Pakistanis Wary of Army's Next Job ; Quake Reconstruction Effort Will Be Headed by Generals, but Army Denies Claims It Will Dominate the Process

Article excerpt

Winter is descending on the highlands of northern Pakistan, delaying the transition from earthquake relief operations to the longer-range efforts of rebuilding.

But in Islamabad, the early outlines of the reconstruction are being sketched out, and there are fears that the military will dominate the process. Two agencies have been put in charge of the effort, each headed by a general.

With the reconstruction expected to be a three to five year national project, some Pakistani political observers argue that the government's promise of a democratic transition from military rule has been dealt a setback. While the Army insists that final decisionmaking powers rest with elected leaders, critics see little chance for crucial local input to shape the recovery effort.

"Reconstruction is a matter of economic management, of social issues - these are civilian subjects," says Afrasiab Khattak, a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, based in Lahore.

Observers like Mr. Khattak say that only a participatory approach - comprising the affected communities themselves, representative governments, and civil society actors - can ensure that reconstruction adequately serves the communities in need.

Their concerns were echoed by a European Union delegation at last month's donors conference, where international governments pledged $5.9 billion to assist Pakistan. "The EU delegation calls attention to the need for the decentralization of decisionmaking."

The critique helps underscore that October's earthquake, while forever changing Pakistan's history, has done little if anything to shake up the centralized power matrix that has defined Pakistan since the 1999 military coup by President Pervez Musharraf and indeed, for much of its history.

The Army disputes claims that it will dominate the reconstruction. "The Army is not leading the effort. The reconstruction and relief agencies are under the prime minister's office," says Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shawkat Sultan.

But critics point out that both government relief agencies were created unilaterally by President Musharraf, and their military heads appointed without consultation with parliament. It is a telltale sign, they say, that both the prime minister and the civilian government are subject to the ultimate authority of Musharraf, who has reneged on past promises to step down from his role as a military general.

There is broad consensus that the Army has the capacity and skill to execute the reconstruction process. It enjoys a reputation for efficiency in a country where civilian governments and civic institutions have been bogged down by bureaucratic lethargy and corruption.

"In everyday terms, as an institution, it has demonstrated high levels of professional capacity," says Javed Jabbar, a former information minister and former senator. "One should not say they're at the wrong place at the wrong time."

But execution is not the point, critics say. Decisionmaking is, and that is where the Army's role is most questioned.

"The Army will be thinking on the basis of their own understanding of what is good for these communities," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "I'm not putting any negative connotation on what the Army might think. …

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