What is the army’s proper role?

As the debate about Kerry-Lugar bill continues, one key conditionality continues to cause disagreement among citizens. That conditionality requiring civilian control of the military. The outcry over this section of the bill raises the important question of what the proper role of the army is in Pakistan society.

Shandana Khan Mohmand writes about the question of the army’s role most eloquently in Dawn yesterday.

The Kerry Lugar bill, its conditionalities and the controversy it has created have all received excellent attention in these pages over the last few days. Most of the points about the country being misled in understanding the bill by a frenzied media have also been made.

However, two key questions remain: what are the citizens of this country thinking when they give in to this media frenzy or to the army’s self-interested rhetoric? And why, after all these years, are we not able to differentiate between the army’s rightful role as defenders of Pakistanis, and its wrongful role as a political force?

We recently shunned the army after it had spent nine years in power and after it had brought us to the economic and security crisis in which we find ourselves today. Many at that point said that our memory would be short as always, that we would soon forget all the harm that had been inflicted upon us by Musharraf’s regime, and that we would soon be making arguments again in favour of army rule.

One thought that day was a while away. But soon after that the army went into Swat and became, lo and behold, a band of heroes again, and rightly so I guess. Support for the army while it fights to protect us is neither misplaced nor surprising. What is surprising though is how soon after that we as a nation have come around, yet again, to thinking and rationalising through the logic of the army.

What the army says we believe: ‘the army is incorruptible’ — despite the financial leakages that regularly happen from the economy into the army’s already full pockets through land grabs, plot allocations and of course its gigantic corporate enterprises; ‘the army has our best interests at heart and is here to save us from corrupt civilians’ — despite the fact that each military regime proceeds to give the most corrupt of the same lot jobs in parliament, and then runs our country into the ground with their help; and most recently, ‘the sovereignty of the army is the sovereignty of the country’ — even if it means keeping a democratically elected civilian government subordinate, and stomping on civilian aid just to avoid becoming accountable to a civilian government.

Don’t get me wrong. As a citizen of this beleaguered country, one may be perfectly happy to support the army when it fights to protect us against those that have taken to slaughtering Pakistanis indiscriminately. I understand perfectly well that in doing so the army has lost precious jawans for the sake of my freedom and way of life.

It is also understood that it faces further loss and tragedy in taking this fight to Waziristan. I find nothing wrong with the army in its avatar as my protector. My objection is raised against the army’s other avatars — where it rides roughshod over all democratic principles to keep itself in power and when it holds the rest of the nation hostage to its own narrow self-interest.

In its reaction to the Kerry-Lugar bill, the army has recently been seen in both these avatars again — in the first when it got a civilian government to cower in subordination (‘bully the civilians’ as Kamran Shafi put it in his column), and in the second when it refused to allow the needy of this country to benefit from monies from the same patron from whom the army itself has just recently taken much more. When the money goes to it, the army is happy. When it goes to the citizens of Pakistan, the army’s sovereignty and that of the country are compromised.

It is unprecedented for America to show such generous interest in the citizens of Pakistan, whom it has rarely seen as anything more than being unwitting people willing to stand between the Commies or religious crazies and the rest of the world. And yet we object.

It is sad that so many Pakistani media people, so-called political and security experts and random others, think that the country’s sovereignty lies in the language of a bill. It is even sadder when the bill that they have chosen to pick on isn’t one of the old military bills of the last 50 years that turned Pakistan into a client state of the US, but rather one that was actually designed to help the civilians of Pakistan. If we were truly bothered about sovereignty, we would be worried about the continuing bravado of the army, its refusal to put the ISI under civilian control and become accountable to a civilian government.

In fact, making the army more accountable is a good thing. For one, it would ensure that the institutions of the state would get a chance to breathe within a democratic set-up and to evolve into institutions that may not only be able to deliver essential services, but also get a chance to create internal accountability mechanisms.

For another, reeling in our army, away from its logic of insecurity, strategic interests and patronising the undesirables, would only ensure that its own jawans live longer lives. It would mean that these jawans — to whom the ISPR recently dedicated a video ‘for sacrificing their today for our tomorrow’ — will never again have to be thrown into a war whose genesis lies in the army’s own unaccounted for shenanigans.

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