, how to prepare for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan…on these and other issues it is the PM and his team who have to issue the marching orders. Are they up to the task? We have to keep our fingers crossed.

But there are some things within the army chief’s purview. In fact they are solely his business. If the army needs a reform of outlook, a change of mindset, can he do it? Can he wean away the top ranks of the army, not completely but up to a point, from that greatest passion of all, the unquenchable love of real estate?

Just as we look with narrow eyes at leaders who have their wealth abroad, can we look any better at senior generals with half a dozen plots of land, if not more, plus the obligatory fifty acres of agricultural land in Bahawalpur? What has Bahawalpur done to deserve this?

This is a strange army in many ways. We have troops located on the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier, serving with the utmost dedication. We have infantry units and other arms exposed to constant danger in the killing fields of Fata. Any army would be proud of this record. And then we have the army dabbling in commercial real estate in the form of defence housing authorities. No other army does it, certainly not on this scale. Why does the Pak army do it?

And which army backs and nurtures proxy militias? The time for that is over. The era of ‘jihad’, such as it was, is over. The army in this crucial respect needs to turn over a new leaf. Many militias – but to use the word militia is to lend them spurious honour – are rabid sectarian outfits and they have already turned against the army and the state. But others, unbelievably, are still considered as some kind of assets. Assets for what? Has anyone cared to explain this simple question? Is Gen Sharif the man to break this bond?

The army’s motto, gifted by Zia – Faith, Uprightness, Jihad – Gen Sharif would be in no position to touch, because the lesson from our own history is that once you embrace religion in any matter you are stuck with it and there is no going back…unless of course comes a Mustafa Kemal, a creature of history, who swings the pendulum the other way and writes a new history…fat chance of that happening here. But the next best thing Gen Sharif can do is not to repeat what Gen Kayani in his more florid moments was given to saying: that this is a Fortress of Islam. Please, no more of that.

Let’s turn to being a strictly professional army dedicated to the defence not of the country’s ideological frontiers – we can leave that to the school of national ideology – but something simpler and more prosaic: the defence of geography and the safeguarding of internal security.

Email: winlust@yahoo.com


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