Pakistan Army's crisis of survival is increasingly evident, with the mood of the people decidedly against continuance of Musharraf and the Army acting as king makers in Islamabad. While Pakistan Army is generally recognized as an army with a state, the uniform has by and large maintained its popularity with the masses except in brief spurts in the 1970's. By deft manipulation of public opinion and taking advantage of a corrupt feudal political leadership the generals have succeeded in holding the reins of power.
However reputation of the Army has suffered a jolt in recent days. A chain of events which were perhaps triggered by sacking and reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has exposed Pakistan's military rulers to the perils of power in an unstable environment.
The Army is facing a grave professional crisis in Waziristan. Over the past month a number of soldiers have been kidnapped by militants groups without a fight. Reports of desertion and refusal to take up arms have been rampant.
Trapping of 150 soldiers in Ladha region in South Waziristan on 28 August has been quite intriguing.
'There are around 150 soldiers and they are trapped in a situation where it will be risky for them to get out without settlement of a dispute between local militants and tribal people,' said a Dawn report. While most of these appear to be from the Frontier Corps, personnel of which are drawn from the tribal areas, there is no reason for officers who have also been held hostage and others especially from the Punjab to surrender to the militants.
The Pakistan army is no doubt in an extremely embarrassing position. It is time that the Army leadership gets its act together and asks the soldiers to stand up and fight the Taliban as each day is likely to be crucial. The militants have been using army hostages as bargaining chips to seek cessation of army operations and withdrawal of deployment of security forces from the area. This clearly indicated that this was at the instigation of the Taliban high command and the Al Qaeda leadership which was afraid of losing a well established sanctuary in Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. (FATA).
Around 250 militants and 60 Pakistani troops have been killed in just over one month of fighting near the Afghan border, the military said on 24 August. 'Some 250 militants have been killed in operations in the tribal districts in the past four to six weeks,' said chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad.
All this is happening as the militants in Waziristan continued to launch sporadic raids and ambushes mainly targeted against security forces in the area. Earlier reports indicated that 'Urdu speaking Taliban' which included possibly militants operating in Punjab and Kashmir were involved in control of the shrine of Pushtoon freedom fighter Haji Sahib Turangzai and an adjacent mosque in Mohmand Agency. Ambushing military convoys was standard tactics particularly in North and South Waziristan supplemented by suicide bombs.
Instead of standing up and fighting with the assistance of moderates, Pakistan Army continued to attempt to quell the militancy affected areas by adopting the jirga strategy. This involved engaging local tribal chiefs to induce the Taliban to desist from providing sanctuary to foreign militants. Negotiations were held throughout August and September with a number of tribal leaders in Bajaur, Mohmand, North and South Waziristan, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur Agency.
South and North Waziristan did not observe Independence Day for the first time in the country's history. The FATA Grand Alliance staged a 'peace march' from Khyber House to the Peshawar Press Club. Led by its convener, Abdul Karim Mehsud, tribesmen from all seven agencies carried banners and placards demanding the withdrawal of the army from the tribal agencies, as well as restoration of peace.
Amidst all this mayhem, the 102nd Corps Commanders Conference was held in Islamabad during the month chaired by President General Pervez Musharraf on August 3rd. Vice Chief of Army Staff Gen Ahsan Saleem Hayat, corps commanders, principal staff officers and senior military officers attended the conference.
Given that the Pakistan Army has controlling stakes in governance in the country, the Corps Commanders conference is considered as an indicator of the way political winds are likely to blow.
The conference reiterated the army's resolve to continue to provide full support to the federal government (Implying Musharraf) for continuation of progress as an enlightened, moderate and economically strong nation. While the Corps Commanders caucus was considered a collegiate body of collective decision making earlier, of late it is becoming an autocratic institution as the differential in service between the younger corps commanders and President Musharraf or even Hayat has grown quite wide. There is apparently support to President Musharraf from the Corps Commanders bloc but this may not be drawn from depth of understanding of the army as an establishment with stakes in the country's governance and would be more in the nature of obedience to the high command. This is also a reason for general weakening of the perception of the army's image in the public eye. So unless the Army quickly gets its act together, the consequences for not just Pakistan but for the entire South Asian region are likely to be grave.