“A PHENOMENON noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.
“In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
With these words, begins American historian Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece book, The March of Folly, which traces how rulers throughout history persist with decisions that prove to be their undoing even when they are offered viable alternatives. Tuchman gives many examples and writes in elaborate detail how folly triumphed over reason in different times and different settings.
Troy’s rulers suspended all scepticism by allowing a suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their city walls that enabled the Greeks to trick and defeat them.
King George III chose to confront the American colonies instead of conciliating them, resulting in United States independence even though many Britons advised that autonomy and parliamentary representation in London could keep the colonies within the British Empire.
Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler all chose to invade Russia in their desire to rule all of Europe, losing to the bitter winter despite their superior military force.
Similarly, China’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek did not heed advice for reform, resulting in the success of the communists led by Mao Zedong.
The United States stayed in Vietnam too long, losing sight of its original objectives and getting dragged into a local civil war the outcome of which was not fully in its control.
Successive US administrations failed to listen to those who suggested that the US simply declare victory and leave Vietnam.
Had the US done so it would still have got what it eventually ended up with in Indo China — a government led by the Communist Party eager to seek investment and trade from America — but without the expense in blood and treasure that also hurt American pride and prestige.
Pakistan’s unfortunate history is replete with examples of folly. But nothing comes close to the debacle of 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan in terms of the extent and scope of pursuing policies and making decisions that served no reasonable national purpose.
After the December 1970 elections it should have been obvious to the martial law regime of Gen Yahya Khan that the Bengalis stood firmly behind the Awami League of Shaikh Mujibur Rehman. Instead of conceding the right of the majority to draft the constitution and to form the government, the West Pakistani elite, including civilian politicians, chose to try and militarily subjugate the people of East Bengal.
In West Pakistan, our civil and military elite whipped up anti-Indian sentiment and convinced one part of the nation that the only issue in the country’s eastern wing was a secessionist movement backed by India.
While West Pakistanis united behind the slogan of ‘Crush India’, the Bengalis charged the army with genocide, mobilised international support and, with the help of the Indian military, forced 90,000 soldiers and civilians to surrender.
The ignominy of military defeat resulted not only in the permanent loss of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh; it has left scars on Pakistani national psyche that to this day manifest in the shape of jihadist ideology. Instead of learning lessons from the previous folly, our jihadists now want to commit the folly of confronting the United States, replacing ‘crush India’ with the slogan ‘crush America’.
In 1971, the governor of East Pakistan, my friend Vice-Admiral S.M. Ahsan joined Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, commander Eastern Command, in advising the rulers in Rawalpindi to choose the wise course and to avoid folly. Both Ahsan and Yaqub resigned after detailed exchanges with their superiors, in which their advice was rejected.
Like the noble man he was, Ahsan gave the correct assessment and withdrew from the scene when he realised that his reasonable views had lost out to the unwise choices of men more powerful than him.
Most nations try to learn from their past but we Pakistanis are determined not to do so. Few books have been published, analysing what went wrong and who did what in the greatest tragedy in the country’s history.
One of these rarities is The Separation of East Pakistan by Hasan Zaheer. The book quotes Ahsan, explaining why he resigned after explaining in detail to all concerned that military action will result in unnecessary bloodshed and would not help in keeping the country united. “Throughout the meeting the president never once looked into my eyes,” the honourable vice-admiral said. “I could no longer consider his intentions devoid of guile or devoid of guilt.”
Only time will tell if we still have men like Yaqub and Ahsan in our midst today, when folly rules supreme in all aspects of national policy as well as in opposition and media rhetoric. I do know that many senior military officers and diplomats are concerned about the dominance of jingoism, xenophobia and jihadism.
Let us heed the warnings of these thoughtful people instead of merely paying tribute to them years later when their advice would no longer be able to avert disaster or to change anything.
Why this failure to learn from history?
Both civil and military leaderships have been blind to the past, with an innate inability to accept or admit that wrong has been done. But then it takes ‘big’ men of substance and moral integrity to concede, even to themselves, that multiple past errors are largely responsible for a persistent downward slide.