Floods give renewed clout to Pakistan Army

MULTAN, Pakistan Sun Sep 5, 2010 4:14am EDT

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MULTAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - The message in black Urdu lettering on a white sack of supplies for flood relief says it all: "In tough times, the Pakistan Army is with you."

The powerful military has taken the lead in providing relief -- dwarfing the civilian government -- and in doing so has greatly enhanced its prestige and influence.

And while nobody expects it to take over, the renewed clout of the army is perhaps the biggest political change brought by the floods, one likely to define its relationship with, and leverage over, the civilian government for years to come.

"The military has in fact expanded its interests through the distribution of relief aid," said defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. "There is nothing today which does not fall within the military's purview."

The army, which became deeply unpopular in the final years of former president Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and stepped down in 2008, had already clawed back considerable influence over foreign and security policy.

But in the flood relief it has become very visible as the only national institution with the manpower, the organizational skills and the equipment -- including helicopters and boats -- to help some 20 million affected by the floods.

At a boys' college turned warehouse in Multan, the main city in south Punjab, soldiers work around the clock to assemble packages of emergency relief. With leave canceled and rations donated to the cause, the sense of pride is palpable.

The commander in charge of the area has been on the go since the floods hit a month before, says Major Farooq Feroze, the officer in charge of public relations in Multan.

"He is supervising each and every movement," he says. "He keeps us all alert. He himself is sleepless."

That is in stark contrast to the sluggish response of the civilian government, and the departure of President Asif Ali Zardari on a visit to France and Britain when the floods began.

Technically, the army is working on the orders of the government, and at the operational level, civilian and military authorities are working together closely.

"There is co-operation going on at every level," says Brigadier Zahid Usman at a field turned helicopter base in the town of Jampur in south Punjab. "We know where they are going; they know where we are going."

But the subtlety of that message is often lost in a country where much of the media is sympathetic to the army and where security officials grumble privately about the failings of democracy and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

KEEPING GOVERNMENT ON BACK FOOT

The army has no incentive to take over when the country faces so many problems, and it also benefits from having a civilian face authorizing military operations against Taliban militants, for which public support is essential, analysts say.

One security official noted that the situation was considerably better than in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led troops are trying to defeat an insurgency by military means, without the political infrastructure needed to win over the people.

"There is a government here," he said. "It's not ideal. It has great room for improvement, but it is functional, working and in power legally. It's better than the political dispensation in Afghanistan."

Yet at the same time, the army is in a stronger position to call the shots if the government is seen to be weak, and to deflect any attempt by civilian authorities to limit its power.

According to defense analyst Siddiqa, the army was deliberately stressing the inefficiencies of the government to keep it, and Zardari, on the back foot. "It is not because they want to get rid of him, they want to send a message," she said. "It's more of a warning shot right now."

"This is almost like pre-poll rigging. Let the government serve its term. You destabilize it and keep it destabilized."

The next election is not due until 2013 and the main opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has shown no inclination to try to take power. He also has reasons to be wary of the military -- he was ousted in the 1999 coup.

But in the meantime, some officials speak privately about the possibility of a realignment among political parties to weaken Zardari, who cannot be dismissed by constitutional means.

In the absence of a coup, therefore, the only way to weaken him would be if the PPP itself were either split or sidelined through a rebellion by political allies and opponents, or possibly even through a vote of no confidence in the government.

In a country rife with rumor and conspiracy theories, it is impossible to predict exactly how the politics will play out.

What is clear, however, is that the popular refrain in the last years of Musharraf's rule -- that "the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship" -- has lost its sheen.

And the army, which has ruled Pakistan on-and-off since independence in 1947, has been able to present itself again as the savior of the country. Or as a banner says on one of the colorfully painted trucks packed with relief supplies: "The Pakistan Army and the people are together."

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; editing by Chris Allbritton)

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