"The government had adopted a posture of complete neutrality. This created a peculiar situation and encouraged fissiparous and divisive tendencies. It was a strange sort of a GHQ, which either by design or default, allowed political argument to develop in a political vacuum created by its own absence, sort of a strategic withdrawal from the political scene.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that the passage above is a befitting commentary on the current political scenario, where the catchphrase being used in political discourse for the last seven to eight months has predominantly been the word ‘neutral.’
In actual fact (with the words “martial law administration” substituted with the abbreviation GHQ), the statement above has been taken from Brig (retd) A.R. Siddiqi’s book East Pakistan The End Game: An Onlooker’s Journal 1969-1971.
Though an excruciatingly painful account of the last seven months of united Pakistan and Gen Yahya Khan’s hubristic, supremely arrogant, ill-conceived and fateful decision to unleash Operation Searchlight on Dhaka on March 25, 1971, the book’s theme is all the more evocative in today’s context.
That the military mindset and approach which looms large on our politics has not changed an iota for at least half a century, is quite a disturbing thought. This begs a few pertinent questions: have our politicians been able to strengthen democratic institutions at the expense of the army’s overreach? Does a sizeable majority of the budding as well as old school politicians perceive a degree of success in politics without the endorsement — tacit or blatant — of the military, impossible?
The tactics used by Pakistan’s army generals to cling on to power are regularly rinsed and repeated. Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recently completed tenure has some stark similarities to an earlier ignominious period in the country’s history
Historically speaking, in Pakistan, public pronouncements by the army of stepping back from the maelstrom of politics have been a recurring event, and have only happened, cynics would argue, to regroup and re-enter the arena with a new game plan, but with the same underlying theme — how to ‘cleanse’ the system and create a conducive atmosphere to hold free and fair elections.
Gen (retd) Qamar Javed Bajwa’s wish to extract another extension, on the pretext of taking the country towards economic and political stability from the turbulence which he and his coterie of generals had meticulously incubated themselves to deliver such an outcome, is no secret.
If one were to rationally and realistically analyse the current change of heart, the formation commanders’ decision to stay neutral in the political process has close similarities with the chatter amongst senior officers in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in 1969, focusing on extricating the army from the political process and staying, you guessed it, neutral.
For instance, according to the book, Gen S.G.M Peerzada — the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) to Yahya — like a dutiful subordinate, while making allowances for Yahya being attracted to the allure of politics and carving a political role for himself, had on a few occasions conveyed to Brig Siddiqi Yahya’s wish to hold free and fair elections.
The book analyses Yahya’s utterances by reading between the lines and, more crucially, whether the general had contributed substantially towards the turmoil that had brewed from 1969 onwards. One thing which is established beyond a shadow of doubt is that, with the passage of time, his absolute hold on power was enough for him to start toying with the idea of his own utility and indispensability for the system. The exact same can be said for Gen Bajwa.
The Bajwa Doctrine
Unlike 1971, Gen Bajwa derived his confidence to manipulate the system to favour the army chief more from the oversized ability of men under his command to work the system than taking advantage of the naturally escalating political crisis.
In both case studies, the audacity and impunity, the contemptuous disdain for politicians and the faux belief in being the best informed organisation in the country, sowed the seeds of invincibility qua the political system.
For perspective, it may be recalled that it was Gen Bajwa’s much touted ‘doctrine’ which became the cornerstone of his efforts to dominate the system, right from his appointment in 2016, at the expense of economic and political stability, which gradually but firmly put him in pole position to pitch his demand for another extension, because of his experience of running (read ruining) the country.
While cruising on, he never experienced any dearth of politicians to become his foot soldiers, in order to successfully execute the so-called doctrine: Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) from 2018 and later the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) from April 2022 till now and counting.
Echoes of Yahya Khan’s Approach
With his overgrown, arched eyebrows and an ever-incandescent face, Yahya never held back any punches when it came to holding politicians in contempt, calling them “a pack of jokers.”
Similarities in the military mindset are unmistakable: Yahya asks Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani to speak to Mujibur Rehman because, “I am a simple soldier, what can I do about it?” Amidst peals of laughter during his address to his Baloch Regiment buddies, he had lampooned Bhashani by mimicking his Bengali accent, saying, “‘Shir’, please don’t transfer power to ‘Muzib’, he is a traitor.”
Gen Bajwa convincing Khan of his organisation’s neutrality but, at the same time, not relenting on his behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and arm-twisting to get another extension using a law that was passed under his personal supervision, has echoes of Yahya’s dual-faced approach.
Yahya had also expressed his reluctance to “throw the country to the wolves” in the aforementioned reunion and had wished to rule the country for another 14 years and hand over power to the commander who was next in line when he had finished ruling.
This might sound like an astonishing remark in today’s context, but the fact of the matter is that the only substantial change since 1971 is that the commanders’ huddle has only decided against imposing direct martial law; its hitherto untried variations and backstage strong-arm manipulations carry on regardless, and with renewed vigour.
A Looming Disaster
One could safely argue that the problem lies in the army sniffing around for readily available civilian allies to perpetuate their hold on power and fast-shrinking national resources, allies that get attracted by the lure of a few veritable political crumbs.
How far the system is rigged can be gauged from the fact that otherwise astute and intelligent politicians, such as Malik Ahmad Khan, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and Moonis Elahi, and seasoned anchors such as Javed Chaudhry, have jumped to Gen Bajwa’s defence, ostensibly to be on the right side of the military establishment, in order to stay relevant for them in the future.
One element which was perhaps absent in 1971 but which may be the deciding factor concerning the future of Pakistan, is the pitiable state of the economy in 2023. The familiar cycle has been continuing for a few decades but, currently, perhaps for the first time in history, it is looking akin to a motor car running with only a few drops of engine oil left.
How long will it take for the vehicle to overheat and stall?
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023