Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman
A country in dire need of a resolution, Pakistan is a ready market for people calling for reform. Some of these would-be reformers have come forward to actively attempt a change, while others just dwell on how things have been. Confessions and rejections of past events have become the rudimentary first steps towards improvement — and so it had to be, given our unending search for repentant souls and our habit of believing in the system’s renegades over those critical of the machinery without ever being a part of it.
Lt Gen (retd) Shahid Aziz, the writer of Yeh Khamoshi Kahaan Takk? Aik Sipahi ki Dastan-i-Ishq-o-Junoon, has been hailed as a trendsetter, and for some valid reasons. He may have been selective in his reporting but has divulged his experiences as a military man, and in Urdu. The choice of language is not quite the norm here. Accounts by military men have by and large been confined to English. The decision to write in Urdu betrays Aziz’s choice of target audience, the ‘masses’ beyond the messes.
Breaking with another tradition, Aziz is extremely critical of Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf who is portrayed, ultimately, as his own sad nemesis. Aziz dismisses Musharraf as a dream gone sour. His is not just a complaint but an indictment. This is in contrast to the polite critique by some insiders of the adventures of Gen Ziaul Haq and is even stronger than the reprimands Gen Yahya Khan got from some of his colleagues in the army for allowing himself to be used by ‘dirty, greedy politicians’.
Aziz carries some typical anti-politician biases. He rarely shows any sympathy or respect for politicians and cannot help but insert the familiar line about wily politicians exploiting a helpless Gen Yahya — the man who was incidentally in command when a young Aziz had his first taste of the battlefield.
The young man was all set to take up an engineering career in Africa but circumstances led him into the army instead. The journey climaxed in this self-critique and more, in which Aziz frequently complains of the weight of the past on his conscience and a lack of friends among acquaintances. It is a long and bitter account comprising small and big betrayals faced by a soldier who prides himself on his honesty and who believes that he had an alternate plan ready at many important moments in his career.
Surprisingly, it is the man Aziz is most dissatisfied with who turns out to be most patient with him, during his service and even after Aziz’s retirement. Musharraf is blamed for a lot but he cannot be denied credit for tolerating Aziz, at least for some time, as the head of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
If the NAB posting and his appointments to various positions during his army career were a result of some internal military mechanism, the book stops short of suggesting that. Indeed, Aziz’s effort to not discuss the working of the organisation too overtly and to limit his observations to a lack of initiative on the part of individuals and his seniors, on the battlefield and outside it, runs throughout the book. He is willing to go as far as discussing alternative war plans in defiance of the military high command; he talks about Musharraf’s obsession with not sharing information; and he is irritated by the silence Musharraf’s statements were sometimes greeted with at the meetings of the top brass. But when it comes to questioning the system, his focus grows wider and he goes beyond the military establishment to take on the entire system of governance.
The old-timers, who are surprised by Aziz’s unprecedented descriptions of reluctant fighters and an over-eager, despotic leader in Musharraf, must note that his account is consistent with the expansion of the debate about military matters. It does eventually lead to Kargil, where Musharraf is shown to have humiliated the country with his arbitrary adventurism against India. Also part of the power equation in Kargil is an old rival of the military, a politician in the person of the then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Aziz corroborates the assertion that only a few close associates of Musharraf knew about the disastrous Kargil operation. He also comes closest to showing sympathy for a politician by saying that he couldn’t quite tell whether Sharif knew about the wasteful Kargil operation or not.
Aziz is ultimately a soldier. He is anti-Kargil but not anti-war. At one place in the story, a young army officer is seen to be realising the true worth of human life as he lies underneath bodies on a battlefield. But if war and dying soldiers called for some kind of a revolution in thinking, it did not happen. Aziz is more concerned about how wars should be fought rather than allowing his reformative train to reach the point where he is compelled to question warfare as a legitimate way of conflict resolution. He mourns the tragic loss of life at Kargil and expresses regret at an incident in which gunfire ordered by him killed a woman and a child across the border. But even amid this exhibition of emotion, Aziz appears to retain his killing instincts and recalls that in the wake of Kargil he had at one point advised the army chief to expand the war.
The crisp tone of Yeh Khamoshi Kahaan Takk? can be compared with media interviews of former army officers. But since the book is inevitably going to be looked upon as a prologue to a political manifesto in the making, the lieutenant general follows the current regime of critical introspection and system-rejection in a more profound and consistent way so as to, apparently, justify his claim. This has won Aziz the audience, if not as yet as large a readership as the book may have initially promised.
The book has garnered mixed reviews. One reviewer has dismissed Aziz’s attempt as a long apology. To be fair, Yeh Khamoshi Kahaan Takk? is more than an apology because it does serve the purpose of expanding the discussion on the workings of the military, specifically the army high command, which so vitally controls the Pakistani people, and the military leadership’s relationship with civilian incumbents.
Another reviewer expressed surprise at a soldier’s ability to treat him to some excellent Urdu prose. It could be that the reviewer had committed himself to evaluating the work a bit too early. Had he waited till the end of the book to form his judgement he would have seen the narrative get more than a little repetitive. Towards the end the book appears to be a dreary and long-drawn-out job at justification, a justification directed at the public, and, more specifically, at the ranks, before the writer, the repentant sinner, finds refuge in religion.
Religion is one way of resolving the inner conflict — one that is frequently resorted to as the ultimate choice. At the end of these 400-odd pages, Aziz appears to be recommending this final recourse. He has displayed his credentials as a potential player should political parties be interested in enlisting reputable veterans, and, more importantly, experience-chastened hands. Meanwhile, other military men who shared the various experiences with him right up to Kargil and beyond should break their silence in the interest of greater clarity. The story does sound so much fuller every time someone adds a new dimension to it.
The reviewer is resident editor Dawn Lahore
Yeh Khamoshi Kahaan Takk? Aik Sipahi ki Dastan-i-Ishq-o-Junoon
By Lt Gen (retd) Shahid Aziz
Seven Springs Publishers, Islamabad