A bunch of retired servicemen don’t want Musharraf to be tried for treason for imposing the unconstitutional November 3 Emergency in 2007. They’d like the government to ignore the orders and clear directives of the Supreme Court, and take back the case lodged against the former army chief under Article 6. Trying him for treason in a civilian court, in their opinion, will tarnish the prestige of the armed forces and send a demoralising message to the defenders of our frontiers. Even if one were to put aside the constitutional requirements for the pleasure of these gentlemen, the question here is: Will it?

The legal and political points raised by speakers at the meeting hosted by Pakistan First in Lahore yesterday don’t amount to much. Like the political leaders protesting the trial of Musharraf on the basis of many similar, and equally flawed, points, they are only interested in protecting Musharraf from being made accountable. Addressing the gathering of some 500 senior and junior retired servicemen, retired Admiral Shahid said it in so many words, vowing to continue the struggle for the protection of the former dictator. He even went to the extent of asking the participants to move the royal Saudi government to play a role in rescuing him from the courts like it did for Nawaz Sharif in 2000.

Those seeking to protect Musharraf might be straight-forward like Admiral Shahid or well-versed in political sophistry like the MQM and PML-Q, his partners in crime, but the bottom-line for all of them, essentially, is that the trial must not go on. Instead of raising their various points through Musharraf’s lawyers in the court and trusting the court to decide upon them, they’d like to disrupt the legal course on one pretext or another, and get him off the hook- even if it means whisking him away to exile under a clandestine deal. Wouldn’t that hurt the prestige of the armed forces and demoralise the defenders of our frontiers?

Of course no Pakistani in his right mind would like to demoralise the brave and dedicated defenders of our frontiers. We need them to fight the militant mercenaries and extremists unleashed upon our society and keep a menacing neighbour with dreams of regional hegemony in check. We have seen them come to the rescue of citizens in times of national calamities and efficiently assist the civilian government in a number of national tasks, whether it is the maintenance of security during elections or building roads and bridges in daunting terrains. At a time when our country is confronted with tough security challenges, the importance of Pakistan military, and of providing the institution with moral and whatever logistical support it requires, cannot be overstated. At the same time, the modern institution must not be confused with some primitive tribe.

The prestige of the military is enhanced because of the dedication with which it performs its constitutional duties, and it is the remarkable courage and discipline of the armed forces in the performance of these tasks that earns it respect in the eyes of Pakistanis. However, the importance and prestige of the institution must not be construed by those leading it as a license to do as they please, treating the constitution as a mere piece of paper and their institution as a crutch for their personal whims and ambitions. In fact, unconstitutional conduct of adventurous and power-drunk generals has compromised the prestige of the institution more than any other factor.

Certainly, it is very tribal to protect one’s own regardless of their crimes. The army chief is not like a tribal chief, free to act out his whims and make his own rules. Besides, lest we forget, Musharraf was not only the Chief of the Army Staff but also a self-appointed Chief Executive and, later, the President of Pakistan. Had he confined himself to his constitutional responsibilities as Chief of the Army Staff, there would be no reason to try him for treason. The prestige of the military had actually nose-dived due to his actions and his penchant for dragging his institution in non-military matters. After all, he did not hold a referendum in the military on whether he should declare the emergency. So why should the institution, as a whole, bear the brunt of his rash decisions and quest for absolute power?

Instead of calling for scrapping Musharraf’s treason trial, those concerned about the prestige of the armed forces must push for resolving the issues of missing persons and ISI’s political engineering in light of the Supreme Court orders. These are two other areas where the role of the military has been controversial, with serious questions about the constitutionality of the conduct of those calling the shots in uniform. It does not help the image of the defenders of our frontiers to be engaged in manipulating the electoral process, betting on some horses while blacklisting others. Similarly, disappearing and holding citizens illegally has created misgivings about the institution that is perceived as a state within a state. Sorting out the mess around these issues will bring clarity among future military leaders about their constitutional domain, and about the constitutionality of orders from above among those following them.

The idea is not to weaken the institution whose strength is crucial for the future of Pakistan, but to bring it within the ambit of the constitution, and, by doing so, strengthening its capacity to focus on and perform its constitutional duties more effectively. To brush these sensitive matters under the carpet of ‘prestige’ would actually be counter-productive. It might save the skin of a former chief, but it will strengthen the negative perceptions about the institution.

A whole campaign is being built around these issues, a campaign which is designed to discredit the institution as a whole. The unconstitutional conduct of some generals is being employed to paint the entire military and the brave, disciplined and dedicated personnel of armed forces as villains. Holding the erring generals to account is the best way to ensure that wind is taken out of the sails of this campaign. Not doing so would mean more meat for it.

The writer is a freelance columnist.