Pakistan crisis puts strain on army

Pakistan crisis puts strain on army


Islamabad: Pakistan’s army has stood solidly behind Pervez Musharraf since the general took power eight years ago, but the crisis engulfing the nation has triggered disquiet in the ranks, experts and former officers say.

No one is seriously suggesting the military ruler is in danger of a coup -- the army has a long history of intervening in Pakistan politics but has never yet toppled one of its own.

Nevertheless, analysts point to two crunch issues. One is the political turmoil caused by Musharraf’s state of emergency. The other is an Islamic insurgency spilling out of the northwest bringing suicide bombings into Pakistan’s heartland.

The question is whether, and where, a tipping point might come. “It’s a very prickly situation at the moment," said retired general Talat Masood, now a military analyst.

“The rank and file reacts as much as anybody else in this country. Nobody wants to be in this crisis," agreed Ikram Sehgal, a former major and editor of Defence Journal, a monthly magazine on the armed forces.

“It’s a very disciplined force and there have been no cracks visible up to now, even though there’s disquiet and apprehension at the turn of events," he told AFP.

Musharraf, a former commando who combines the roles of president and army chief of staff, is utterly confident. “The army is fully and completely behind me," he has declared. “I command from the front. I do not command from the riding stables."

Rumours swept Islamabad two days after the emergency began that he had been put under house arrest by his army deputy. It was quickly laughed off, but the speculation said something about the atmosphere gripping the country.

The army “does not do politics," its spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad insisted. “This is not a banana republic. “We are an institution of the state and we follow whatever orders are given by the government. We are always loyal to our high command."

Masood agreed the army would naturally support its commander-in-chief. But he said it was worried by the political crisis, feeling it distracted from efforts to curb militancy and that without the support of the people, it would be impossible to tackle the insurgents.

The crunch could come if Musharraf were to order an army crackdown on public demonstrations. “I do not think they would do that," he said. “Against a civilian protest I am absolutely convinced they will not do it."

Pakistan’s military is a proud constituency. Around half a million strong, it controls the country’s nuclear arsenal and sees itself as the guardian of national integrity -- fighting three wars with India since 1947.

Yet it has suffered a demoralizing surge of internal attacks since raiding an Al-Qaeda-linked mosque here in July. The bombers have hit military convoys, elite commandos tasked with tackling Al-Qaeda and Rawalpindi where Musharraf has his army offices -- just some of a record 43 suicide attacks across the country this year.

Lacking morale and decent equipment, many rank-and-file troops had little enthusiasm for tackling an elusive enemy with whom they shared many religious sentiments, Nawaz wrote in an editorial in the Daily Times.

If emergency rule does not enable insurgents to be defeated, “the army sadly may become the key to effecting yet another change, to restore the transition to democracy that Musharraf once promised."

But Sehgal insisted the senior hierarchy was solidly behind Musharraf, saying: “I don’t think they are even close to a tipping point at the moment."

He said the army disliked the judiciary, one of Musharraf’s targets under the emergency, and had little sympathy for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who only returned from exile last month following an amnesty on graft charges.