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Hostility On The Homefront

  • Abubakar Siddique

The Pakistani armed forces are facing increasing hostility, even in areas where they have traditionally enjoyed high levels of support.

The Pakistani armed forces are facing increasing hostility, even in areas where they have traditionally enjoyed high levels of support.

Pakistan's powerful military has often been strengthened by its ability to repel outside criticism. But now it is faced with a new type of threat: resistance coming from its core support base in the eastern Punjab Province.

Disparaging attacks by politicians in the province -- home to most of the military's rank and file -- are beginning to pose a serious challenge.

The armed forces are also facing heavy criticism in the local media. Many Pakistani journalists continue to display their anger over the slaying of colleague Sayed Saleem Shahzad in late May.

"We won't surrender to the rule of the guns and batons," a group of pressmen chanted under a scorching sun in Islamabad on June 15, seeking to pressure the government into launching a special investigation into Shahzad's killing.

A lot of journalists accuse the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military's premier intelligence agency, of having a role in the slaying, something the agency forcefully denies.

The protesters' voices rang out from the capital, but were intended for ears in Rawalpindi, just a few kilometers to the south. That city, one of the largest in Punjab Province, is home to the country's powerful military, which holds sway on most things of importance in Pakistan, including the ISI.

Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif
The journalists' protest, staged in front of the parliament building, attracted widespread attention. Among the politicians who flocked to the site to show their solidarity was former Prime Minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who in a short speech lambasted the military.

He recounted the military's recent failures. He reminded the journalists and a nationwide television audience that the government had failed to appoint a proper commission to investigate the embarrassing killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

He ridiculed the head of the Pakistani Navy for claiming that there were no security lapses when terrorists targeted their base on May 22, fought a 16-hour gun battle, killed 10 soldiers, and officers and destroyed two of its surveillance planes.

Unprecedented Challenge

Even for the most powerful politician in Punjab Province, this was a daring step.

Observers say that Sharif's hard-hitting recent speeches challenging the military's dominance of politics and economy are unprecedented. Until recently, most Punjabi politicians obediently toed the military's line because most of its soldiers and officers come from among Punjab's estimated 80 million people.

In recent weeks, Sharif, who lost his government to a bloodless military coup in 1999, is again warning the generals to stick to their professional soldiering roles.

"What is happening here? Who is taking Pakistan in this direction of [anarchy and destruction]?" he asked.

"We created Pakistan for the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution, not for these [despicable] scenes that our 180 million people watch on their televisions every day.

"We think that enough is enough. There is no more room for patience. Right now we are fighting the last battle for Pakistan's survival and defeat is not an option."

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group (PML-N) runs the civilian provincial administration in Punjab and heads the opposition in the national assembly, or lower house of the Pakistani parliament.

Their criticism of the military is magnified by the media, where most senior journalists claim to face mounting threats and pressures from a military whose leaders are keen on restoring its image after a recent spate of debacles.

In the past, the military confronted such pressures by going against its detractors. But doing so is difficult because Punjab, particularly its central and northern districts, is the main recruitment base for "faujis", -- the soldiers and officer corps of the military.

Politicians from minority ethnic groups claim that 80 percent of Pakistani military is ethnic Punjabi. Home to most of Pakistan's agriculture and industry, the fertile plains of Punjab are also home to the towns and cities whose populations account for the bulk of Pakistani media's audience.

Speaking to a popular television TV talk show, Khawaja Saad Rafique, a PML-N lawmaker, recently warned the military and its intelligence services against trying to silence them.

"Now they [the military] have to deal with politicians and journalists from Pakistan's largest province," he says.

"It is very difficult to label them [as unpatriotic]. They [the military] should stop trying to stupidly impose labels on us. The second thing is that we live in 2011 today and the [harsh] tactics of the 1970s won't work here."

Increasing Isolation

The military, long accustomed to being feared, is clearly not pleased with the emerging criticism.

"Some quarters, because of their perceptual biases, were trying to deliberately run down the Armed Forces and Army in particular," read a June 9 statement by the military's media office after a day-long meeting of the senior generals.

"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."

Security analyst Riffat Hussain says that the Pakistani military's leadership is facing increasing isolation.

He says that the elected civilian leadership has provided little help to the military in the face of rising domestic and international criticism of its performance after bin Laden's killing at the hands of U.S. commandoes, as well as numerous incidents showcasing its failures.

Hussain, who teaches defense and strategic studies at Islamabad university, counts many military officers as his students.

He says that the military has been left to "face the music and crisis management" by civilian leaders who have nervously clung to power since winning elections in 2008.

An Opportunistic Alliance

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, a secular grouping attracting followers from across Pakistan, has traditionally opposed the military. But now its critics accuse it of striking an opportunistic alliance with the armed forces.

Hussain says the current criticism of the military does not augur well for the future of the civil-military relationship.
Historian Farzana Shaikh believes the military will defend itself very robustly.

"If the current wrinkles and the distrust and the disaffection continues to pervade, then I think,, something has to cave in," he says, adding that he doubts that neither the military nor political leadership "can afford to do without each other" in what he describes as a "grave moment of crisis for Pakistan."

Farzana Shaikh, a historian specializing in Pakistan who works at the Chatham House think tank in London, says that the change in public mood in Punjab is genuine. Nonetheless, she maintains that its durability is in question.

Shaikh says that PML-N's lead role in questioning the military is a "high-risk strategy" which seeks to capitalize on the political atmosphere in Punjab and the rest of the country after the killing of bin Laden and "all the unanswered questions that have followed since."

Sharif was a protege of a military dictator in the 1980s, but has a mixed record of confronting the military. Shaikh notes that some accounts suggest Sharif gained an upper hand against the military in early 1990s.

However, he was imprisoned and sent into exile when General Pervez Musharraf successfully launched a coup in 1999, even though Sharif had an absolute parliamentary majority.

Although the military is now on the defensive, says Shaikh, given Pakistan's political history, it is unlikely to go down without a fight.

"I think the military is going to put up a very, very spirited defense of the institution as well as its position as the key player of Pakistani politics," she says.