In an extraordinary development, unprecedented in the annals of Pakistan's troubled history, almost a hundred retired senior military officers, including former chiefs of staff, met Jan 31 in Islamabad and denounced President Pervez Musharraf - till recently the chief of army staff - and described him as the "main obstacle to democracy" in the run-up to the Feb 18 national elections.
This is the second such meeting of the group, which calls itself the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society (PESS), and in their first meeting on Jan 22, they collectively exhorted the beleaguered president to step down, given the increasing turbulence within the country and the resentment against him that was building up. Lt Gen (rtd) Faiz Ali Chisti, leader of the Society who was part of the Gen Zia ul-Haq regime (1977-88), added: "He (Musharraf) should resign his office of the president. This is in the supreme national interest and makes it incumbent on him to step down."
But the provocation for the second meeting and the strong denunciation of Jan 31 were the intemperate remarks by Gen Musharraf during his recent tour of Europe. In a media interview (The Financial Times), when asked about the emerging criticism from the retired 'fauj', Musharraf replied dismissively: "They are insignificant personalities...Most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out. They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them". This is extreme both by way of accuracy and the protocols that govern relationships within the uniformed fraternity in a state like Pakistan.
Many of the officers who raised their voices the first time around are far senior in service to Gen Musharraf, such as Air Marshal Asghar Khan, Gen Aslam Beg, Lt. Gen Talat Masood et al, and hence the question of their being 'kicked out' is an absurd claim. And for all Musharraf's personal foibles, lack of basic courteousness to his own 'biradri' (fraternity) has not been one of them - till now. And the straw that may have broken the camel's back was that he chose to be so derisive of his seniors and peers in distant Europe.
The riposte has been dramatic. Gen Musharraf is now being cast as the 'main obstacle' to democracy and more ominously for the Pakistani president, the Society has decided to support the ousted Supreme Court judges, lawyers and journalists in their demands. This stand by the retired fauji community comes in the wake of yet another extraordinary development - former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry writing an open letter (Jan 30) to the US secretary of state and other heads of government, where he has described President Musharraf as someone who 'claims to be the head of state'. In a detailed rebuttal of the public charges leveled against him, Chaudhry has cautioned the West against falling for the 'charm offensive' of the commando general and to save Pakistan from further Musharraf machinations.
Reports suggest that PESS has also decided to 'apologize' to the Pakistani people for their role, while being in uniform, in imposing martial law over the last 60 years and preventing the nurturing of a true democracy and people's power. If this show of belated but welcome contrition gains support in Pakistan, it would indeed be the third extraordinary development - a mega mea culpa in the South Asian context. The Daily Times, a leading Pakistani daily, in a feisty editorial (Feb 1) has listed the many apologies that are due from the more significant members of PESS going back to 1956, when then Major Abdul Majid Malik assisted Gen Ayub Khan in the first military coup of Pakistan.
It adds sagely: "The biggest crime to which many retired generals must confess, and then apologize for, is the policy of seeking 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan because the consequences of this policy are now threatening to actually spell the end of Pakistan itself. In fact, some of these retired generals are too tainted for mouthing principles that the civil society of Pakistan has decided to uphold. They should keep their zip up unless they are ready to give up what they have enjoyed over the years and are still enjoying at the cost of the nation."
Thus the attack against Gen Musharraf may well be the beginning of a major internal churning and introspection that Pakistan is experiencing. The sad truth is that the Pakistan military led by Gen Ayub Khan and his more ambitious successors down to Gen Musharraf have subsumed the Pakistani state and distorted the equipoise of its internal institutional structures and civil society to consolidate their own primacy. Going beyond the seizure of political power, the Pakistan military has also acquired enormous economic and fiscal clout and as Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa has ably documented in her book, there is now a Pakistan Military Inc firmly in place that cannot be wished away.
In the catharsis that is expected to follow, one major actor who must share the culpability is the US. Successive occupants of the White House over the last 50 years have placed the US national interest above that of the Pakistani people by supporting the Pakistan military. And the results have been disastrous - both for the perceived US interest and the more abiding one of the hapless Pakistani people. This includes the genocide of 1971, which is often obscured in the larger South Asian narrative.
The onus for managing this internal turbulence in the Pakistani 'fauj' - both serving and retired - will be on the current army chief, Gen Pervez Kayani. Dealing with internal security as manifest in the jehadi challenges along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border will remain an urgent tactical priority, but allowing the democratic process to gradually take strong root, with no interference by the Pakistan military, ought to be the long-term strategic objective. The challenge for Gen Kayani will be to manage a complex transition that will enable the transformation that Pakistan's internal structures warrant for the gradual and perhaps contested move towards non-military governance.
The primacy of the army in the domestic matrix of Pakistan cannot be changed by civilian fiat and the virulence of religious radicalism and jehadi fervor has compounded the Pakistani dilemma. History tells us that no military has ever gone back to the barracks voluntarily and while the current stand taken by PESS will add to President Musharraf's many woes, for it marks the beginning of the loss of confidence by the very institution that was his power base till end 2007, it could still be the nascent silver lining to a very dark cloud that hangs over Pakistan.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)