Is the public getting value for tax money?

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The question that is increasingly being asked is whether we, the public, are getting value for money: value in terms of taxes we pay and, in return, services we receive. Are the three major pillars of political power in a democracy - the executive, the judiciary and the legislature - giving us, the people value for our money? And is the fourth pillar in the case of Pakistan, the armed forces, historically exerting considerable power over the three pillars, good value for our tax rupee?

The institutions, we are informed repeatedly by the PPP-led executive, have been weakened by years of one-man rule. Now that democracy has resurfaced the process of strengthening the institutions has begun but it is a slow process and one must not accept overnight miracles. Three and a half years down the line the mantra remains the same.

Given the pervasive influence of the armed forces in this country s political, security as well as economic fortunes today it is necessary to ask whether we are getting value for the 18 percent of our total budget - 495 billion rupees (5. 8 billion dollars) - that we will spend on defence next year (the amount does not include other hidden defence expenditures like pensions that are included in the civilian budget). The budget documents do not make clear how much of this amount would be reimbursed under the US sponsored Coalition Support Fund (CSF) however estimates range from between 1 to 1. 5 billion dollars for next year. Thus a conservative estimate of the amount paid by the people of this country for defence is around 4. 3 billion dollars.

One maybe tempted to dwell on the damage rendered by Musharraf to the institution that sustained his power for over ten years, and unfortunately this remains the focus of the PML (N) leadership, however General Kayani has been the Chief of Army Staff for close to four years and has to take responsibility for the performance of the institution he heads. The first of what many regarded as a positive change after the ignominious departure of Pervez Musharraf was evident in the aftermath of certain administrative decisions taken by General Kayani that included recalling all serving army personnel appointed in lucrative civilian posts by Musharraf. The initial military successes in the war on terror in Swat were appreciated by not only the locals who directly benefited from the ouster of the Taliban but also the rest of the country where incidents of suicide bombers declined significantly. The army, such was the general consensus had redeemed itself.

On July 26 2008 the PPP government decided to place the ISI under Rehman Malik and within hours had to withdraw the notification. There were murmurs in political circles that the PPP had alienated the ISI which had reportedly played a key role in toppling many a politically elected government in the past and pundits began counting the days when the Zardari government would fall. The Mumbai attack on 26/11/2008 for which the Indian government accused ISI of masterminding was rejected by the Pakistani nation as Indian propaganda. There was no need for the Prime Minister to defend the ISI in parliament or indeed to exhort the nation not to malign an institution because of a few bad eggs. The country was firmly behind the armed forces and its intelligence wing in 2008 and the better part of 2009 as military successes in South Waziristan led to fewer suicide attacks.

The situation changed in 2010 with the WikiLeaks release of more than 92,000 US State Department s classified documents (dated from 2002-2008) that reported conversations held between US top officials including Ambassadors with senior political and military leaders in several countries, including Pakistan. Such was the low repute enjoyed by our politicians in the minds of the public that compromising WikiLeaks documents had little impact on their popularity (or its lack thereof). However, the same could not be said about the military leadership. The then US ambassador Anne W. Patterson s leaked report on a meeting dated 22 January 2008 between General Kayani and CENTCOM Commander General Fallon led to a general sense of betrayal in Pakistan. She wrote: In response to Fallon s questions regarding military assistance, Kayani first focused on the need for surveillance assets. Kayani said he was not interested in acquiring Predators, but was interested in tactical level Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). He noted these were expensive and asked if the US could grant or loan them to Pakistan. . . Kayani also noted his own policy of selective use of aircraft in supporting operations as he felt employing combat aircraft within Pakistan would send the message that the level of conflict had escalated dramatically. He admitted to reluctantly employing F-16s in South Waziristan within the past few days, following direct assaults on Laddha Fort, including hundreds of rocket attacks. Note: The use of the F-16s was presumably largely a show of force as the aircraft can only be employed during the day, while the attacks were at night. . . (So much for the F-16s that cost this poor nation billions of dollars and decades of negotiations before they were handed over).

