After days of hype and hot air about how not a single one of the Al Qaeda suspects holed up near Wana in the tribal areas of South Waziristan could escape the army dragnet, we are told that the entire operation has been "suspended".

Apparently, tribal elders are now being asked to persuade those sheltering the suspects to hand them over. The question arises as to why this strategy could not have been adopted from the outset. Scores of lives later, we are in much the same situation we were of having pockets of the tribal areas being used as safe havens by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The difference is that 46 army personnel and 63 suspects have died and many more wounded in a battle covered by the media around the world.

Speculation about a "high-value Al Qaeda suspect" being protected by hundreds of tribals and foreign fighters fuelled this media frenzy. Our top officials got into the act by playing guessing games about the identity of the man trapped in the army net. Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command, was the earliest name bandied about. This was downgraded to one Abdullah, supposedly the terrorist organization's top intelligence operative. But after a further reality check, it turned out that this Abdullah was no more than a local biggish shot... and so it goes.

The fact that the hostile elements killed 46 soldiers while suffering 63 dead indicates that they fought on virtually even ground, despite the army bringing in artillery and helicopter gunships into the fray. I suspect this reflects both on the fighters' determination, as well as the army's lack of preparedness to tackle such a highly motivated foe. The regular army's inability to make short work of a hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered force of around 400 gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers says something about its training and morale.

This is not intended as criticism of our soldiers who are among the bravest and toughest in the world. But the leadership of our troops is in the hands of an officer corps that is in danger of losing its professional edge due to endless intervention in civilian matters far removed from their normal duties.

Although General Musharraf and his colleagues have assured us that only a small percentage of military personnel are directly involved in civilian duties, the impression is one of vast numbers of serving and retired officers landing themselves plumb jobs. Lower ranks have to content themselves with checking electricity meters and driving licences. To say the normal training cycle is not affected is to suggest that it does not require much time and effort. The question then arises as to what military personnel does the whole year?

Before I am accused of exaggerating the severity of the situation based on a single botched action, let me point out that the Pakistan army's record is not exactly etched in letters of gold. From the fiasco of the 1948 Kashmir war in which the initial advantage was squandered through bad leadership to Kargil, the wars and skirmishes our army has fought have never yielded the results we had hoped for when we initiated all these hostilities.

Although much valour was displayed by troops and junior officers, they (and the nation) were let down time and again by senior officers. Poor planning, excessive caution and little communication between the three services on the one hand, and command and field echelons on the other, have characterized our military operations to date.

In the 1965 and 1971 wars, both started by our military's miscalculation of the Indian response to our actions, our units were largely static and where an offensive was launched, it was ill-judged. Mostly, our generals were content to hold on to defensive positions while waiting for international diplomacy to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

An Israeli analysis of our army's performance in the 1965 war was reproduced in the long-defunct Outlook in the early seventies, and was devastating in its conclusions. According to the authors, Pakistan enjoyed a sizable qualitative edge in US- supplied hardware that was not exploited by generals and resorted to tactics that let the Indians off the hook.

The Hamoodur Rehman commission report has been scathing about the personal and professional conduct of senior officers during the 1971 war. While in East Pakistan, units were surrounded by superior forces, the bulk of the army was in the West but provided no meaningful resistance. But with generals like Yahya Khan in charge of the army and the nation's destiny, small wonder that the entire military was demoralized.

Then we had the likes of Zia and Aslam Beg, the latter known for his "doctrine of strategic defiance". More recently, this master strategist was quoted by Owen Bennet Jones in his book "Pakistan: eye of the storm" as saying, in effect, that Pakistan did not need a command and control system for its nuclear weapons as India was unlikely to attack our installations.

Kargil was a short-term tactical triumph but a strategic disaster because its authors, General Musharraf among them, failed to grasp the global picture. They simply did not anticipate the outrage an unprovoked attack would arouse across the world when two nuclear protagonists were involved. A good general is capable of thinking and planning in three dimensions several moves ahead, and so far, none of our military planners have demonstrated this ability.

Another problem our defence forces face is their heavy involvement in property and other business-related activities. When an officer is spending much of his time in expanding his real estate portfolio, this is bound to tell on his professionalism. And after a point, he has acquired too much property to want to take risks. Although all these plots are lawfully acquired, surely there should be a cut-off, limiting officers to one, or at most two, houses in their career.

I went to dinner at a recently retired general's home in London a few months ago. Among the well-thumbed books lining the shelves of his living room were the complete works of Tacitus. How many of our homegrown Bonapartes have heard of the famous Roman, much less read him?


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