Pakistan Army Leans Toward Liberalism
As Islamic hard-liners increase pressure on government, military closes rank to support democracy
A NEW political force is emerging in Pakistan that is espousing such ideals as liberalism, moderate Islam, and Western-style democracy. It is the Pakistan Army.Skip to next paragraph
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Senior military officials say their new assertive approach is designed to shore up the government of Nawaz Sharif and his modernist policies as well as the liberal sectors of society.
These officials emphasize that their new role will be a supportive one rather than the "take-charge" approach that has characterized the history of the Army until now.
The Army has ruled Pakistan for more than half the country's 44-year history. Under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the last military ruler, Army rule became synonymous with martial law and partyless elections. Under Zia's leadership, the Pakistani Army became custodian of the country's Islamic identity and the nation's commitment to the Afghan jihad (struggle).
Less than four years after Zia's death in a mysterious air crash in 1988, other more-liberal views, reflecting the middle-class values of many in its officer corps, are emanating from the Army. The military leadership contrasts starkly with the political elite, which is still dominated by large landowners, tribal leaders, owners of large companies, and drug traffickers.
Army officials express frustration with politicians, but say they are committed to protecting democracy. "We would rather see the prime minister, the president, and the National Assembly taking decisions than us," a senior military official says."We are behind the prime minister. We talk the same language."
Mr. Sharif, despite being one of Pakistan's largest industrialists, is viewed as a representative of the urban middle class and a moderate on Islamic issues. The new alliance between the Army and the prime minister could isolate President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who is perceived to be more radical and supportive of the religious groups.
A showdown has been looming between the Sharif government and the religious parties over a number of policies. The Army now says it wants to back the government in its effort to moderate fundamentalist influences in policymaking. Senior Army officials say those influences far outweigh their electoral support.
"They are fringe elements," a senior official says. "If it is good for the country, then it will be done whether they like it or not."
Army officials point out that the fundamentalists have only eight members in the 235-seat National Assembly. Those seats were largely secured, they add, through membership of the eight-party Islamic Democratic Alliance, which is dominated by the more moderate Muslim League.
The new signals have been accompanied by significant changes in the Army itself. Last month, Gen. Hamid Gul, regarded as a hero of Islamic militancy and the Afghan struggle, was fired. He had been a longtime rival of the present Army chief, Gen. Asif Nawaz Janjua.
The two men could not be more different. General Gul is home-grown and a known Zia loyalist. In contrast, General Janjua received his military training at Britain's Sandhurst academy.
Last month, Gul refused to take a post as head of an armaments factory. He had been transferred from commander of the armored corps in Multan, one of the most prestigious commands in the Army, and clearly viewed it as humiliating.