Generals face harsh criticism as NA passes defence budget
By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: The opposition PML-N raised on Saturday sharp questions about the performance of Pakistan’s military in recent years, with one senior lawmaker calling it confidence-shaking, before the National Assembly approved the defence budget of over Rs505 billion.
It was during debates on more than 200 opposition cut motions on demands for grants for two federal ministries and two divisions that the military role came under what was probably the severest criticism during a budget discussion in the country’s parliamentary history.
This is because “Pakistan’s people are now compelled (to ask questions)”, the PML-N’s main speaker on the subject and former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister, Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan, said in a pointed speech before another prominent party figure and former minister, Ahsan Iqbal, and a couple of back-benchers also came hard on the role of generals for involvement in politics since first military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan seized power in 1958.
“Pakistan’s defence failures for some years have shaken the people of Pakistan,” Sardar Mehtab said as he accused the General Headquarters of imposing its will on domestic and foreign policy issues. “In the past few years, particularly in the past one year, people’s confidence has been badly affected,” he added.
This was the latest of a series of attacks on the military leadership in the lower house from the country’s largest opposition party since the presentation of the budget for fiscal 2011-12 early this month.
Leader of opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s was only a subdued criticism when he opened the general debate on the budget on June 6, but two other senior PML-N members, Khwaja Mohammad Asif and Ms Tehmina Daultana, came out with strident attacks in their speeches afterwards in what seemed to be a party policy, which attracted the charge, in a statement of a June 9 corps commanders’ conference, of a showing “conceptual biases” to run down the armed forces.
Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar came out with only a brief ridicule of what he called Sardar Mehtab’s “drum-beat” and politicisation of the situation and, while declining to go into politics, said the government would make every effort to strengthen the country’s defence, before the house rejected all 34 cut motions and approved the defence ministry’s demands, including the largest of Rs495 billion for defence services.
A total of 30 demands for grants worth about Rs653.4 billion was approved – Rs505.7 for the defence ministry, Rs141.97 billion for cabinet and establishment divisions and over Rs5.7 billion for the communications ministry.
Sardar Mehtab said the security policy bequeathed by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf had made the previously safe Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal region unsafe, besides plunging Balochistan into military operations and that the May 2 US commando raid that killed Osma bin Laden at his Abbottabad hideout as well as militant attacks on the GHQ in 2009 and on Mehran Naval base in Karachi last month had “shaken Pakistan’s foundations and shattered the feeling of security”.
He regretted that despite prevailing poverty in the country, the generals were said to be “owning 25 to 50 crore rupees” at retirement and demanded that salaries and perks should be not more than those of their counterparts in neighbouring India.
The PML-N member also opposed presently shelved plans to shift the GHQ from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, which he said should only be a civilian city – and was later reminded by the defence minister of a statement by Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that it would not be done for now due to lack of funds.
Mr Ahsan Iqbal, who said he would salute ordinary soldiers for their role in the defence of the country and recalled what he saw as political motives of all the four military coups since 1958, called for accountability of those who he said used security institutions for politics so nobody could dare do it in the future.
His another senior party colleague, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, called for more transparency of the defence budget, which he said would strengthen rather than weaken the defence services, while a Musharraf-era minister, Zahid Hamid, wanted the house to be told of more non-classified information about the defence budget.
One PML-N back-bencher, Ms Qudsia Arshad, in an apparent contradiction of some of her party members’ observations, regretted criticism of the military, which she said was the only institution looking after the country’s defence. And later, when asked by Speaker Fehmida Mirza that if she were of this opinion, then why she had become a party to cut motions, Ms Arshad said she was against any cut in the defence budget.
Another PML-N back-bencher, Tahira Aurangzeb, withdrew a cut motion much after moving it. More demands will be taken up when the house meets at 4pm on Monday.