This piece has been inspired by a picture in a reputed English Daily’s front page recently, showing three soldiers in combat gear, SMGs in hand, standing at a gate of the Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium to provide it the necessary security for PSL’s cricket match. Two things came to my mind. First, is it the Army’s job to take on such mundane tasks while it has plenty on its plate providing security against internal and external threats, terrorism, etc.? Second: where was the vast security apparatus that the government of Punjab, claiming to be a model of good governance, has at its disposal. Thousands of policemen, the Punjab Constabulary, the Elite Force, Dolphin Force, you name it, Punjab’s government has it. The Punjab government can also call upon the Punjab Rangers for security support if necessary. Although the Rangers come under the Federal Govt., it should not have been any problem to obtain this force considering that both the Federal and Provincial Governments are from the PML(N).
The Pakistan Army’s involvement in such mundane tasks started in the 1950s, when the Lahore- based Army Division was tasked with organising and conducting the Horse and Cattle show in Fortress Stadium, which is the essentially the Punjab Government’s baby. The Army took on this responsibility for several years, till the show became a kind of dead dodo. With increase of terrorism, it seems that it may not ever be held again. Over time, the Army was tasked to get involved in checking electricity thefts on a nation-wide scale. This lasted for a relatively short period till the Army was pulled out, to the great relief to those who were supposed to be doing such a task. The electricity distribution companies (DISCOs) have huge human resources at its disposal to thwart theft, yet they are unable or unwilling to perform this task, hence the huge ‘losses’ remain as before. To make up for these losses the honest electricity users have been burdened with high tariff rates and surcharges. The biggest losses occur in FATA, where tribesmen do not allow the meters to be installed, taking free electricity as a birth right. Then there are the big shots all over the country whose premises are off limits for meter readers, as are industrialists who plunder electricity in cohorts with DISCO’s staff.
In the late 1990s the Army took on a pilot project to carry out a survey of ghost schools and teachers in the Punjab. This proved to be an exercise in futility, and had to be called off because of the appalling facts that came to light (the biggest challenge in this regard is Sindh where ghost schools and teachers thrive because of rampant corruption and the involvement of the feudal lords).
All over the world, it is a common practice for the Army’s assistance being sought to come the aid of civilian governments when natural or man-made disasters occur, be they floods, earthquakes, major train crashes, etc. Being a highly disciplined body of men and women, the Army has at its disposal huge human and material resources which can be operationalised at a very short notice. Ever since Partition, the Army has provided relief in cash and kind to mitigate the suffering of its civilian brethren. During the early 1950s when parts of Punjab were hit by floods, the Army successfully took on relief operations. My late father, then a major in Lahore- based 6th Lancers, was awarded C-in-C’s Commendation for his role in the relief operations. In the last four years the Army’s assistance has been sought during elections to provide security at the polling stations. Every year during Moharram, the Army is kept on standby should sectarian violence break out. Next thing you know; the Army may have to provide security to Lady Health Workers as they go about administering Polio vaccine. Its latest task includes coming to the rescue when participants of Imran Khan’s/ Tahir ul Quadri’s goons attacked PTV’s headquarters in Islamabad. 111 Brigade came to the rescue of the Government and got it vacated. (hats off to the Brigade Commander who tactfully handled the situation extremely well, with not a single bullet being fired). One of the latest events in which the Army was called upon is to negotiate with the goons who had taken Islamabad hostage during the infamous Faizabad Dharna.
In my youth Western movies were very popular amongst youngsters from English medium boarding schools. As the Whites colonised much of the American Wild West, a series of forts would be built to station the troops. Whenever there was trouble between the Native Red Indians and the White settlers, the call would go out, “send for the Cavalry”. Now in Pakistan, whenever there is a natural or man-made disaster, the order goes out, “send for the Army”. The fear is that when the civilian governments, Federal and Provincial alike, depend on the Army to pull out their chestnuts from the fire, a day may soon come that an Army Chief may decide that since he is taking on all the civilian government’s responsibilities, he may as well take over the country. One can only hope and pray that this day doesn’t ever come and the civilian government gets their act together.
End Note: While the Fauji Foundation, Army Welfare Trust, Shaheen Foundation and Bahria Foundation are doing remarkably well in generating funds for ex-servicemen’s welfare despite taking much flak from civilians, as a retired professional soldier and son of another highly professional officer, it pains me to see some servicemen being involved in mundane commercial activities. During a visit to the US in connection with induction of Cobra Attack Helicopters in 1982, I came upon a signboard in the Presidio of San Francisco which read “SOLDIERS SHOULD BE SOLDIERING”; a very apt slogan indeed. Pakistan’s soldiers should be soldiering too, instead of acting as shopkeepers at so called “Welfare Shops”. They have plenty on their plate guarding our borders and taking on domestic security duties. I at least was always, and still am, against soldiers being employed as shopkeepers to generate funds of which there is little or no audit. I bet these welfare shops don’t pay any taxes and probably don’t pay for the use of electricity. Instead, soldiers should be training for what they have been recruited or commissioned.
The writer is a retired brigadier. He is the only retired officer to have been allowed to go parachuting with PMA and PAF cadets. He made his 44th jump at the age of 66, including 11 jumps after his 60th birthday. He was an engineer and pilot who served in Army Aviation for twenty years.