“The army chief does not express personal opinion. Whatever he says is the collective view of his institution.”
These were General Jahangir Karamat’s words a few hours after he ceased being Pakistan’s chief of army staff; his tenure prematurely over after his controversial call for the setting up of a National Security Council.
In his second term in office, a ‘heavily mandated’ Nawaz Sharif wasn’t willing to brook any ‘nonsense’. He asked for his army chief’s resignation. A BBC colleague suggested we try and get the general’s view.
We called Army House from London expecting a rebuff. But the operator put us through to Gen Karamat in the shock and confusion that must have followed the chief’s decision. The general denied he was sacked: “I resigned because I didn’t want this controversy to damage the country”.
I put it to him: “Was the NSC statement your personal opinion or did it represent the collective wisdom of the army?” He responded with his “collective view” statement.
We also interviewed Sharif’s top aide Mushahid Husain. With unmistakable triumphalism, he said the decision showed who was boss.
It wasn’t long before it emerged that many generals, and most notably the CGS (chief of general staff) Lt-Gen Ali Kuli Khan (Khattak) who was in Peshawar for the day, later protested to the chief that he had decided to go quietly and not allowed them to sort out the government.
Sharif handpicked Lt-Gen Pervez Musharraf because he was advised his choice didn’t have a big constituency in the army, given his ethnic origins. Therefore, he would remain grateful at being elevated and follow orders without question.
It wasn’t long before the all-powerful prime minister found out how wrong he was. After a disastrous Kargil misadventure and continued defiance, when he tried to sack the army chief, he was overthrown, jailed and exiled.
Whether it was an ‘individual’s decision’ or the collective will of the institution manifesting itself, Pakistan was going to be set back another 10 years as, following in the footsteps of Ayub and Zia, Musharraf declared himself the monarch.
Frankly, as the Supreme Court proceedings in the Asghar Khan case and its ruling demonstrated, even when the army wasn’t directly, blatantly in power, it or its key individuals were still controlling most of the levers of power, even to the extent of manipulating elections.
In fact, just before the PPP government was sent packing in 1990, I was working for the Herald and wrote a story on how politicised even Gen Beg’s spouse was. Addressing a Rawalpindi Garrison Women’s Club meeting, she let loose on PPP’s ‘atrocities on the poor Mohajirs in Sindh’.
The PPP had already had to climb a mountain to form a government as another ‘individual’, the then ISI chief, had created an alliance to block its progress in the 1988 elections.
Anyway, after I wrote the Herald story on Mrs Beg, the then corps commander in Karachi requested a meeting. Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua was a bellicose officer who was supposed to be feared. As one prone to living dangerously, I agreed.
Ushered into his office and introductions over, the aides left the room. The general didn’t offer me a seat. I pulled a chair and lowered myself into it anyway. He reached into a drawer, pulled out a copy of the Herald with each of my stories marked by a coloured flag.
“Yaar, what’s this?” He barked, opening the page to the Mrs Beg story. “The chief called me from ‘Pindi. He was very upset.” I responded: “Is it untrue? If the chief wants he can issue a denial. But I have a number of witnesses who heard the speech.”
The general almost exploded: “I am sure she said it. But national interest bhi koyee cheez hotee hai (is also something). Do you have to report everything?” My current sense of realism, pragmatism … Ok, Ok … cowardice was still several years away. No family, no material possessions, nothing to lose.
“General, I thought this was going to be a grown-up conversation, a meeting to share our respective perspectives. Not a lecture on national interest. Had I known, I wouldn’t have bothered to come.” I started to get up.
The corps commanders, or at least Gen Asif Nawaz, had desks the size of football fields.
The big, burly officer got up and started to storm round his colossal desk. I rose to my full five-foot-nothing frame and braced myself. As he neared, I saw a half-raised right hand. Then I realised he was offering me his hand as he said: “Good. Now we understand each other perfectly.”
There was no mention of my journalism anymore and none either of national interest. He ordered tea, biscuits and a friendly chat followed. All my quirky views were heard without a frown. Things have moved on over the past two decades.
Now, Gen Kayani voluntarily says he has no monopoly over defining national interest. He says there is a need for all to follow the constitution. He acknowledges mistakes have been made in the past but calls for the rule of law to deal with those at this ‘defining moment’ in our nation’s history.
The army chief’s statement and the chief justice’s apparent retort to that have been described as ominous signs of this and that. I firmly believe that the past is another country. It will haunt us but we’ll never return to it.
I don’t feel the need to qualify criticism of the military by paying a perfunctory tribute to the several thousand soldiers who have laid down their lives valiantly battling the forces of darkness. Where I stand ideologically, they are my heroes anyway.
As for whether some generals indulged in corrupt practices or are clean as a whistle, we’ll wait for the due process of law to tell us. But we won’t abandon, or abdicate, our right to ask questions because a former head of ISI says: “Shut up, idiots.”
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.