Pakistan's military faces calls for major shakeup after bin Laden failure

The Pakistan Army faces a rising domestic backlash, but the public relations disaster could provide a rare and overdue chance to mend broken civil-military relations, analysts say.

Inter Services Public Relation department/AP
In this Thursday, May 5, photo, Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (c.) presides the Corps Commander conference at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Four days after US Navy SEALs swooped deep into Pakistani territory to carry out a daring, 40-minute raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Pakistan Army is facing a rising domestic backlash.

Observers normally reluctant to criticize the military – this country’s most powerful and popular institution – are now publicly asking why Pakistan's main intelligence agency apparently had no knowledge of Mr. bin Laden's presence and why the military appeared to be caught unaware of the US raid.

But the public relations disaster the Army has suffered could provide a rare and overdue chance to mend broken civil-military relations, analysts say.

“This is a golden opportunity," says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of "Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military." "We’re seeing a period we’ve never had before. It’s something comparable to 1971,” she says, referring to the year Pakistan lost its second war to India, which resulted in the capture of 90,000 prisoners of war and the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). That, in turn, paved the way for the arrival of a powerful civilian ruler in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

"What we might see happen [now] is people raising their voices [in protest] and the president using that to say Pakistan is interested in change,” says Ms. Siddiqa. That includes greater oversight by the civilian government over intelligence and appointments. “What I want to see is now is greater transparency and accountability from the Army," adds Siddiqa.

Unfettered control

Until now, Pakistan’s Army has enjoyed almost unfettered control. No civilian oversight is required in making or renewing high-level appointments, including experts observe, the extension of ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha's tenure in March.

The Army oversees the country’s defense and foreign policy and maintains a major stake in industries, agriculture, and land holdings. It even has its own brand of breakfast cereal.

Then there is the matter of its budget, which citizens are starting to question. Officially, the Army receives some 22 percent of the budget, though analysts estimate the actual figure to be significantly higher.

Promises to investigate

On Thursday, in the wake of a growing backlash among Pakistan's citizens, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani chaired a high-level meeting of his commanders. The result was that the Army promised to investigate intelligence failures in detecting the world’s most wanted terrorist.

For many people, that wasn't enough.

If the military persists with their claim of ignorance, says postgraduate student Imran Khalid, echoing popular sentiment, “They will be seen by the general public as incompetent in terms of not being able to protect the borders and the nation's sovereignty…. People will begin to question whether it is worth maintaining a military, which is at sea both against terrorist outfits as well as foreign military operations.”

Civilian government's problems

But Pakistan’s civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, has its own problems.

It has shown reluctance to tackle issues relating to defense or terrorism, and that is unlikely to change soon, says retired Brig. Shaukat Qadir. “In South Waziristan, the Army is, by all accounts, detaining 1,500 militants illegally, because the civilian government does not have the capacity to prosecute them. In Swat, the military has taken a lead in building a school to deprogram children brainwashed by terrorists,” he says.

The civilian government’s track record of poor governance could also scupper hope of clawing back territory from the Army, say analysts. Spiraling inflation, power outages, and fuel shortages have all contributed to its unpopularity.

“This is definitely an opening for change,” says Cyril Almeida, a columnist, “because the calumny being heaped on the military at the moment offers a window to civilians to take some leadership.” But, he adds, since assuming office, President Zardari has made little effort to push the military back into a more limited role, concentrating instead on keeping his government afloat.

“If the politicians were working effectively to govern better on other fronts – for example, if they had popular support on education, health, and financial management – the spillover effect would embolden them to wrest power from the Army," he cautions. "But as long as your core job is being performed abysmally, the possibility of pushing back is limited.”

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