Scandals taint revered Pakistan military

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It’s difficult to overstate the respect that Pakistan’s military has enjoyed among its people. Since the nation’s violent birth in 1947, the armed services have been touted as the glue holding the country together, having waged three wars with India, defended Pakistan’s part of divided Kashmir, safeguarded the Islamic world’s only known nuclear weaponry and battled growing domestic terrorist attacks.

In recent weeks, however, the military and its shadowy spymaster cousin, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, termed “the establishment” here, have been rocked by charges of incompetency, corruption, abuse of power and extrajudicial killings.

“I’m 37 and in my lifetime I never imagined the Pakistani army and the ISI would be bludgeoned in public like this,” said Mazur Zaidi, a documentary filmmaker. “The narrative they built up over 63 years is cracking.”


If the challenge to that narrative — that the military and intelligence services are above reproach — is sustained, it could have broad implications for Pakistan’s democracy, regional relations and the fight against on terrorism, some analysts said.

By dominating Pakistan’s domestic politics, national budget and foreign affairs, the military establishment has hampered development of a more representative government, placed undue priority on facing down India and gobbled up resources better spent on education, electricity and the economy, critics said.

Opening a national debate would strengthen the country’s fragile democracy and could route more money toward jobs and training, arguably undercutting the attraction of extremism and ultimately strengthen Pakistan’s defense by creating a tighter, more focused armed forces.

“It’s no secret the relationship between civilian and military authorities has been warped, twisted and skewed,” said Tariq Fatemi, a former ambassador to the United States with close links to politician Nawaz Sharif, who has led a recent campaign for greater military accountability.

Others said that this is no time to constrain the military, given enormous challenges at home and abroad.

Whether the unprecedented public questioning of late marks the beginning of significant structural change or, as some believe, a blip before the military reasserts its grip remains to be seen.


“Will this materialize into something more significant?” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security analyst and columnist. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

The catalyst for the recent pummeling was the U.S. raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, which put the armed services in a no-win position. Either some military officials knew and sheltered Bin Laden for five years near a military base, or nobody knew, suggesting incompetence.

And how could Pakistan’s protectors fail to notice U.S. helicopters flying deep into its territory and not respond to the 40-minute operation?

Three weeks later, six militants held a Karachi naval base hostage for 17 hours, most likely with inside help, killing 10 security personnel, wounding 15 and destroying two $100-million aircraft.

This was followed by the abduction and killing of investigative reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad, who had detailed links between the navy and Islamist militants. Many believe the ISI, which long fostered militant groups to counter India, was involved in the killing; an anonymous ISI official told local news media that reports of its involvement were “baseless allegations.”

Then, TV video aired across Pakistan showed paramilitary troops shooting a Karachi teenager and then denying him medical help as he bled to death. The paramilitary alleged that the victim was armed — in the video he’s seen begging for mercy with no weapon visible — but human rights groups say even this wouldn’t justify summary judgment.


“In Pakistani streets and living rooms, the military is excoriated as never before for its hubris, corruption and incompetence,” said an editorial last month in the Daily Star newspaper.

The missteps have sparked parliamentary questioning, critical news coverage and the campaign led by politician Sharif.

Repeated attempts to reach military representatives were unsuccessful or referred elsewhere. Analysts said the establishment’s crisis management efforts have faltered, in part because it’s not used to open challenges.

Rather than address critics, it has sought to intimidate them, some said.

Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for the News newspaper who was abducted for three days last fall and threatened with rape and death, and Azaz Syed, a Dawn reporter whose house was shot at in early 2010, are convinced that the ISI was involved and that Shahzad’s slaying was a clear message to back off.

“Many journalists now feel very shaken,” Cheema said. “If they pick me up again, I won’t be alive.”

The military establishment has argued through sympathetic media and lawmakers that its interests are synonymous with those of Pakistan.


This age-old response is shortsighted, some said.

“It’s very necessary that the army has some serious introspection,” said Talet Masood, a retired general. “Everyone wants a strong national defense, but you can’t do it by hiding your weakness.”

The military has also faced growing criticism from U.S. congressmen since Bin Laden’s killing over its trustworthiness and what Washington is getting for its billions of dollars in assistance. In a surprise visit here last month, outgoing CIA Director Leon E. Panetta reportedly showed satellite photographs to top ISI brass suggesting that militants at two bomb factories had been alerted and escaped hours before a U.S. rocket attack.

Pakistan has expressed its mounting displeasure with the U.S. by sending home American military advisors, stepping up anti-U.S. rhetoric, arresting CIA informants who allegedly assisted in the Bin Laden raid and limiting intelligence sharing.

Few expect a significant shift in Pakistan’s military-civilian balance anytime soon, given a relatively weak parliament, civic society and judiciary after decades of military domination.

“The almighty agencies need to be held accountable,” said Syed Ali, a blogger and youth group leader, who alleged that he’s received death threats from the ISI. “But parliament needs to pass laws putting them [truly] under civilian authority.”

The military, which remains an attractive career path amid high unemployment, retains widespread support, particularly in rural areas and among the lower-middle class.


“It’s very important the army gets whatever it wants,” said Mohammed Omar, 40, a Karachi shopkeeper. “As long as the borders are safe and there’s economic prosperity, accountability isn’t important.”

Perhaps Pakistan’s best hope, say those favoring reform, is a slow, steady rebalancing.

“Our system’s gotten corrupted,” said Faraz Mohammad, 28, a Karachi banker. “We really need a change.”