It is about time we, including this writer, conceded that our analysis and understanding of Pakistani polity, society and power structure has been deeply flawed. Or we might say, one-third right, two-thirds flawed. Here is why.
For decades now, the tired but trusted Triple A (Army, Allah, America) formulation has held among analysts. Nothing moves there without one of these wishing or with one of these vetoing. This is now called into question. My revised hypothesis is that Allah and America are unnecessarily blamed for the uniquely complicated picture. Of course, I am neither an atheist nor so foolhardy as to question divine majesty. But neither religion nor the relationship with the US defines the power structure or ideology of Pakistan. Only the army does. The army defines the national ideology, protects it and prospers from it.
I am, therefore, sticking my neck out to dump the wisdom of nearly six decades and put forward some sweeping generalisations. Going backwards chronologically over the past few weeks, we have seen:
# General Pervez Musharraf (in my book the stupidest Pakistani general I have met, and I have known more than a few as a reporter and on the Track-II circuit) claim that Kargil was actually a brilliant victory for his army. They had “caught India by the throat”, he said. Never mind that he is the one who ended up choking.
# The massacre of Ismailis in a bus near Karachi just when the army is completing a spectacular destruction of a recognised, popular political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), albeit with a malevolent armed mafia for extortion and ethnic warfare (mostly with Pakhtuns). The MQM was singled out because the army said it was primarily responsible for anarchy and gun culture in Karachi and, in addition, was made up of RAW agents. The massacre at this point would have raised questions about the army’s claims. Instead, the army and establishment still blamed it on RAW, and few questions were raised.
# Seymour Hersh’s expose in the London Review of Books on the Osama bin Laden killing. The claim that it was a stage-managed tamasha with CIA and ISI/Pakistan army in “mili bhagat” (cahoots) had an underlying message: that in a nation of 200 million with nuclear weapons, two generals (Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha) felt empowered to make a deal like this without any reference to the elected civilian government. Hersh’s claims were rubbished by his American peers, which is what journalists do when beaten on a story. There were doubts elsewhere in the world too, notably in India. But there was one country where these were by and large believed readily. In fact, immediate speculation began on the identity of the ISI “walk-in” who sold Osama to the CIA. This country is Pakistan.
Let’s weave these yarns into some kind of a tapestry. First, that while seven years of uninterrupted rule by elected civilian governments has shown that the army no longer has the stomach to take over power formally, it has demonstrated that it doesn’t need to. Power stays with it anyway. Over these seven years, rather than grow in stature, civil governments have diminished. See how the army took over Karachi, and the note of assertion in the tweets of Maj-Gen Asim Bajwa, Pakistan military spokesman. You can go backwards for more evidence: Imran Khan seeking GHQ intervention to bring down Nawaz Sharif, the army advising all politicians to shun conflict, and the chief attending top political meetings where body language as well as the order of seating tells you who the boss is. Most Pakistanis acknowledge this, some even rue this. The distrust of generals is widespread, the reason why Hersh’s story finds most immediate acceptance in Pakistan. Yet, they rarely hold the institution of the army responsible.
This enables the army to build mythologies, stalemates (1965) and now a defeat (Kargil) into victories, and defeats (1971) into stories of deceit by some and incompetence of individual generals. The only time you see questioning of the army is when a general has spent close to 10 years in power (Zia-ul-Haq, Musharraf) or messed up a war with India (Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan). Yet, the institution finds something soon enough to redeem itself. In recent years we have seen two such dramatic turnarounds. In 2008, the army, following the Musharraf years, was in bad odour. But it used the 26/11 attack to create an utterly fake spectre of an Indian attack, had air force jets flying low over the cities to build the fervour, and overnight the army was the saviour and Asif Ali Zardari’s elected government just spineless, particularly as it even asked the ISI chief to visit India. This is where Musharraf is now attempting to resurrect himself, using his disastrous military misadventure to build another mythology.
