Pakistanis wary of Army's next job

Quake reconstruction effort will be headed by generals, but Army denies claims it will dominate the process.

Winter is descending on the highlands of northern Pakistan, delaying the transition from earthquake relief operations to the longer-range efforts of rebuilding.

But in Islamabad, the early outlines of the reconstruction are being sketched out, and there are fears that the military will dominate the process. Two agencies have been put in charge of the effort, each headed by a general.

With the reconstruction expected to be a three to five year national project, some Pakistani political observers argue that the government's promise of a democratic transition from military rule has been dealt a setback. While the Army insists that final decisionmaking powers rest with elected leaders, critics see little chance for crucial local input to shape the recovery effort.

"Reconstruction is a matter of economic management, of social issues - these are civilian subjects," says Afrasiab Khattak, a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, based in Lahore.

Observers like Mr. Khattak say that only a participatory approach - comprising the affected communities themselves, representative governments, and civil society actors - can ensure that reconstruction adequately serves the communities in need.

Their concerns were echoed by a European Union delegation at last month's donors conference, where international governments pledged $5.9 billion to assist Pakistan. "The EU delegation calls attention to the need for the decentralization of decisionmaking."

The critique helps underscore that October's earthquake, while forever changing Pakistan's history, has done little if anything to shake up the centralized power matrix that has defined Pakistan since the 1999 military coup by President Pervez Musharraf and indeed, for much of its history.

The Army disputes claims that it will dominate the reconstruction. "The Army is not leading the effort. The reconstruction and relief agencies are under the prime minister's office," says Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shawkat Sultan.

But critics point out that both government relief agencies were created unilaterally by President Musharraf, and their military heads appointed without consultation with parliament. It is a telltale sign, they say, that both the prime minister and the civilian government are subject to the ultimate authority of Musharraf, who has reneged on past promises to step down from his role as a military general.

There is broad consensus that the Army has the capacity and skill to execute the reconstruction process. It enjoys a reputation for efficiency in a country where civilian governments and civic institutions have been bogged down by bureaucratic lethargy and corruption.

"In everyday terms, as an institution, it has demonstrated high levels of professional capacity," says Javed Jabbar, a former information minister and former senator. "One should not say they're at the wrong place at the wrong time."

But execution is not the point, critics say. Decisionmaking is, and that is where the Army's role is most questioned.

"The Army will be thinking on the basis of their own understanding of what is good for these communities," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "I'm not putting any negative connotation on what the Army might think. But it's a methodological question: Who really knows what is the social good and how it can be achieved?"

Critics point to military spending as a demonstration of the Army's skewed priorities in the reconstruction phase. At a time when the nation is reeling, they say, the military has considered several billion-dollar arms and defense-system deals, including a contract with the US for F-16 fighters and another pending deal with Saab of Sweden for planes and radar equipment.

The Musharraf government maintains that all such deals have been put on hold in light of the crisis. But critics say it underscores the need for a collective rethinking of national priorities, with ownership from opposition parties and civil society.

Given such questions of mind-set and methodology, many see an Army-led reconstruction as a gamble, not only for the millions of affected survivors but the future of democratic institutions.

"They will further weaken democracy," argues Ret. Maj. Gen. Nasirullah Babar, who spent 36 years in the military before turning to politics. "There will be no return."

General Sultan plays down these fears, saying the relief authority will be working with local and provincial levels of government, with ultimate authority vested in the civilian government.

But members of the opposition say the writing is already on the wall, arguing that the reconstruction authority itself was created without consulting parliament or local governments.

"I certainly have objected to the way they've centralized the role of the reconstruction body in the small cabalistic circle of the Army," argues Sherry Rehman, an opposition member in parliament. "What we're going to get is a complete breakdown of civilian government."

Ruling party members disagree. "The claim of the Army overstepping and parliament not having any role is entirely untrue," says Sen. Tariq Azim Khan. "Nobody can say the parliament is not involved. There is a parliamentary committee that consists of all political parties." The committee has yet to be formed because opposition members have boycotted it, demanding that the reconstruction authority be reconstituted by an act of parliament.

There are those, meanwhile, who are more pessimistic in their assessment. In their eyes, democratic institutions are already so weakened in Pakistan's military-dominated society that a military-led reconstruction can hardly matter.

"The factors that caused democratic institutions to be weak have existed for several years," says Mr. Jabbar, "Who heads it, whether a general or a civilian, will only be a replay of what's been happening for a long time."

Given such assessments, there are grounds to question whether civilian institutions could in fact muster a robust reconstruction effort.

Past disasters have been overcome by civilian bureaucrats, Professor Rais points out, including the earthquake of 1974 that devastated nearly the same region as October's quake. "The money was well spent ... and people were very satisfied," says General Babar, speaking of the '74 quake. "It was better than what's going on now. That's because the decisions were made on a political basis, not by the Army."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.