NEWS ANALYSIS: Why Army is Considered Rock Solid in Benighted Pakistan

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By Shastri Ramachandran

The fact that Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. Special Forces on May 1, had been hiding in Abbottabad, has revived suspicions about the Pakistani establishment making a common cause with terrorists, giving rise to calls that the country's armed forces must be brought under the civilian government's control.

While it is necessary and desirable to tame the army as well as rogue elements within the forces and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), reasons for the army's supremacy cannot be ignored.

In Pakistan, the army calls the shots because civilian authority is discredited and politicians are seen as corrupt, effete, compromised and incapable of standing up for Pakistani 'national interests'. Unlike New Delhi, the U.S., which has engaged Pakistani generals for decades, knows this. Washington's calls for the government to keep the army in check are only for the sake of form.

One visit to Pakistan is all it takes to understand why its army needs to be reckoned with more than its parliament, political class and civil bureaucracy. There is no such thing as 'Pakistani nationalism' discernible in the country trapped in recurrent cycles of sectarian violence. Instead, there are clashing sub-nationalisms and varied hues of terrorism.

Be it journalists in Islamabad, academics in Lahore, traders or businessmen, the dominant aspiration for a peaceful, normal life with opportunities for advancement is manifest in a yearning for the army at the helm of affairs.

"The army is the only secular career option, where education can be put to use and those from the lower and middle classes can move up," said a Punjab University don, who does not want to be named.

"Parliament and politics is for the feudal and privileged sections. Government jobs can be secured with some difficulty, but beyond a level the bureaucracy is dominated by established families and those with social power, political connections and money."

It's only in the army that a recruit, regardless of his socio-economic origin, can expect good pay, security for self and family, respect, prestige and a chance to gain status by rising through the ranks, observed a journalist in Islamabad.

"This country is at the mercy of armed forces of one kind or another. On the one side are different terrorist groups and jihadis, and fighting against them is the army, which is secular," said a lawyer-activist.

UNDER MUSHARRAF

"Musharraf was good for Pakistan," said businessman Ali in Islamabad. His friend, Tariq, who is in the carpet business, nods agreement. "There was much less violence then. With the army in charge, people felt safe and could live a normal life without fear. The middle class, the educated, traders, businessmen and women felt secure. Now, not a day passes without blasts, bombings and killings."

Pakistan has been at crisis point even before U.S. forces struck to smoke out bin Laden. A fractured polity, an economy in crisis, terrorism at home, the war in Afghanistan and U.S. drones killing more civilians than terrorists, a government and parliament unable to thwart attacks by foreign forces, and swelling public outrage and protests are pushing the state to the brink of collapse.

If there is one force seen to be holding together the benighted country damned as the "fount of global terrorism" -- even as its own people fall to Islamist militants -- it is the Pakistani army; not the president, prime minister or political parties.

A week before the killing of bin Laden, visiting Indian journalists enjoyed remarkably unrestricted interactions with army officers. These included Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, director-general, Inter Services public relations, in Rawalpindi; Col Khalid of 12 Division at Chakoti-Uri crossing point in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; and Maj Gen Javed Iqbal, GoC 19 division in Swat, hub of South Asia’s largest heliborne operation in 2009 in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Maj Gen Abbas dwelt at length on the strategy, operations, achievements and challenges, especially the massive exercise of flushing out Pakistan-Taliban (TTP) terrorists from FATA, which involved some three million people spread over 13,500 sq km.

Although the TTP has been eliminated, the army's job is far from over in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP) as the North West Frontier Province is now called. KP is "occupied territory" with the army striving to restore the government's writ through projects for "deradicalisation" and bringing back normal life to the breathtakingly beautiful valley.

Less than a week before bin Laden was found hiding right under the nose of the army, the chief military spokesman had rejected charges of links between the ISI and terrorists. "In the fight against terrorism, we have suffered huge casualties and will not harm our own people."

Maj Gen Abbas said that terrorists targeted ISI offices across Pakistan; in contrast to 2,058 deaths of combatants from 43 countries led by the U.S./NATO, the Pakistan army alone lost 2,795 lives in the war against terrorism.

Yet, just days before bin Laden was killed, within a stone's throw of his den, army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, speaking at a military academy, claimed to have broken the back of terrorism.
If success against TTP proves the army's competence in stamping out terrorism, it follows that terrorist groups, such as LeT, have a free run in Pakistan because they are creatures of the army and ISI.

Otherwise, these groups, too, could have been eliminated.

There is no doubt that the government's writ runs only where, and when, the army wants it to. In such a situation, it is too much to expect any civilian government to be able to keep the army in line.

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