On “perceptual biases”

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A number of events have led to a debate in the country about the role and performance of the armed forces and intelligence agencies. This has troubled the army high command which instead of setting its house in order has accused the critics of running down the armed forces on account of “perceptual biases.”

The best way out after the Abbottabad failure was to readily agree to a judicial commission. This would have satisfied most as the Supreme Court is widely seen to be an independent institution. The second best option would have been a commission jointly nominated by the government and the opposition. Neither of the two options was accepted. If Ch Nisar Ali Khan, the leader of the opposition in NA, is to be believed, the army played a role in proposing the commission which was to turn into a case of still birth. Nisar told the NA on Wednesday “During the joint sitting, some ministers frequented my chamber for consultations on the draft resolution, but when I came into the House, they were not present there… I learnt that the missing ministers were taking the military top brass on board on the text of the resolution.” Few would expect a party implicated in a case to be actively involved in the formation of the commission meant to look into its affairs.

Gen Kayani has also accused the critics of driving a wedge between the army, different organs of the state and the people of Pakistan. Presumably the General is unhappy over some of the parliamentary discussions. The military’s role is being debated in Parliament more frequently than ever for obvious reasons. First on account of the Abbottabad debacle; then the PNS Mehran security disaster and finally the issue of military budget.

The first two affairs could not have been ignored as they represented gross intelligence and security failures. Parliamentarians were bound to express their unhappiness during the joint session, demand accountability and ask why no heads had rolled over the failures. The army has not been used to demands of the sort. Gross military failures have been neatly covered up in the past as in the case of the surrender in East Pakistan, the Ojhri camp scandal and the Kargil misadventure. The expenditure on army came under discussion as a part of the debate on the Budget 2011-12.

There have been persistent demands that, like in other democracies, the army budget needs to be presented in Parliament with details of expenditure. The issue was taken up by some of the deputies and is likely to be pressed by others in days to come. It is highly unusual in a democracy and an era where transparency is the buzzword that the military in Pakistan should resist the demand. And why should not the parliamentarians raise the issue of rightsizing the military budget when the funds being made available for education, health, social development and poverty eradication are lowest in the region?

The parliament is within its right to discuss the security paradigm and suggest changes in it. This is what the parliaments all over the world do. When a member of the NA questions why “we have bitter feelings about the US interference in the country but are silent about our involvement in the domestic issues of the neighbouring Afghanistan,” what is needed is to respond to the query properly instead of losing one’s calm.

The role of the security agencies came up for review, first because of the Abbottabad debacle and then on account of Saleem Shahzad who was abducted, tortured and killed in the last week of May. Journalists have been picked up and harassed in the past also and, as in the case of Umar Cheema, tortured by the agencies but never murdered. This naturally led a legislator to call for abandoning the policies aimed at terrorising the media. The media has in fact demanded several times in the past to rein in these agencies through a proper charter precisely spelling out their scope and limitations.

On Thursday, parliamentarians were highly perturbed, like the rest of the nation, by the killing of a young man in Karachi by Rangers in cold blood and in contemptuous disregard of public presence. It was by no means unusual on some of the speakers’ part to recount what had happened earlier at Kharotabad in Quetta where security personnel had killed five Russian citizens including a pregnant girl without any proof of their being terrorists.

There is a need to realise that there is a sea change in the country with an elected parliament, a free media and independent judiciary. Dirt can no more be pushed under the rug. There is, therefore, a need to tolerate criticism, even if sometime made in unfamiliar tones. No nation would wish to berate its defenders provided they keep their house in order, shun politics and accept the supremacy of the civilian setup. Criticism by parliamentarians is to be seen as an attempt to set things right rather than an attempt to divide a wedge between the institutions.

 

The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.