Another myth of independence

May 23 2003


Of the many myths of independence circulating in this country, none is more beguiling, or more misleading, than the one proclaiming the independence of the Pakistan army's formidable corps commanders.

Over the years the assiduous cultivation of this myth would have the nation believe that all decisions at the top, especially regarding politics, are collegial or collective, arrived at after mature reflection by the formation commanders and principal staff officers meeting in council.

For example, readers could not have missed a front-page story in one of our leading newspapers the other day that all the corps commanders were in favour of General Musharraf continuing to wear his uniform even as he remains president.

Now what impression would the ordinary reader get from this inspired story, such stories mostly being inspired? He could be forgiven for thinking that the clamour of the opposition parties for Gen Musharraf to shed his uniform mattered little when the most powerful body in the country wanted, nay was desperate, for him to stay as its chief.

The truth is that when it comes to dealing with their COAS (Chief of the Army Staff), their Number One, the corps commanders have about as much independence as a box of matches. Postings and transfers lie in his hands. He can appoint someone a corps commander or, wanting to put him out to pasture, make him next day inspector-general of training and evaluation.

On becoming army chief, Gen Asif Nawaz did not like the airs assumed by Lt Gen Hamid Gul, then commanding the Multan Corps. So he had him transferred to the Heavy Complex (or was it the Ordnance Factories?) in Taxila. For Gen Gul, whose faults do not include undue modesty, this was too much to bear. So he refused to take up his new appointment. He made his point but even though he was in the good books of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he had to leave the army.

As commander of 10 Corps (the Pak army's coup-making corps) Lt Gen F. A. Chishti thought no end of himself when he played a key role in the ouster of Z. A. Bhutto in 1977. When his term as lt gen was up, General Zia, who was very clever in these things, quietly shunted him aside.

What about General Musharraf's Three Musketeers who helped him land safely from his Colombo flight and, after packing up the constitutional government, installed him straightaway in power?

Lt Gen, now Gen, Aziz is still in the public eye as a largely toothless chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Lt Gen Mahmood found himself locked out in the cold and out of the army after September 11. Lt Gen Usmani, who was always said to take his religion rather seriously, seems lost to the world after leaving the army.

The present corps commanders and principal staff officers are all Musharraf appointees, serving at his pleasure. Which is not to cast aspersions on their competence but only to say that it would be highly irregular if in political matters they were not to take their cue from the chief or go along with whatever is the prevailing wisdom as seen through his eyes.

Power tends to be concentrated in a few hands even in democracies. In the Bush White House a handful of powerful players like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and a few others call the shots. When Claire Short recently resigned from Tony Blair's cabinet, one of the charges she made was about major decisions being taken not in cabinet but by a small group of three or four people.

To suppose therefore that heated discussions on the finer aspects of domestic and external policy take place when the Pak army's corps commanders meet is to stretch the meaning of democracy.

The decision to go the whole hog with the United States after September 11, no matter what this move entailed, was not something discussed threadbare in a wide conclave. It was basically a one-man decision backed up of course by the two or three advisers or military aides who happened to be at hand.

The same is true of the confused political roadmap the government has unfurled. It comes from within a narrow circle with inputs from the ISI predominating. The corps commanders of course endorse these plans at their periodic meetings. But then they would, wouldn't they? The system is not built in such a way where commanders with differing or dissenting views can both express their views and live to tell the tale.

In the days leading up to his coup, Gen Musharraf (for whatever reason) fell out with his Quetta corps commander, Lt Gen Tariq Pervez. Even though Tariq was closely related to an important minister in Nawaz Sharif's cabinet, Nawaz Sharif was made to get rid of him after Musharraf made it an issue.

Now of course Musharraf is not only army boss but his own chief executive and defence minister as well. Not nominally because Prime Minister Jamali holds the first position and Rao Sikander the second. But everyone knows where real power lies. Which puts a further damper on inner-army democracy.

One thing the army has never tolerated: any threat to its unity of command. The constitutional chain of command in the country can go to the dogs but woe betide the person or agency posing a threat to the military chain of command.

And rightly so, one might add, for in a fighting force all roads must lead to the chief. But the one-man principle applied to the more complex world of politics is a prescription for disaster. Don't we know it ourselves? For every spell of military rule the country has had to pay a heavy price.

"The army's corporate interests" has become a fashionable phrase suggesting that the army has vital interests to protect, such as the need to secure higher defence spending. But these interests are safeguarded even in democracies. As long as the need for an effective defence exists, the case for defence spending is self-evident. No one has to mount a coup to prove this point. The less so in a country like Pakistan where every government, military or civilian, has been guided by similar concepts of national security.

The truth is altogether more awkward. Often what the army ends up doing when it enters the political arena is not the pursuit of some higher national agenda - much as the military leadership might like the nation to believe this - but protecting the back of the individual or coterie in power.

Pakistan's previous military rulers - Generals Ayub, Yahya and Zia - all claimed to be driven by "the national interest". Towards the end of their respective tenures all three had become an embarrassment, if not a positive liability, for the very institution from whence they derived their strength. Not that, reading the stars, they quit voluntarily: each had to be pushed out of the door, in Zia's case, blown out of the sky.

We are in a similar predicament today, the same arguments being deployed to justify one-man rule. The Legal Framework Order is no protective shield for the army. It will be a sorry day indeed when the army stands in need of such devices. Stripped of verbiage and false reasoning, the LFO is meant to protect an individual's grip on power.

The army's corporate interests are not protected by giving jobs in government or the public sector to a long string of colonels, brigadiers and generals, as has happened during the last three and a half years. These are best protected when army and people are on the same wavelength, their hopes and aspirations the same, their reading of the national interest the same. What are so many jobs worth if the public is alienated or its attitude is one of outright contempt?

Far from cementing the cracks in national unity, Pakistan's fourth introduction to military rule has had a deeply polarizing effect, the cleavage between khaki and mufti never as clear or stark. But our problem remains that we have no tradition of enlightened self-interest, no tradition of self-abnegation or of putting the public welfare above one's narrow interpretation of self-interest.

The very thing making it hard to predict how this particular story is likely to end.