The message in black Urdu lettering on a white sack of supplies for flood relief says: “In tough times, the Pakistan Army is with you”.
The powerful military has taken the lead in providing relief and in doing so has enhanced its prestige and influence. And while nobody expects it to take over, the renewed clout of the army is perhaps the biggest political change brought by the floods, one likely to define its relationship with, and leverage over, the civilian government for years to come, said Reuters news agency.
“The military has in fact expanded its interests through the distribution of relief aid,” said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “There is nothing today which does not fall within the military’s purview.”
The army, which became deeply unpopular in the final years of former president Pervez Musharraf, had already clawed back considerable influence over foreign and security policy. But in the flood relief it has become very visible as the only national institution with the manpower, the organisational skills and the equipment to help some 20 million affected by the floods.
At a boys’ college turned warehouse in Multan, the main city in south Punjab, soldiers work around the clock to assemble packages of emergency relief.
The commander in charge of the area has been on the go since the floods hit a month before, says Major Farooq Feroze, the officer in charge of public relations in Multan. “He is supervising each and every movement,” he says. “He keeps us all alert. He himself is sleepless.”
Technically, the army is working on the orders of the government, and at the operational level, civilian and military authorities are working together closely. “There is co-operation going on at every level,” says Brigadier Zahid Usman at a field turned helicopter base in the town of Jampur in south Punjab. “We know where they are going; they know where we are going.”
But the subtlety of that message is often lost when much of the media is sympathetic to the army and where security officials grumble privately about the failings of democracy and the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Keeping government on back foot
The army has no incentive to take over when the country faces so many problems, and it also benefits from having a civilian face authorising military operations against Taliban militants, for which public support is essential, analysts say.
One security official noted that the situation was considerably better than in Afghanistan. “There is a government here,” he said. “It’s not ideal. It has great room for improvement, but it is functional, working and in power legally. It’s better than the political dispensation in Afghanistan.”
Yet at the same time, the army is in a stronger position to call the shots if the government is seen to be weak, and to deflect any attempt by civilian authorities to limit its power.
According to defence analyst Siddiqa, the army was deliberately stressing the inefficiencies of the government to keep it, and Zardari, on the back foot. “It is not because they want to get rid of him, they want to send a message,” she said. “It’s more of a warning shot right now.” This is almost like pre-poll rigging. Let the government serve its term. You destabilise it and keep it destabilised, she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2010.