Calling the troops

May 2, 2021

The decision to bring armed forces on to the streets to help in enforcement of biosafety SOPs may weaken the ruling PTI and the bureaucracy

— photo by Rahat Dar

The troops are on the streets of major cities of the country – this time to help civil administration with enforcing standard operating procedures (SOPs) to reduce the spread of the pandemic.

The federal government sought the help of the armed forces under Article 245 of the Constitution “to act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so”. The armed forces have been deployed, initially, in 16 cities of the country where the Covid-19 positivity rate is very high. These cities include the federal and provincial capitals.

“Hospital fill up continuing to grow. Critical care patients now above 4,500, which is 30 percent higher than peak in June last year. Oxygen supply capacity in the country is now under stress. SOP compliance remains low. We are making a huge mistake by not following the SOPs,” Asad Umar, the federal minister who chairs the National Command and Control Committee to deal with the pandemic, said in a tweet.

“Pakistan Army troops have reached every corner of the country to help civil institutions in implementing the SOPs against the coronavirus. In this testing time, Pakistan Army will use all its capabilities to take every possible step for the protection of citizens and their lives. [We] will go to every corner of Pakistan to ensure the protection of citizens,” Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar has said since the deployment.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had earlier announced that the army will be deployed in major cities to enforce coronavirus public safety restrictions to contain the pandemic. He said he did not see the need for a complete lockdown for a couple of weeks.

“People are still not taking care. They are violating social distancing rules. That is why I have asked the Pakistan Army to come out on the streets and help our law enforcement, our police to ensure that people strictly follow the SOPs, including wearing masks,” PM Khan said in a televised address few days back.

“If our situation becomes starts resembling India’s, then we will have to close down the cities. We really don’t want to do that because we know that the poor suffer the most when lockdowns are imposed,” Khan said, while warning people of severe consequences if SOPs are not followed.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the interior minister, said in his message, this “big decision” was taken because neighbouring India was reporting 350,000 or more Covid cases on a daily basis. The minister said that the Pakistan Army had always stood with the people when floods, earthquakes and other disasters hit the country.

The move has drawn criticism as well.

“The function of the Armed Forces is to defend territorial integrity of the country and come to the aid of the civil govt when called. However, in peculiar historical experience the arrival of Armed Forces from 1953 in Lahore, 1997 in Karachi, and later in 2009 in Swat, and in 2014 in the tribal agencies, the role of army has become conflated with the depression of civilian authority,” says Wajahat Masood, the political commentator and columnist.

He says that apart from isolated incidents and complaints about military personnel’s behaviour with the civilian population, the foremost example being Operation Searchlight in the erstwhile East Pakistan, civilian governments are well advised to refrain from invoking Article 245 unless absolutely necessary.

“During the Covid-19 crisis, the government has been sending out ambivalent vibes and it is not clear that the civilian administration and civilian law enforcement channels have been exhausted. The military personnel are not supposed to be sensitive to the complexities of civilian neighbourhoods and readily resort to use of force,” he says, adding, “Across different social and economic classes, the application of Covid SOPs is bound to be varied. Now that the government has called in the army it will be expedient if the use of force is limited to the minimum and the measure is not used to aggravate the already tense political equation through a blame game.”

Comparing the political situation in Pakistan with other countries where army has been called to help controlling the pandemic spread –India, China and Canada – Masood says in Pakistan this move seems unwise.

On the streets of the capital city, Islamabad, people saw Armed Forces personnel distributing masks and pressing people to follow the SOPs. Many think that this gives the impression that the civil administration has failed even in ensuring the wearing of mask. The district administration of Islamabad has expressed hope that the Covid-19 situation in the capital will improve after the calling of the Armed Forces.

The ISPR DG, in his presser, maintained that the primary purpose of deployment of army troops was to help civil institutions and law enforcement agencies. “The primary responsibility for the implementation of precautionary measures against the coronavirus and the law-and-order situation lies with the civil institutions. The Pakistan Army would fully cooperate with law enforcement agencies as emergency responders to control the spread of the pandemic,” he stated.

“Basically, enforcement of the SOPs is a collective social responsibility,” Maj Gen Ejaz Hussain Awan (retired) says. Unfortunately, he says, civil law enforcement agencies – like police – seem to have failed to ensure the restrictions are followed. He says their “bad reputation and giving concessions to people for some benefits – like money” are to blame for the failure.

“No doubt, this speaks of institutional weakness,” he concludes.

Last week, Pakistan had more than 90,000 active cases of Covid-19. A total of 815,711 cases have been detected out of those 708,193 people have recovered. The number of deaths due to the coronavirus had 17,680 till April 29. The latest report of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME) expresses the fear that there will be an unprecedented upsurge in Covid-19 infections in South Asia over the coming months. “Our latest projections show that the number of infections driven by the surge in India — and perhaps also driven by the surges in Bangladesh and Pakistan — will be reaching 15 million a day globally,” the American health institute predicted. The current projections of the institute indicate that the infections in Pakistan may peak to 240,000 by the beginning of August while the death toll could rise to 28,549.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Calling the troops