An inside account of the army

October 25, 2008

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AS our troops fight the militants in Bajaur and elsewhere, we are suddenly reminded of the point of having an army.

For far too long, the institution had become synonymous with dictatorship and repression. But now we can see it as the last bulwark against an enemy that has so far faced little or no resistance in its bid to take over the country.

Unlike earlier operations, when the political and military commands were combined in the hands of a general, this time the army`s leadership is free to focus on its primary duty without juggling simultaneously with political calculations. The result is a focused campaign in which the military enjoys the support of the elected government. And although there might not be a clear-cut public endorsement of its offensive, at least the majority is behind it. While most of us are saddened by the collateral damage caused by the fighting, we do understand that these militants have to be neutralised.

Clarity of purpose is essential to succeed in military matters. As Shuja Nawaz makes plain in his book Crossed Swords Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within, our army has been so deeply involved in politics that it is now considered the country`s most powerful political party. Indeed, it is impossible to write about Pakistan`s history without dwelling at length on the activities and personalities of our generals.

In his magisterial account of the Pakistan Army, Shuja Nawaz takes us back to the days of British India when the colonial army was raised. He then writes about the early days of the fledgling force when, even in its infancy, it began to display Bonapartist attitudes. The plots and the jockeying for power are fascinatingly laid bare in this painstaking history.

For many of us who have lived under the army`s jackboot during its repeated interventions, it is hard not to be angry and bitter as we assess its impact on Pakistan`s political development. Nawaz has the advantage of distance for several decades, he has worked in Washington at the IMF. From here, he has been able to gain access to many American sources and key players.

And while Crossed Swords is an objective study, it is also an insider`s account the author is from a distinguished military family, and whose brother, Gen Asif Nawaz, was army chief until his tragic death during his tenure. In addition, many of Shuja Nawaz`s relatives have served in the army in senior positions. This has given him unparalleled access to the upper echelons of the military.

He writes knowledgably about the Islamisation process in the army that began under Zia, and was continued by some of his successors. Thus, operational plans are now often subject to prayer for the Almighty`s intercession instead of rigorous cost-benefit analysis. In a fascinating and depressing passage about this trend in the ISI, Nawaz writes “[Newly appointed director general of the ISI Gen Javed Ashraf] Qazi describes a strange non-military atmosphere at the ISI when he arrived to take over on very short notice. The corridors were filled with bearded officers in civilian shalwar-kameez, many of them with their shalwar hitched up above their ankle[s], a signature practice of the Tablighi Jama[a]t to which the former DG Javed Nasir belonged. He was shown the `strong room` that once had `currency stacked to the ceiling`, but was now empty as adventurist ISI officershad taken `suitcases full of cash` to the field, including to the newly independent Central Asian states, ostensibly to set up safe houses and operations there in support of Islamic causes. There were no accounts or receipts for these money transfers ... Most officers were absent from their offices for extensive periods, often away for `prayers`...”

Combining political and military leadership was to spell disaster in 1965 and 1971. Nawaz`s account of the latter conflict, in particular Yahya Khan and his coterie`s bumbling approach, made me angry all over again after all these years. Pakistan`s pathetic military efforts in its western wing exposed the hollowness of the doctrine `the defence of the East lies in the West`.

When the Indians attacked East Pakistan in November 1971, our soldiers mostly sat in their tanks and their bunkers, waiting for orders to counter-attack. Those orders never came. Our planes attacked in pairs instead of waves. This paralysis at GHQ and the presidency led directly to the surrender ceremony at the Race Course in Dhaka on Dec 16.

I wish the author had used his encyclopaedic knowledge to expand on the atrocities committed by the army in the run-up to the war. All kinds of casualty figures have been tossed around, but that is not the point if the army, a disciplined fighting force, killed even a thousand unarmed civilians, such acts could not be justified or defended (as they were sought to be) by the terrorist attacks carried out by the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali freedom fighters. In the event, the number of victims was far higher, a matter of shame for every Pakistani.

The author was eyewitness to many of the events then unfolding in West Pakistan as he was a news presenter with PTV. The ham-handed propaganda efforts masterminded by Roedad Khan would have been funny had not their consequence been so tragic. Not only did Pakistan lose all sympathy and support in the rest of the world, our media managers had convinced the leadership as well as the public that victory was around the corner. With only the official radio and TV to tell us what was going on, many Pakistanis fell for the official line.

In his impeccably researched and fluently written account, Nawaz tells us of the manoeuvring that goes on behind the scenes each time a new army chief is being selected. But despite the efforts of politicians to select a soldier without political ambition, they usually get it wrong. And each time, we end up paying for these errors in judgment.

Today, the dangers Pakistan faces call for a closer understanding between the political leadership and the army command. This partnership must be based on the universal concept of military subordination to elected political government. Only this will ensure the public support the military needs to function effectively. But before the army can take on the Islamic militants in the tribal areas and within our cities, it has to cleanse its own ranks of these elements.

irfan.husain@gmail.com