A slow-burning revolution in Pakistan

June 11, 2011

Rarely does the perennial struggle for power between civilian and military authority punch to the surface quite so openly in Pakistan, yet thanks to the increasing use of the internet, it is now being played out in public across websites, Twitter, blogs and online newspapers. It is a struggle that is every bit as important as those taking place in the Middle East,  and like those of the Arab spring, one that has the potential to tip the country into even greater instability or steer it onto firmer ground.

The renewed and very public debate started with the May 2 raid by U.S. forces which found and killed Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad. That unleashed an unprecedented wave of criticism against the military — both for failing to find the al Qaeda leader, and for apparently failing to detect and react to a U.S. raid in the heart of the country.  The anger rose after militants attacked a naval air base in Karachi, and swelled further when the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was accused of beating to death Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad – an allegation it denied.

With one of its own silenced – a man well-liked for his affability and courtesy – the media raised its voice.

Colunnist Ejaz Haider published an open letter to ISI head Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha challenging the ISI to prove it was not involved with Shahzad’s death and insisting it respect the supremacy of civilian authority. Institutions of state, he wrote, ”are all accountable through two levels of agency. The first and primary level of agency is granted by the people through elections to their representatives; the second, a much more restrictive level of agency, is accorded by the peoples’ representatives to bureaucratic institutions, including the military and its intelligence agencies. You, sir, are therefore a servant twice over, as are all your officers and other personnel. You are answerable to our representatives and those representatives are answerable to us.”

Najam Sethi, a doyen of Pakistani journalism, wrote that  ”the indignant argument that any criticism of the military is ‘unpatriotic’ or serves the interests of the ‘ enemy’ doesn’t wash any more. Indeed, the term ‘establishment’, which was hitherto used in the media to refer obliquely to the military so as not to offend and incur its wrath, is rapidly going out of fashion, and the army and navy and air force are being referred to as army, navy and air force, which is, of course, exactly what they are and have always been.”

“The Pakistan military should see the writing on the wall. It must hunker down and become subservient to civilian rule and persuasion,” he said.

“What we saw and read in the media in May has never happened before,” wrote Cyril Almeida at Dawn newspaper. Using archive material on Dawn’s reports on the Pakistan Army’s defeat by India in the 1971 war, he compared the criticism levelled at the military now with the very muted coverage of its humiliating surrender in Dhaka on  December 16, 1971.

“The furious words in the media last month were not unprecedented since 1971. They were unprecedented. Period,” he wrote.

“The banner headline in this newspaper of record on Dec 17, 1971? ‘War till victory’. And below it, a small two-column headline, ‘Fighting ends in East Wing’. The accompanying story began: ‘Latest reports indicate that following an arrangement between the local commanders of India and Pakistan in the Eastern theatre, fighting has ceased in East Pakistan and Indian troops have entered Dacca.’

The army has replied with some very public words of its own. In an extraordinarily lengthy statement issued after army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met his Corps Commanders, it appealed to the nation to rally behind it and unite to fight terrorism. Kayani almost never speaks in public — when his views are reported in such detail and at such length, it suggests that something important has already changed in Pakistan.

The statement condemned those it said were deliberately trying to malign the armed forces. ”This is an effort to drive a wedge between the Army, different organs of the State and more seriously, the people of Pakistan whose support the Army has always considered vital for its operations against terrorists,” it said.

“COAS (Chief of Army Staff General Kayani) noted that in order to confront the present challenges, it is critical to stand united as a nation. Any effort to create divisions between important institutions of the country is not in our national interest. The participants agreed that all of us should take cognizance of this unfortunate trend and put an end to it.”

The appeal for unity is important. Without national unity, the army says it cannot rally the public support needed to fight Islamist militants, including in military campaigns against its own people in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  It also becomes more vulnerable to disquiet within the ranks about  Pakistan’s military strategy and its much-disliked and fragile alliance with the United States.

And to the army’s defenders, it is the only effective national institution, holding together the country while a weak civilian government struggles to master the basics of governance. According to this argument, a sapping of support for the army would also rob the country of its ultimate safety net, based on a long-held view that if the worst comes to the worst, the military can always step in to restore order. 

Yet to the army’s critics, it is the centralising and authoritarian tendencies of the military which have created many of Pakistan’s problems in the first place. Leave aside its past tendencies to use militant proxies (that’s a subject for a different post).  Without the softening grey areas of democracy and decentralisation which create the space to mediate differences between the diverse ethnic groups in Pakistan, many have turned to violence — from Baluch separatists to Pashtun tribesman.  Power has been centralised in Punjab, the traditional recruiting ground of the Pakistan Army and the country’s biggest province. And in the absence of a  politicial system which accommodates diversity, Pakistan has had to rely on Islam to hold the country together – a self-defeating excercise, argue some, given the diversity of faith in the country, both within different traditions of Islam and among its non-Muslims.

Before the bin Laden raid, some of that was starting to change, with efforts by the civilian government to devolve power to the provinces through an 18th Amendment to the constitution passed by parliament in April.  There was also talk of breaking up provinces into smaller units, including Punjab — a politically difficult move which might never see the light of day, but which nonetheless showed quite how far Pakistan had come in its thinking about how to transform the country from the centralised Punjab-dominated structure which characterised past military rule.

