A group of retired Pakistani generals and admirals is stepping up its unprecedented campaign against President Pervez Musharraf, even joining in a public protest to demand that the former military chief resign.
The government has played down the role of retired military officers of the Ex-Servicemen’s Association since last month, when they called on Musharraf to relinquish the presidency citing “the supreme national interest.”
Some of the dissident officers, including former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg, staged a brief public rally Tuesday in Rawalpindi and demanded that Musharraf resign.
Some Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats believe the former generals, admirals and air marshals retain strong ties to their successors on active duty.
While the military leadership remains loyal to Musharraf, the protests by retired servicemen point to deep fissures within the armed forces, which have supported Musharraf since he seized power in a military coup in 1999.
“Even for those who are aware that opposition to Musharraf was increasing within the rank and file, the degree of vehemence, even venom, of opposition was a revelation,” Shaukat Qadir of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute wrote in the Daily Times newspaper.
Authorities have not been reluctant to crack down on Musharraf’s civilian critics. But heavy-handed action against distinguished former soldiers could incite a backlash among the military ranks, even among those who have not broken with the president.
“Can you imagine what will happen if the police attack and beat Pakistan’s greatest national heroes who saved the nation,” said retired army Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and a member of the association.
In addition to Musharraf’s resignation, the retired service members are demanding the reinstatement of 60 judges - including the Supreme Court’s chief justice - before parliamentary elections on February 18, as a guarantee that the ballot will be free and fair. Past protests have regularly been broken up by riot police.
Pakistan has been ruled by the army for more than half of its 60-year history, and some of Musharraf’s critics from the ranks of retired army officers were themselves linked to military regimes when they were on active duty. Some Pakistanis accuse them of standing up for democracy only after leaving military service and enjoying the prestige and financial benefits of an armed forces career.
Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi dismissed the retired officers Wednesday as “insignificant” and “spent cartridges.”
The most public critics of Musharraf within the Ex-Servicemen’s Society come from the air force and navy Ñ services not tainted by association with military rule.
The most prominent former army general in the group is Beg, the former military chief who served during the turbulent transition to democracy following death of military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq in a 1988 plane crash.
Regardless of their backgrounds and motives, the former top officers appear united in their belief that Musharraf’s rule has impacted badly on the reputation of the armed forces as a whole and brought into question the unity of the Pakistani state.
“He must go, the sooner the better ... to rescue the nation from the escalating political turmoil,” said former air force chief Asghar Khan.
Musharraf’s popularity has suffered badly over the past year, as Pakistani troops have sought to seal the border with Afghanistan to prevent insurgents from using the lawless frontier area as a staging ground. Hundreds have died in the fighting.
“He is fighting America’s war, but the majority of the people are now anti-American,” retired Vice Adm. Ahmad Tasnim said of Musharraf. “Everybody is asking, why should our own soldiers kill our own people?”
Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3, suspending the constitution and arresting most top judges, including the Supreme Court’s chief justice. He retired as head of the armed forces on November 28, a day before he was inaugurated as a civilian president for a new term.
The former officers’ criticism has been welcomed by Pakistan’s opposition parties. At a press conference last month, the retired officers joined opposition politicians in calling for the restoration of an independent judiciary and for free and fair elections.
“This is understandable ... people of all ranks are genuinely worried by what will happen to the country and what will happen to them,” said retired Gen. Ahmed R. Malik. (AP)
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