Pakistan’s skewed priorities

Confronted with a rising chorus of calls to cut ‘wasteful’ defence expenditure, the Pakistan government goes ahead and signs a billion dollar deal with Sweden for the purchase of six SAAB early warning aircraft. It could be forgiven if this deal had been signed before calamity struck. But, no, it was signed in mid-October, a good seven days after the biggest quake in Pakistan’s history. Hand it to the powers that be for brilliant sense of timing.

Calls for cuts in defence spending are not calculated to amuse any military establishment. But this is a matter of balancing priorities. President Musharraf is touchy over the issue. When asked about cutting the defence budget, he rejected it outright arguing that the earthquake and security were two different things. Perhaps he is missing the point. The growing chorus of calls is not for indiscriminate defence cuts but for avoiding ‘unnecessary’ spending. Didn’t the Swedish government have the sense to realise that such a deal at such a time would lead to public outcry?

If only this was the only deal. No such luck as the government is still pledged to buy 70 F-16s for $5 billion. It’s safe to guess that our US friends wouldn’t be pleased if we have second thoughts about this deal. At a time of budding rapprochement with India, we don’t really need them. But more importantly, against the backdrop of the earthquake, the rationale for having them can be explained neither to God nor man.

We actually need helicopters (50) and mules (500) to bring succour to the uncounted thousands still battling cold and hunger. If the defence ministry went about buying 50 helicopters, would a single soul in Pakistan object to that? As the response to the earthquake has shown, it is capable of great things. But it shouldn’t be taken for granted or have its intelligence insulted at every turning on the road.

But when national priorities are skewed, the army catches the blame. With engineers working tirelessly to open blocked roads, aviators flying their helicopters to the limit, mules carrying relief supplies to cut-off communities, you would think the army would be earning praise for all this hard work. It is not, or not as much as it should, primarily because of that fatal initial delay in reaching the stricken areas.

But who is to blame? Deployment of troops is the province of the high command. If the army was slow to arrive in the quake-hit areas, this was a failure of command. General Musharraf now says relief deployment took time because army units had to be moved from Gujranwala. Weren’t troops deployed in Azad Kashmir already? Weren’t there troops in Murree, Rawalpindi, Mangla?

So we should keep things in perspective and apportion blame where it belongs instead of making the army a punching bag for the misjudgement and slow-footed response. This is a problem of part-timism, one of the world’s largest armies without a full-time chief. You can’t run a small enterprise this way, let alone a large one, but that’s how we are running both the army and what’s left of our political institutions.

Ayaz, a columnist for Dawn, writes for THT from Islamabad