Yes, we without foreign aid

The army eats up a huge chunk of our national budget, which would be better spent on education, development projects.

Amir Qureshi August 22, 2011
Unbeknown to most, the Pakistan Army does not need to adhere to unreasonable American demands because of its dependence on American aid. The Pakistan army has enough financial resources to meet its most immediate needs – the operations in FATA – and to completely modernize its creaky armoury. Simply put, the Pakistan Army doesn’t have to wince at American threats to withhold aid.

Never mind the TV pundits who warn of doomsday lest America stops giving us aid, because it might actually herald some desperately-needed reforms. Let’s look at one of the least obscure illustrations of our military’s largess: Lahore cantonment was originally established by the British army with the purpose to ward off local insurgents and maintain hegemony over vital areas. A couple of decades after independence, Lahore’s cantonment still served its original purpose - being a good distance away from the city center and adequately guarded.

With the formation of the Lahore Improvement Trust (predecessor to the Lahore Development Authority), the area between the cantonment and the city center was developed into an affluent neighborhood, Gulberg, with a well-planned network of roads and market places.

Consequently, Lahore cantonment became very much part of the main city. You have to cross it for the best way to reach the Allama Iqbal International Airport. Moreover, it has a stadium, complete with upscale boutiques, and restaurants. Additionally, it is home to some of the richest people in the city. It’s also home to Lahore’s Corp Commander, Generals and other senior army officers. In short, Lahore Cantonment is the priciest piece of real estate in the city.

From a defense perspective, the location of Lahore cantonment makes no sense. It is a high-value target for terrorists – evident from the terrorist bombings in the area. Major roads leading to the cantonment are meticulously guarded, which is also a major cause of contention for area residents who have to submit to regular security checks. Yet, there are at least a hundred easier ways for terrorists to sneak into the area- one of them would be to just walk over from underneath one of the railway tracks running across the cantonment.

With the exception of a few former British colonies, no modern army maintains its presence in city centers because they are easy targets. It puts the lives of civilians in danger in times of war when an enemy’s aerial bombardments are likely to cause significant civilian casualties, given the close proximity of military targets and civilian neighborhoods.

Add to that is the Army’s infamous inadequacy – exemplified by its recent failures to quell restive North-western parts of the country. It’s pretty evident that the Pakistan Army is in desperate need of modernization, not just in terms of mind-sets, but also military hardware. The main battle rifle used by our soldiers is especially lacking in efficiency in harsh battle conditions. Some of our battle tanks and heavy armory are archaic. Most of the Army’s training schools haven’t revised their syllabi and training manuals in decades, and these are only the apparent maladies affecting the armed forces.

While the army eats up a huge chunk of our national budget, which would be better spent on education and development projects – leading to sustained economic growth, we are essentially spending our hard-earned money to feed an ineffectual institution, too set in its ways to adapt to the changing nature of warfare.

So here’s a totally unoriginal idea, yet all the more necessary given our dwindling coffers; to set things right: sell off the Army’s exorbitantly expensive real estate holdings and move the cantonment further away from the city. Such a cantonment can be a small city in and of itself, well guarded and appropriate for a resource-starved country. Then repeat this process all over the country, and perhaps establish some new, much-needed cantonments in the Northwest and South East. Once in the hands of the private sector, the Lahore Cantonment would create jobs and private wealth – which has a better chance of trickling down to the middle class than if it were to remain in the hands of an overbearing institution.

While we harp on our bureaucrats and politicians for their lavish lifestyles that stave off reforms that can unhinge us from our dependence on foreign aid, austerity measures really need to begin with the Pakistan army. Let’s face it, it is the army’s dependence on foreign aid, more than anything else, that is keeping us from taking a more assertive role in regional affairs that have far-reaching consequences.
Amir Qureshi A professional who works in the development sector of Pakistan after having worked for over five years in the corporate sector in the United States.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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