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In the line of fire: Pakistan's Army, post-Osama

Suhasini Haidar http://suhasinih

Updated: May 23, 2011, 10:13 AM IST
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Not only is the Pakistani public angry, but this is the first time in the country's 63 years that the Army chief and the head of the ISI have had to appear before the legislature to offer an explanation.

Dear Friends," read the SMS, "Please don't fwd any jokes that ridicule our army." The message, among several sent out in Islamabad a week after Osama bin Laden's killing, struck a plaintive note. Another read, "We were there for you in 1948, 1965 and 1971. We were there on Indian Tiger Hills (sic) in Kargil...Be with us when we have been stabbed in the back."All were ostensibly trying to counter the flood of messages in the week before, from "Please don't honk, the army is sleeping," to "Second-hand Pakistani radar for sale - can't detect US helicopters, but gets Star Plus just fine," all pointedly targeting the army over Operation Osama.

For Pakistan's military establishment and particularly its chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the humour has just added to the serious pressures he faces, and while many predict the army will soon be able to put the episode behind it, evidence points otherwise. It is not so much Osama's killing, as the reactions that have followed that could become the game-changer for Pakistan since, for one rare moment, it is Pakistan's army alone that is the focus of the intense scrutiny.

To begin with is the pressure of the US warnings to the military to investigate the "support structures" that allowed America's most wanted to live in Abbotabad. Visiting US officials have reinforced the tough messages with threats to cut off aid. Since 2002 the US transferred about $20 billion to Pakistan, two-thirds of which has gone to the army's coffers. For 2011-2012 the Obama administration has indented for another $3 bn as aid, plus $2.3 bn for counter-terrorism. All these figures are now being questioned by the US Congress, with a bill calling for Pakistan's government to "certify it wasn't aware of bin Laden's presence" in the works. Washington has also been cutting reimbursements to Rawalpindi, rejecting a whopping 40 per cent of all claims made by the military for expenses in the war on terror last year.

Trust levels between the two countries are at their lowest ebb, but the US need for Pakistan hasn't changed with the circumstances of Osama's death. With time, the hunt still on for other Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders, Washington's drawdown plan in Afghanistan, and the need to keep China at bay, could all see the US return to form, keeping friends close, but Pakistan closer, as it were.

The real break from the past, instead, is in Pakistan's public mood. On a visit to Pakistan days after Operation Geronimo, it was clear that the people's anger at the US was rivalled only by the open rage at the Army. While the rest of the world asked, "How did Osama live in Pakistan without being caught?" people on the streets were only obsessed by the humiliating question, "How did US forces sneak in and out for the operation without being intercepted?"

In one of Islamabad's bazaars we were accosted by one visibly upset shopkeeper. "It's one thing that the army has starved us all these years in the name of national security," he railed, "but where was all their technology and intelligence when the Americans were flying into our country?" Another man questioned why ISI chief Shuja Pasha had been flying back and forth from Washington. Surprisingly, few doubted the American claim that if Osama lived in Abbottabad for years, he must have had some support from officials.

The signs of a shift in public perception could not have escaped Gen. Kayani, known to read newspapers and magazines extensively. Many are now even likening the post-Geronimo fall from grace of Pakistan's strongest institution to the post-1971 war, calling for a White Paper on what the Army knew and when.

Despite the public mood, the only change in the balance of power inside Pakistan will come if the politicians push for it. And it is on this count that Kayani has the most to think about. Many reported the confrontational scenes involving Lt-Gen. Shuja Pasha in the National Assembly, but few noted that it was the first time in Pakistan's 63 years that the Army Chief and the ISI chief had to appear for an explanation before the legislature at all. Eventually, the words that won applause from across the political ranks came from MNA Javed Hashmi, who asked Pasha and Kayani, "We know you are burdened with about you give some of them back to us?"

Even PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif has signalled that despite his differences with the ruling PPP, when it comes to holding the Army accountable, the politicians are closing ranks. Ironically, it was Kayani who tried, at the beginning of his tenure, to give back some of the army's powers, withdrawing his officers from running 23 public concerns, including National Highways, Education, Water and Power. He also submitted to the PPP government's decision to institute the first-ever parliamentary oversight committee on national security in 2008, and in an effort to show he would not go the way of previous military-chiefs-turned-rulers, ordered his officers to avoid contact with politicians.

In the past two weeks Kayani has shown he is not unaware of the flak his force faces - the SMS campaign was only one part of a counter-strategy. He has also met with newspaper and television editors on two separate occasions in the past month, and conducted town-hall style meetings with his officers in at least five garrisons. It seems unlikely that other options open to his more adventurous predecessors when under pressure - of toppling the government, or upping the ante with India - would help Gen. Kayani's cause at present.

Eventually, it is the mood of his own men that will be the cause of the most worry for the Army Chief, particularly the deep schisms of mistrust that seem to be building between a professional, liberal rank, and an extremely devout, anti-american file. In his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, British author Anatol Lieven, known for his deep access to the military, says 'the single most dangerous trend' he found was the difficulties parents faced in finding a bride for sons in the military, as in villages, they were increasingly viewed as 'slaves of the Americans who are killing fellow-Muslims.'

Conversely, there is the worry within other ranks of growing jihadism, one that will not allow the military to sever its bonds with groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Afghan Taliban, giving rise to the fear that radicalised officers perhaps also protected Osama bin Laden at his Abbottabad home. With each successive bomb blast, many within the military are making the connection that the groups they've fed and nurtured are now eating into the army's own structure.

Whatever the end, the army's introspection following the discovery of Osama bin Laden is throwing up a rare moment for Gen. Kayani. And as he deals with the growing pressures from the world, Pakistan's public and polity, the army's debate over its national role, post-Osama, is in fact, a fight for the future of Pakistan.

First Published: May 23, 2011, 10:13 AM IST

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