Patterson also reported that: Kayani said statements in the Western press regarding the deployment of U. S. trainers to Pakistan cast the Army in a poor light. He acknowledged the need for American assistance but cautioned that it could not be publicised because it implied that the Pakistani Army was not capable of facing down the militant threat. He emphasised that he needed Admiral Mullen s help to manage perceptions and that he would like the U. S. to provide train the trainer types of assistance so that these responsibilities would ultimately shift to the Pakistan Army.

And perhaps the most damning of all was Patterson s revelation that Kayani urged US officials to influence the civilian leadership: the US interlocutors impressed upon Kayani to advise the incoming government of the need to take responsibility for combating militancy rather than continuing to engage in rhetoric. Kayani said he needed the US Ambassador to encourage those who might become Prime Minister to establish the position and take responsibility. The perception of a difference between the civilian and the military leadership in terms of dealings with US officials underwent a change in the minds of the Pakistanis. The subsequent denial by the ISPR of the veracity of WikiLeaks did not appear to be a serious effort to allay the nation s changing perceptions about the army.

And thence began a series of events that further compromised the armed forces in the eyes of the public: the disappeared persons whose relatives effectively brought the matter to the notice of the courts and thereby of the general public, the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, the US unilateral action on Pakistani soil for over five to six hours that led to the killing of bin Laden on May 2 of which our armed forces acknowledged they remained unaware in spite of all the surveillance equipment purchased by this country through our tax rupees, the brutal killing of the unarmed Chechens at a checkpost, the PNS Mehran attack and the recent brutal killing of the unarmed youth in Karachi to name a few have raised serious questions and the clamour for a cost benefit analysis of our defence expenditure has risen.

What is baffling is the fact that there has been no one held responsible, and if the continuing incidents are any indication, no lessons learned. The latest ISPR statement that the corps commanders support democracy and not an individual political party may have had the objective of dispelling the perception that the PPP and the armed forces are now on the same page however while US government can and did say they would henceforth support democracy in Pakistan instead of anyone yet it is not appropriate for the armed forces who come under the executive to make such a statement.

The executive has thrown its lot behind the armed forces. The reason: for the first time ever the executive is not fearful that the army would respond to a call by the judiciary to implement the increasing number of decisions that are not being implemented. Those who express surprise at this support given that this is contrary to the mood of the general public that voted the PPP to power must understand the PPP s mindset today. The party leadership believes that elections will continue to be won not on the basis of performance but on the basis of the baradari/tribal system as well as by controlling the administration at the time the elections are called. Thus President Zardari must remain in his office to oversee the elections and that is being made possible through keeping the seat of power in this country happy: the establishment. Manipulation of political parties is being spearheaded very effectively by the President leading many opponents to acknowledge his political acumen. A large part of the legislature is thus controlled by the PPP and the PML (N) has emerged isolated and unable or unwilling to take the people of this country forward. Threats of a long march if needed are simply ignored.

That pretty much leaves the judiciary. While criticism has been hurled at the judiciary for focusing on high profile cases, for taking executive decisions that are not within its purview (for example in the case of sugar prices though the government s choice of appointments continues to cost the tax payer billions of rupees per annum) and for not giving the President the immunity due him in the constitution yet the judiciary has taken quite a few suo motu notices that have been appreciated by the public. These include the return of some of the embezzled/misappropriated money implicating cabinet members. However, with implementation status of many court decisions pending, there is little change.

Are we getting value for our tax rupees? Unfortunately, inflation continues to rise, utilities get ever more expensive, we continue to fear for our lives not only from the terrorists but also from the security agencies whose salaries are paid from our tax rupees and, last but not least, we continue to swelter in 100 plus degree heat with more than five to six hours of loadshedding in cities and in excess of 10 hours in villages. The four pillars, however, are provided state support to ensure that they are insulated from these elements.

Courtesy: Business Recorder

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