Navy soldiers march past the Nasr solid fuelled tactical ballistic missile system during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad. File / Reuters
Prime Minister Imran Khan has revealed on Twitter that the Pakistan army has agreed in a rare move to slash the defence budget for the next fiscal year in line with broader austerity measures being introduced by the government.
He noted that these cuts were agreed to despite “multiple security challenges.” He stated that the money saved would be diverted to aid the development of the merged tribal areas and Balochistan.
Pakistan has struck an agreement in principle with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $6 billion loan but Islamabad is expected to put in place measures to rein in a ballooning fiscal and current account deficits to get access to the funds.
The IMF has said the primary budget deficit should be trimmed by the equivalent of $5 billion, but previous civilian rulers have rarely dared to trim defence spending for fear of stoking tension with the military.
Unlike some other civilian leaders in Pakistan’s fragile democracy, Imran appears to have good relations with the generals.
Pakistan’s de facto finance chief, Hafeez Shaikh, on June 11 is due to announce spending plans for the financial year beginning in July.
Under Pakistan’s devolved system, the federal government must hand over more than half its budget to the provinces, and the remainder is mostly eaten up by debt servicing and the military’s vast budget.
“I appreciate Pakistan Military’s unprecedented voluntary initiative of stringent cuts in their defence expenditures for next Financial Year because of our critical financial situation, despite multiple security challenges.
“My government will spend this money saved on development of merged tribal areas and Balochistan,” he tweeted very late on Tuesday.
On the auspicious occasion of Eid Al Fitr, Imran Khan wished “a happy Eid.”
He tweeted, “Let us all resolve to stand up as a united nation to overcome our economic crisis while putting the least amount of burden on the poorer section of our society.”
However, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) stated in a later tweet that the cuts “will not be at the cost of of defence and security,” and that it was important for the military to participate in the rebuilding of Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal areas.
Director General of ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor stated that the slashes would be managed “internally” by all three branches of the armed forces taking into account strategic compulsions.
Earlier in February, the government had decided not to make any cuts in the defence budget for the ongoing year. “Pakistan’s defence budget is already low as compared to other states in the region, and therefore it should be increased,” the then information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, had said. “We want to increase our defence and security; therefore we need to increase our defence budget and for that purpose we want to generate more revenue.”
Last month, however, the government announced that all civil and military institutions would contribute to the austerity-oriented federal budget for 2019-20.
“There will be austerity in the coming budget. We will try to keep government expenditures to the minimum possible level,” Prime Minister’s Adviser on Finance and Economic Affairs Dr Hafeez Shaikh had said.
“God willing we will all stand together on this, whether it is civilian or army [institutions] or the private sector.”
Placed in a difficult neighbourhood, it was the most important thing for a sovereign country like Pakistan to protect its people and borders and to give whatever sacrifice was possible, Shaikh had said, adding: “Nevertheless, we are all on the same page whether these are civilians or armed forces that there should be serious, sustained and structured reforms through difficult decisions and all would participate in this effort and you would see this in the new budget.”
Pakistan has one of the world’s largest armies but critics say the military’s spending is unnecessary and holds the country back in key areas such as health and education. More than 40 per cent of the population is illiterate.
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