General amnesia

Published November 30, 2022
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

THERE are occasions, admittedly rare, when departing generals offer potentially useful guidelines to the future of their nations. One of the best-known instances is that of Smedley Butler who, on retiring from the US Marine Corps back in 1931, designated his nation’s propensity towards making wars as “possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious” racket.

Thirty years later, Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during the final phase of World War II, and subsequently a two-term US president, exited the White House with a dire warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” by “the military-industrial complex”, noting that: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Both warnings, unfortunately, went pretty much unheeded. The US military-industrial complex is today more powerful than Eisenhower could ever have imagined, and while the corporations and conglomerates Butler found himself defending in Haiti or the Philippines might have morphed, much like the declared designs of American foreign policy, the essential impulses of US imperialism — also known as ‘the rule-based’ global order — remain pretty much the same.

Anyhow, it’s unfortunate that retired Gen Qamar Bajwa’s final speech as military chief last week fell short of offering any novel insights into the long-standing role of the military in Pakistan’s polity. To his credit, he acknowledged the unconstitutionality of the army’s interventions in the nation’s 76 years of existence.

The unsurprising implication was that whereas the army has always stepped out to salvage the national interest, it is civilian politicians who are to be blamed for putting it at risk.

Dubious legacies have been left behind by departing chiefs.

That narrative has been the norm since before Bajwa was born. It was cited as the excuse for the military takeover in 1958, which pre-empted the nation’s first general elections based on universal adult franchise.

The young country’s first indigenous army chief also became its first chief martial law administrator and, right afterwards, its second president.

Claims about the inadequacy of politicians and their overriding instincts for self-preservation have never been entirely untrue. It could equally be argued, though, that the opportunity of the political class to learn from its errors has routinely been stalled by force — or, more precisely, the forces.

The army and the bureaucracy, or civil service, were the two institutions that the colonial power bequeathed to India and Pakistan in 1947.

India adopted its constitution in 1949-50 and conducted its first democratic elections a year later. Pakistan followed almost two decades later, and only its third constitution, unanimously approved by the National Assembly in 1973, has enjoyed any longevity.

That was after the nation established in 1947 had split. In last week’s speech, Bajwa claimed that the politicians were to blame for 1971. That’s not entirely untrue, but is at best a half-truth.

How can you ignore the fact that for the previous dozen years the nation had been ruled by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, followed by Gen Yahya Khan? It’s a different matter that the latter was the most debauched head of state or government to have presided over the nation’s fate.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s role in the second partition, as the leader of the party that had won a majority in West Pakistan, cannot be overlooked. Had he come to some sort of agreement with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League had won an overall majority, it would have been far harder, if not impossible, for the army to launch Ope­ration Searchlight and the unspeakable atrocities that followed.

Some West Pakistan politicians could no doubt be nailed as collaborators, but they weren’t the perpetrators.

He cited 34,000 Pakistani soldiers being up against 250,000 Indian troops and 200,000 members of the Mukti Bahini. The latter was partly trained and equipped by India, though without sophisticated arms. Bajwa says 34,000 soldiers were in the fight. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report cites more than 56,000 military personnel, beyond paramilitary forces and collaborators.

The partition could have been peaceful. The military cannot avoid culpability for the bloodshed it involved. And, sure, the idea of the military keeping out of politics is welcome.

But ‘neutrality’ — a term much derided by Imran Khan, who is evidently solicitous of military intervention as long as it is on his behalf — is not the point. Whether a back-to-the-barracks mentality can be insinuated will remain open to question unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2022

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