Also read: It took Pakistan three defeats to understand the flaw in its war strategy against India
More than 65 years after the departure of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, very few civilian role models or heroes have come up, heroes you will name new roads, cities, institutions after, whose busts or memorials you might put up in your schools, colleges, government offices. Some cricketers maybe, but few politicians, intellectuals, artistes, scientists-I do not believe you’d insist A.Q. Khan was a civilian. Physicist Abdus Salam was not just Pakistan’s but the entire Islamic world’s first Nobel-winning scientist but never found his place in the Pakistani mind, although that may partly be because he was an Ahmadiyya. Most of Pakistan’s post-1947 heroes have been soldiers, gallantry award winners in wars with India, they have streets and landmarks named after them. Funnily, I haven’t seen one named after a general. Probably because the most famous ones ended up exiled, discredited, defeated or assassinated. But their deeds did not hurt the institution. Again, there is a massive surge in the army’s popularity after the attack on its school in Peshawar. Support for its war on its chosen terrorists (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) was near unanimous. Very few dared to ask why it had built the Pakistani Taliban in the first place.
I ask my Pakistani friends a cruel question: why is the army held in such reverence and awe when it has lost you more than half your country (Bangladesh), got you no more of Kashmir than you had in 1948, destroyed your institutions, made the country a university and exporter of radicalism, driven out investment and skilled people, and depleted its economy? Until 30 years ago, Pakistan’s per capita income was 60-70 per cent higher than India’s. Today it is about 15 per cent lower. The army has ruled for most of this period directly or by proxy, as now, yet nobody blames it. I believe Pakistan lost its economic advantage early 1980s onwards as Zia, flushed by the Afghan jihad, discovered radicalised terror as a weapon of choice against India. Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Musharraf and now Kayani, none of the former chiefs is popular or, rather, not unpopular. Yet, their army is the only institution trusted and respected. That’s the reason I argue that it is the army that defined a new post-Jinnah ideology for Pakistan, captured the popular imagination, institutionalised it through textbooks and military mythologies. It merely discovered America in the ’50s to counter India, and radicalism (the more appropriate word for “Allah”) in the early ’80s as it saw the success of the “good” Afghan jihad. The Americans are widely detested in Pakistan, so are at least one set of armed radicals, and the religious parties never get a vote share in double figures. Hence my new hypothesis, that only one A really matters.
Good thing is that, as my friend and the finest Pakistani commentator, Khaled Ahmed, pointed out recently, there is now inclination to debate these issues. His optimism comes from the fact that the fairly recent, well-researched but scathing book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War by American scholar C. Christine Fair has not only not been banned in Pakistan but is being bought and discussed. I believe that this book is one of the better, if brutal, insights into the mind of the world’s most ideological army, which also happens to own more nukes than India or Israel, and is so overwhelmingly popular with its people.
POSTSCRIPT: One of the very few sources named in Hersh’s story is Lt-Gen Asad Durrani, ISI chief between 1990 and 1992. I met him first in December 1998 at a Track-II meeting at Kurumba Villa Resort, Maldives, a 10-minute boat ride from Male airport. Several Indian and Pakistani former military and intelligence chiefs were also present. Talking about the improving climate in India-Pakistan relations months after the nuclear tests by both, I said one reason was the relative calm in Kashmir.
Durrani didn’t like it. He looked up coldly at me and said just one short sentence: “It can all change very quickly in Kashmir.” Warning delivered, he returned to doodling on his conference notepad.
Two months later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Lahore on the bus, the Lahore declaration was signed. In May the same year, fighting broke out in Kargil. You can safely conclude that infiltration was at its peak just when our Track-II was on, and Durrani, a former spymaster then, was fully in the know, and also cocky and indiscreet. It stands to reason that he would also be on the inside track on the Osama raid.
Also read: Pakistan Army emotionally blackmails its population with its own idea of India