Crisp khaki, black hole

NATO’s earthquake relief effort in Pakistan did not even involve a thousand personnel. It is now winding up, completing its tight lease of 90 days in what is a most politically sensitive region. Departing Nato officials, influential news channels tell us, have issued warnings of impending catastrophe, death from cold, injuries and diseases as the work of relief is still far from complete.

By Shekhar Gupta

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Published: Thu 8 Dec 2005, 9:53 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:50 PM

You read the Pakistani press and you still learn there are plenty of areas where the government has not reached. People are dying for want of shelter or medicine. In many places Lashkar or Jaish militants are still the only symbols of any ‘authority’. On the same international news channels, appeals are issued by all kinds of people —from celebrities to UN bodies —for earthquake relief contributions.

This, after $5.9 billion has already been committed in assistance as against the Pakistan government’s initial estimate of the $5.2 billion needed for relief and reconstruction. It is nobody’s intention to grudge Pakistan, and particularly the victims of the horrible earthquake, any amount of relief. But, nearly three months after the event, time has now come to raise a few questions on the quality of relief work so far carried out.

You ask any Pakistani and he will tell you heroic stories of the work done by NGOs, religious charities, even lone individuals, students, doctors, housewives, who left everything and joined relief efforts. But equally, you would hear stories of official ineptitude, of insensitivity, inefficiency and confusion. Oddly, very few still dare to point the finger where it must be pointed: at the Pakistani army and administration largely run by it. This is not one Indian hawk’s criticism of Pakistan or its military establishment. This is an attempt to underline some questions many liberal Pakistanis have now begun to raise, though still cautiously.

It is a case of civilian democracy versus army rule and how one system, with all its flaws, is always better than the other. And this fact shows up nowhere more starkly than in a disaster. Pakistan is no tiny, resourceless, powerless banana republic.

It is the world’s sixth most populous country. Its economy is back to growing in the seven to eight per cent range. Through most of its history it has enjoyed per capita income higher than India’s. The earthquake, though severe, was confined to one region, leaving more than 98 per cent of its population unaffected and practically all its government structure unencumbered. Yet, why was its first instinct to throw up its hand and ask for international aid?

True, many consider India’s policy of not seeking foreign help in natural disasters cussed. But faced with their first natural disaster of a considerable size, the Pakistani establishment threw up its arms far too easily.

Disaster is when most civilian governments around the world call out for the armies to help. Armies are more efficient, organised and resourceful. In India, whether it is a flood, earthquake or tsunami, the arrival of army contingents is greeted with confidence and relief. What went wrong in Pakistan’s case? Why did it begin to look so helpless and all at sixes and sevens so early in the day? Was it because it was short of resources or experience, or because its army did not know what to do in the absence of established politico-bureaucratic civil structures of governance? Pakistan, after all, has the fifth largest armed force in the world, with nearly a million men in active service, besides nearly a half million reservists. It’s fielding nearly 3000 tanks and nuclear weapons. It also has the most extensive network of establishments and infrastructure on that side of Kashmir.

While its units also suffered gravely in the quake there needs to be some serious questioning of its performance in relief work if, three months later, Nato and the UN still have to keep warning of an impending disaster.

To put it simply, POK is one of the most heavily militarised zones in the whole world. And the military controlling it is extremely well reputed, professional and efficient. It has given a good account of itself against a larger adversary for nearly six decades. Its ingenuity and enterprise are underlined by the way it has manned its side of the Siachen ridgeline. As also by the way it put one past India by smuggling about a brigade of troops, even artillery pieces, way across the LoC in Kargil, just the other day. Nobody in the Indian army ever takes the Pakistani adversary lightly.

So what went wrong in this case? Why did they need to swallow their pride and let Nato crawl all over their most sensitive territories and to also paint it so prominently on international television screens? Did they really deserve the humiliation of the same foreign helpers predicting disaster when they leave? The failure of the Pakistani relief machinery is the failure of its army, and you could argue it is the lowest point in its history after the defeat in Bangladesh. It is sad for a fine, professional fighting force which is much sought after by the UN for peace-keeping operations, along with India’s, given their reputation for discipline, professionalism, and courage under fire.

The problem is not so much either with the commitment or ability of the Pakistani army as with its role in the power structure, which has led to a weakening of the civil structure. Civil bureaucracy leans much too heavily on the army and the one missing piece in the equation is the politician. Howsoever you may hate them, it is the politician, the MP, the MLA, the local activists even if from the opposition who provide that vital link between the state machinery and the people, particularly in a disaster situation.

Ask the men of the Indian army and navy who were involved in tsunami relief. They speak glowingly of Jayalalithaa’s government. She, her ministers and MLAs were out and helping. And her officials at the district level did stellar work. Without all that, India’s armed forces would have looked as inept and ineffective as Pakistan’s now. In modern societies, governance is a business, for, of and by the politicians and the civil bureaucracies answerable to them. In Pakistan those two vital elements were missing.

Now recall for a moment what Musharraf’s response was in the immediate aftermath of the quake. He appeared in public in full military livery, talked about C 130 transport teams and M 17 helicopters being ready for help. It was a professional soldier’s response. And that is where the plot was lost. Because he did not figure disaster relief and management are among the most complex challenges of governance.

An effective response requires a multi-layered civil government structure that is then helped along by the armies. An army, howsoever large, resourceful and politically dominant, can never be a substitute for this ‘bloody civilian mess’, to use an expression you’d hear often in army messes not just in Pakistan, but around the world, even in India and the US where the armies know exactly how long they belong in the power structure and where they can never even imagine changing any of that. Contempt for civilian structures is an essential part of the soldier’s faith. In a democracy, it remains merely an internal, clubby lament. In a system like Pakistan’s, it leads to disasters or could compound one.

That is exactly what has happened after the quake. It is time the people of Pakistan who have put up with so many years of army rule began to ask some of these questions. They have a fine army. But a large, powerful, talented and ambitious state like theirs, which claims nuclear weapons, leadership of the Ummah and equality with India, deserves more than just that. The disaster of earthquake relief should underline their urgent need for a return to civilianism.

Shekhar Gupta is editor-in-chief of Indian Express. He can be reached at

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