It was a slow-burning and – at the time - a rather quiet, revolution.  In more stable times, it might have had a chance of working.  It may yet work, barring any fresh crises in Pakistan triggered from without or within. Kayani has made clear that he has no interest in having Pakistan return to military rule, and the army statement reiterated its commitment to democracy.  But such a transformation would take time and patience – perhaps more than the United States in particular is willing to give to Pakistan.

“There were times one hoped to initiate a civil-military dialogue with the intention of building bridges,” Ayesha Siddiqa wrote in The Express Tribune. “What we need right now is greater sanity. But more than that we need the capacity to draw rules of engagement in which we can talk sensibly without people losing lives.”


Rex Minor,
I agree with you on your last post. Except for this.
“All current office holders in the central Govt. including Zardari and Gillani must step down to allow new elections under International supervision”.

No sovereign country with self respect allows elections under International supervision. when they do, it also would mean the lack of confidence on the part of pakistani state structure. Believe me, you don’t want it. Once you allow it, the foreign powers in the garb of international community will perpetrate their own agendas, based on their self interests for that day.

The fact that the religious parties got very nimble percentage of vote says that election commission is a competent institution in conducting electins and we need to place some confidence and authority in it. The idea is to create such autonomous institutions (incidentally that is what we are trying to do in India right now, albeit with limited success) and strengthen democratic rule of law for a viable and sustainable transition to civil order.

You can allow international observers though and let them speak openly about political processes and transperancy. And rather than asking for Zardari and Gilani to step down, why don’t you call for voting them out in the next elections which is only about 2 years away. That way we can, for the first time in the history of pakistan, ensure a governement completes its full term and be seen throwing out by the enlightened electorate. It will probably then create a recurring,sustainable and rational display of political dissent and attitudes which will bring about orderly change in political structure of pakistan.

I believe one should come out of their own socio-political-cultural and class bias to understand the overarchiving factors that define the priorities of majority voters. The upward mobile middle classes who seldom vote are happy to see an ordered society even when it is forcibly enforced. I have to say that,they have not got best interests of all the pakistanis-atleast regarding the priorities. This had been displayed historically by the calls from this group to the Army, to wrest control from the civilian governments the moment the civilian governments have taken populist decisions in the largest interests of the people.

I entirely agree with Intelletuals like Irfan Husain who in dawn asks the liberal pakistanis to be clear about what they want from pakistani state and establishment. My thoughts are in concurrence with the Author. I wonder why some educated pakistanis fail to read this aspect.
Please go through the below article to be more clear on this.

http://www.dawn.com/2011/06/18/what-ll-i t-be.html

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Netizen:”On Day 7 Umairpk said Kayani is the most beautiful man”.

I wonder that sometimes people like umair mix things up out of either ignorance or misunderstanding or because of their own lack of understanding of issues that matter.

If you are reading this, no one denies the professional acumen of kayani in conducting his job. It is perhaps one of the toughest jobs a military general could possibily have, in ensuring to keep American support for pakistan while at the same time keeping them at bay regarding their core interests and battling a big adversary to its east,while containing the fallout of terrorism in their own country.

The issue is, since Pakistani Army has also got enough political power to direct the pakistani discourse, isn’t it high time for kayani, as the head of Army, to nudge the pakistani state into more peaceful discourse. Kayani must know better, the intensity of the blowback that pakistan is experience from teroirism and isn’t it the right time to take decisive resolution to root out extremism rather than being taken by Americans, while his army is brought kicking and dragging its feet to operate on militant hideouts.
I don’t know what Umair is reading from kayani in calling his extremely professional abilities as Army General but his less than impressive performance regarding counter insurgency and counter terrorrism operations say something else. If Kayani is to be seen as competent general, he should take on every paksitani’s security nightmare seriously and plan in creating a competent counter isurgency and anti-terrorist forces to take on pakistan’s immediate and infact the most lethal enemies.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Mr Patriot
Let me state again that I am not a Pakistani. In my earlier post I meant international observers with consent from Pakistan leaders and without violating Pakistan sovereignty.

Your comments to UmairPK on Army task to curb extremism and to take decisive resolution to root out extremism rather than being taken Americans, reminds of a passage of history, while in the background the TV is announcing thedeath of a German lad, a sad news for us and particularly the soldier family.

An AngloIndian force of 16000 fighting men with 38000 camp followers set out to support the British Raj strategy of DIVIDE AND RULE, claiming the possible inrusion of russians take over of Afghanistan.

After few skirmishes enroute they entered Kabul and managed to install a pupet. A garrison had to be left behind and in 1841 a calamity set in with the winter. Some thought that the Pashtoons are very agreeable in conversations, patriotic but treacherous. Their resentments were misjudged by the Brits. Afghanista rose against the Brits and th Kabul garrison attempted to make the withdrawl on the frozoe passage to India. They were very good fighters and organised but no match to the Afghan snipers. Only one soldier managed to return and reported the story. During the coming days the soldier at watch in India waited in vain for any other survivals but in vain.

Mr Patriot, and you are telling us that either the Americans or the Pakistan army would get away from the crimes they have committed aganst the Pashtoons? You are a very optistic individual and have not learned any lesson from your ancestors? Or perhaps your ancestors were not soldiers in the Indian army?Gen. Kyani is no match in that part of the world. He could be more effective on the Indian border, here every now and then a shoot out match take place?

Have a good day!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Rex Minor,

Get a life.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

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