The capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces in one of Pakistan’s most fortified garrisons is simply the latest illustration of the shadowy logic that continues to guide decision-making within Pakistan. Notwithstanding the hyperbole about ‘sovereignty’ being circulated within the media and other opinion-making constituencies, the real issue at hand is the manner in which basic policies are framed and implemented in this country. More specifically, the priorities of the state and civil-military relations are once in the spotlight, and it is incumbent upon all democratic and progressive forces to develop a consensus on the way forward.
For the best part of Pakistan’s existence as an independent state, the military has enjoyed a privileged status on numerous accounts. It has always garnered a disproportionately large percentage of public resources, whilst directly controlling the reins of government for more than half of the country’s 63 years, in clear defiance of established political and constitutional norms. Yet the military has always enjoyed a critical mass of public support for its myriad roles (concentrated primarily in Punjab) and has thereby been able to maintain, and extend, its economic and political power.
The military’s prestige derives from its purported role as the ‘guardian of the nation’ in the face of what have been depicted as existential threats to Pakistan from hostile neighbouring countries. The institution has prided itself on being the defender both of Pakistan’s physical boundaries as well as its ‘ideological frontiers’. It has not been surprising in the aftermath of the OBL debacle, therefore, to come across a wide range of commentators insisting that criticism of the military represents at attempt to undermine the most patriotic and committed institution in the country.
However, attempts to cow those speaking out at the present time will serve only to intensify the serious contradictions that afflict the Pakistani state. There can be no question that the many crises that the country currently faces – including the virtual mortgaging of the economy and polity to external powers, severe ethnic polarizations, and the phenomenon that is called terrorism – can only be redressed by questioning the military’s unaccountable power and stranglehold on public resources. It is high time that the military be brought within the constitutional ambit and civilian authority be asserted definitively.
In this regard, one of the first and most symbolically important initiatives that needs to be undertaken is to subject the official defence budget to parliamentary oversight. Historically defence spending has been formally announced during the federal budget session every year but only as a single-line item with no specific details either presented or demanded within the national assembly. Even if it is agreed that details of certain military-run institutions and projects must remain classified information, specific information about official defence spending in the federal budget must be made public information. It is no longer viable for the military to remain unaccountable in this regard, and in light of recent events it is both reasonable and necessary for the parliament to take the necessary steps to assert civilian authority and hold the military accountable for allocations made to it from the national exchequer.
Such an initiative would not only be an important step towards establishing the supremacy of civilian institutions but would also assist in the longer-term task of reorienting the state’s priorities away from non-productive, zero-sum militaristic policies towards people’s welfare. These are both long-standing goals of the progressive movement in Pakistan. Now is the opportune time to push them forward.
We invite you to attend an open meeting to discuss possible mobilizations in the lead-up to the announcement of the federal budget.
The meeting will be held on Thursday, 19th May at 5pm at Blk 24, Flat 3, G-7/1 PHA flats. If there are any queries whatsoever, and if you need directions to get to the meeting, please call 0333 5221863 or 0334 8400881