In his public first address during the commissioning parade at Pakistan Naval Academy, Gen Munir said, “Pakistan is passing through one of her most critical junctures and this requires development of national consensus by all stakeholders to sail through the confronted challenges of economy and terrorism”. His worries regarding Pakistan’s failing economy as well as escalating terrorism are well founded, especially the latter as defeating terrorism is the constitutional responsibility of the army.
Economy and defence are undoubtedly interrelated, but however well-intentioned it may be, for an army chief to give a public call for “development of national consensus by all stakeholders”, is tantamount to transgression into political and legislative arenas. So, could this be a premeditated move on Gen Munir’s part to send a clear message that he has no intention whatsoever of honouring his predecessor Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s public assurance that Pakistan army had resolved to keep away from politics?
Rawalpindi seems to have an obsession for delving into Pakistan’s economic affairs. In 2019, the then army chief Gen Bajwa held private meetings with business moguls purportedly to find ways to boost Pakistan’s economy. He also became a member of the newly created National Development Council for setting the country’s long-term economic policy, and while reporting this, Arab News aptly captioned the article, “New council puts Pakistan army chief in economic driving seat”, [Emphasis added], that said it all!
So, it’s not at all surprising that Gen Munir has decreed that economic issues will very much continue to remain under the army’s jurisdiction and Rawalpindi would not hesitate to intervene on fiscal matters. However, while Rawalpindi keeps expressing serious concerns about the country’s rapidly worsening economic conditions, its own defence expenditure remains inordinately bloated.
A recent report published in The Express Tribune mentions that in the period from July to November 2022, cash-strapped Pakistan incurred an unbelievable expenditure of PKR [Pakistani Rupee] 2.2 trillion on debt servicing and defence, which is 107 per cent of the federal government’s net income.
Payment of interest on debt and expenditure on defence are unavoidable. Yet, while adjustments in the case of debt servicing is difficult, there’s always a scope of substantial expenditure reduction on defence through prioritisation based on realistic assessment.
However, despite Pakistan’s rapidly worsening financial situation, Rawalpindi has spent PKR 517 billion [which is 28 per cent more than the expenditure during the same period last year], and this princely amount excludes military pensions and expenses on the armed forces development programme.
Since the Pakistan Army was in ceasefire with the Indian Army and TTP, this extraordinary spike in defence expenditure during the current fiscal is curious. So, the message of the Pakistan Army chief is clear- while everyone in Pakistan should tighten their purse strings, this ‘advice’ doesn’t apply to Rawalpindi!
On the issue of terrorism, Gen Munir has indirectly implied that it is burgeoning due to lack of “national consensus”, and not because of Rawalpindi’s inexplicable apathy. Coming at a time when there’s a massive public outcry against unabated terrorist activities in Pakistan, the army chief’s call is really confusing as the people of Pakistan have always wholeheartedly supported military action against terrorists.
On the other hand, it’s Rawalpindi that needs to explain its highly questionable actions. For instance, despite TTP’s extremely dismal history of honouring ceasefire agreements, why did Rawalpindi still enter into a ceasefire with this terrorist group and thus gave it time to refit and reorganise? Why did it unconditionally agree to release 100 jailed TTP fighters? When TTP continued to target security forces and kill civilians, why didn’t the Pakistan army abrogate the ceasefire?
Most importantly, when residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [KP] went on a more than one-month long anti-TTP protest during July-August this year, and this issue was even raised in the National Assembly, why did Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] outrightly reject reports of large scale TTP presence in KP terming the same “grossly exaggerated and misleading”?
Furthermore, once ISPR acknowledged that “Presence of [a] small number of armed men on [a] few mountain tops between Swat and Dir has been observed [which are] located far away from population”, why didn’t the army drive out these terrorists?
By failing to do so, isn’t Rawalpindi guilty of abdicating its constitutional responsibility of ensuring security of its own countrymen? Isn’t it also true that news of Pakistan army holding dialogue with TTP was kept under wraps [even from legislatures], and came into public domain only after the then Prime Minister Imran Khan mentioned the same during a TV interview?
Pakistan’s economy is in tatters but this has had no effect on Pakistan army’s old habit of lavish expenditure in equipping itself to ward off a non-existent enemy. The people of Pakistan want terrorism to end, but Rawalpindi believes in covertly mediating with terrorists, ‘buying’ peace by accepting ludicrous demands like unconditional release of convicted fighters and watering down the gravity of terrorist threats.
So, when Rawalpindi’s own outlook on economy and terrorism remains at a complete variance with public aspirations, isn’t it ironic that Gen Munir is exhorting others to “develop national consensus” on these issues?