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Pakistan’s government plays second fiddle to the army

Article by Ella Rolfe

November 5, 2009

The government, meanwhile, seems to be clutching at straws to retain an impression of its control over the population. This is reflected in recent government orders, which contribute to a growing erosion of civil liberties. But the government is simply taking advantage of a prevailing, army led narrative of Pakistani resolve against the Taliban, using this where it can to restrict citizens. Some of the government’s orders can be seen as an attempt to salvage control in a situation where it is decidedly the supporting act.

Despite earlier opposition to the current anti-Taliban operation in South Waziristan, the army has now committed to it and has apparently had some successes. On October 24 it claimed to have captured the hometown of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

The fact that the operation did not begin until the army was ready, despite repeated government statements that it was imminent, illustrates the long-entrenched dominance of Pakistan’s military. Although there is now an elected civilian government, the country is still adapting after a nine-year spell of military rule under ex-General Pervez Musharraf – the latest in a series of military dictatorships which have taken up much of Pakistan’s 62 year history.

The government has presented a much less well organised approach than the army since the beginning of the operation, and seems almost flighty at times. Following the bombing of the Islamic University in the capital Islamabad on October 20, it ordered the closure of all schools nationwide for the rest of the week. This was possibly an over reaction to the bombing of one large, high-profile university in the federal capital – especially given that it did not order the closure of schools in Swat when a significant proportion of them were being bombed by the Taliban last spring. Madrassas – still governed by independent boards despite the government’s efforts to regulate them – mostly remained open. During the period of closure I visited a madrassa in Karachi, where all seemed to be going on as normal.

The government’s apparent lack of control over the narrative of state action was highlighted by the army’s announcement, through its press wing the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), that state schools would re-open the Monday after the university bombing. The government was at that time still saying that the decision on schools would be taken after it had concluded a security review. In another example a few days later, the local government in Bajaur agency on the Afghan border claimed that two major Taliban commanders had been killed in a US drone attack. The army quickly retorted that they had in fact been killed by the detonation of a truck laden with explosives.

Some of the government’s actions recently have been commendable. For instance, there was news from Karachi last week of a foiled bombing attempt, as bomb disposal personnel found and removed a ‘suspicious device’ attached to a car.

But the schools issue shows a government more ready to make orders than to take action. It has now ordered all schools, when they reopen, to increase the height of their walls to a minimum height and hire guards. It has not said it will provide any help with this.

And some government orders seem likely to be neither effective nor necessary. In mid October some provincial governments imposed a ban on pillion riding on motorbikes in most major cities, apparently to reduce suicide bombings. The ban exempts the disabled and women, who form a large proportion of those riding behind the drivers of motorbikes. Although women bombers are still rare in Pakistan so their exemption may not make the ban completely pointless, it does make it seem a slightly arbitrary measure. The ban did not prevent the drive-by shooting of a high ranking army officer in Islamabad on October 22, by two men on a motorbike.

Like the school closures, the ban is another example of a knee-jerk reaction to single incident by the government, with little evidence of real thought behind it. The pillion riding ban in particular attracted wide criticism because it stripped many people of a cheap or fee means of transport.

But there is a more serious side to such government orders. The order to ban pillion riding was made by imposing Section 144 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which prohibits “joining unlawful assembly armed with a deadly weapon”. Although the exact orders made under this provision in the last few weeks have varied between different district authorities and are sometimes unclear, some news channels have reported that the imposition includes a ban on gatherings of more than 4 people. Section 144 has been used to curtail freedom of assembly before, among the anti-government lawyers’ movement earlier in 2009.

With this more sinister turn, the young civilian government is showing its desperation. Lacking the upper hand in the country’s power stakes, it seems to be cracking down on civil freedoms in an attempt to retain a veneer of control.

Even in this, however, it is subservient to the military. Curfews and other restrictions on movement – not part of Section 144 – are enforced by the army, not civilian officials. And media freedom provides a particularly good illustration of the army’s superior control.

There is currently an overwhelming narrative in the media of Pakistani resolve in an anti-Taliban war, of the population standing behind the army. One manifestation of this is increased xenophobia, with killings of foreign militants (for instance several Uzbeks on October 24) always well reported.

The government has made some strong moves to back up this narrative, with increasing arrests and deportations of civilian foreigners – Afghans featuring prominently among them.

But it is to the military, almost exclusively, that the media looks for its content. The ISPR is virtually the only source quoted on the current fighting in the tribal areas, even in the generally more liberal and critical English language media. It is very difficult for journalists to get to the areas on which the ISPR reports focus and so first-hand accounts are not available to news organisations; but there is very little attempt to include non-military voices, let alone those who are against the war. Commentators and analysts are almost always army or ex-army men, and hardly ever criticise current tactics. The media either does not mention army casualties, or contrasts militants ‘killed’ with soldiers ‘martyred’. There is no mention of civilian casualties inflicted by the army.

The media, whether through censorship or self-censorship, is acquiescent to the army’s messages. But this is not the case as regards the government. There is criticism of the government’s handling of the growing crisis of internally displaced people from the combat areas, for example, with reporters openly discussing the lack of adequate facilities in government IDP camps and the disorganised and insufficient efforts to register IDPs.

It is unlikely that journalists prepared to criticise the government in such as way, would toe the army line so conscientiously if they were not forced to do so. The army is clearly in far better control of the national narrative than the government.

Although the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, has repeatedly pledged to rescue the army from the Musharraf era by not getting involved in politics, he may not have much of a choice. In the face of an army used to rule and a government apparently unable to challenge that attitude, Kayani may be allowing his spokesmen to build up a strong lead over the government.

In the long-militarised environment of Pakistan, a country whose identity revolves around a frequently live conflict with its neighbour India, the current civilian government is clearly struggling to maintain the initiative. In civil liberties and in control of the prevailing narrative, the government is playing second fiddle to the army.

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