The General Speaks Out

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TIM McGIRK IslamabadGeneral Jehangir Karamat wasn't at all like his predecessors. For years the powerful Pakistani army chief shied away from political trench warfare. Unlike past generals who appeared overly eager to roll out the tanks and seize power, Karamat openly supported democracy. He held back even as Pakistan slid ever deeper into economic mayhem, as religious and ethnic killings swept the commercial capital of Karachi and as Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif talked of imposing Islamic law. Indeed, with retirement approaching, Karamat often spoke of longing to read voluminous military histories and putter around his Lahore home. Karamat means miracle in Urdu, and Pakistanis joked that it would take a miracle to budge him into action.Finally, the general acted. Speaking at the Naval War College in Lahore on Oct. 5, Karamat fired several well-aimed salvos at Nawaz Sharif. He blamed the nation's politicians for carrying out vendettas and insecurity-driven and expedient policies while Pakistan capsized. Karamat called for the creation of a three-tiered national security council that would include the military, credible advisers and a think tank of experts. Despite Karamat's call for a larger military role, few Pakistanis believe he was trying to topple Nawaz Sharif's elected government. This was a warning, says former army chief of staff Mirza Aslam Beg, not a plan to get rid of Sharif. The Prime Minister wasn't so sure, fearing that the proposed council would impose itself over elected legislatures at both the federal and provincial levels. He ordered Karamat's words to be deleted from reports on the state-run television and radio stations, the first time a Prime Minister has dared to censor the Pakistani military.With that, Pakistan's leader was on a collision course with its army chief. Two days after the speech, Nawaz Sharif forced Karamat to resign. No civilian government had tossed out the military boss in 20 years. Usually, it's the generals who dispose of elected leaders. A note issued by the government claimed that, due to the political controversy arising from his earlier statements, Karamat had decided to take early retirement. It wasn't because the military tomes in his Lahore library suddenly beckoned; Islamabad officials say Karamat was furious at having to quit, but felt he had no choice because Nawaz Sharif had undercut his support among the country's other generals. To succeed Karamat, the Prime Minister elevated Lieut. General Parvez Musharraf, a corps commander who may be more supportive than his predecessor.PAGE 1  |  
It isn't clear how deep resentment in the military runs. Karamat, nicknamed the Consensus Man by fellow officers, was not acting alone when he confronted Nawaz Sharif, according to military sources. He consulted the army's corps commanders, for example, who reportedly pushed him to intervene. Musharraf, by breaking ranks with other generals to take the job, may have increased restiveness inside the military. With Pakistan already technically in default on its international debts, funds for the military--which swallows about 40% of the government's budget--are slowing to a trickle. Moreover, the army isn't happy with Nawaz Sharif's interference inside the barracks. Last year, the Prime Minister altered the constitution, giving himself the power to appoint the army chief (which is why he was able to get rid of Karamat).The controversy has aroused Pakistani passions. Many had welcomed Karamat's challenge. Displeasure with the government has grown amid new allegations in a British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, that Nawaz Sharif and his family have stashed away more than $70 million in offshore accounts and taken long-term leases on several flats in London's posh Mayfair district. The claims, later denied by Nawaz Sharif, followed the Prime Minister's decision to freeze foreign currency accounts across the country, wiping out ordinary Pakistanis' dollar savings. The move hit the coddled military elite--who like to send their sons and daughters to foreign universities--especially hard. Karamat's challenge had won support from nearly all opposition groups, including ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Even senior members of Nawaz Sharif's own Pakistan Muslim League publicly conceded that the military's offer might represent Pakistan's only escape from its growing turmoil.By stripping the generals of their might, Nawaz Sharif may in the process be weakening his own ability to cope with Pakistan's mounting ills. Cautions Maleeha Lodhi, editor of The News, a national daily: The crisis in Pakistan has so many dimensions that no single institution can solve this. The former military chief, as one newspaper commented, offered his help as a friend, not an enemy. Having refused him, the besieged Prime Minister may soon find himself surrounded by enemies--and very few friends.  |  2