The decision by President Farooq Leghari to create a high-powered government council - and include Pakistan's four top generals among its members - has triggered an outcry over bringing the armed forces into a civilian government and sparked fears that an already influential military is expanding its powers.
The Council for Defense and National Security (CDNS), headed by President Leghari, was formed Jan. 6. It includes Pakistan's prime minister and ministers of defense, foreign affairs, finance, and interior.
The head of the joint chiefs of staff and the chiefs of the three armed forces (Army, Navy, and Air Force) have also been appointed. Together, the group will be responsible for advising the government on economic affairs and finance as well as on defense and national security.
The appointment of the four generals represents the first time the Army has been given a formal role in civilian matters since the death in 1988 of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the last military dictator.
The armed forces ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its 50 years and wields considerable influence behind the scenes. The Army received more than 25 percent of the budget this year, more than any other part of the government.
Leghari told foreign correspondents in the capital, Islamabad, on Jan. 12 that the council will provide political stability, ensure the continuity of vital reforms, and prevent a drift toward "economic collapse."
Officials close to Leghari say he thinks the council will help keep continuity in during the frequent downfalls of Pakistan's governments: In the past eight years, three governments have been elected only to be dissolved by the president partway through their terms after charges of corruption.
Senior government officials say the council would give an opportunity for civilian and military leaders to resolve their differences behind the scenes rather than let frictions go unchecked until the president, under Pakistan's parliamentary system, is forced to dissolve the government.
But Pakistan's leading human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir, says the new council marks the end of parliamentary democracy. Ms. Jehangir and other critics charge that the council usurps the functions of the Cabinet and the parliament.
Retired Army Gen. Ghulam Umar has joined the critics. He wrote this week in The Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper, that "the CDNS or any such body, even if it is an advisory body, must come into existence through an act of parliament. It should have its existence in law, and its ground rules should be set by law."
A Western diplomat, who requested anonymity, said, "Where the president went wrong was that he did not try to quietly persuade any politicians before announcing the council, and now a growing number of politicians think of it as a bad idea."
The Army repeatedly has indicated it has no political ambitions. Army chief of staff Gen. Jehangir Karamat, considered to be the most powerful among the four highest-ranking generals, is widely thought to favor keeping the military out of the limelight.