When Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck returned to India in 1943 as the commander-in-chief of the military, one of his goals was to ‘Indianise’ the force while ensuring high levels of professionalism. Though the demands of performing in the Second World War obfuscated his plans to move away from limiting recruitment to the ‘martial races’, he developed a culture of professionalism that made it imperative for the armed forces to analyse every operation, including failures, for future benefit.
Reading the recently published opinion article by the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, it seems that Pakistan’s military has deviated from the culture of questioning its actions and carrying out analysis. General Headquarters of Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi is no longer interested in critical evaluation even if it is from one of its own. The current leadership has reached the new milestone of tightly locking itself up in an echo chamber and not tolerating dissent. A senior retired officer like Durrani fears for his life and has been constrained from traveling to meet family. This is in addition to him being hauled up in front of an inquisition regarding his books, especially Spy Chronicles, which he co-authored with the former chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), A.S. Dulat, and his pension being stopped for a while.
Durrani was punished not for disclosing any secret, but for analysing the tantalising event of the 2011 American operation in Abbottabad to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The general retired in 1993, which means he wasn’t privy to any secret, but could still analyse based on his knowledge of his institution. Perhaps due to his pride in the military, he could not believe that the Pakistan Army could be caught with its pants down. And so, he claimed in an interview to Al Jazeera that the top generals negotiated the Osama bin Laden operation with the Americans. While the interview was ignored, Durrani repeating this claim in the book angered army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was totally sidetracked by his political ego. Durrani’s theory about the Abbottabad operation took attention away from what the army chief was trying to do – tell the world that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had hurt national interests by disclosing to the newspaper Dawn that the world was concerned about Pakistan’s involvement with militant groups and extremism.
The jury on how much the army top brass knew about the American operation is still out. In his recently published book The Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama claims that it was a secret kept from Pakistan because some of its intelligence personnel were deeply connected with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Former army chief General Ashfaq Kayani seems to have only demanded that Washington come clean about the operation after it was all done. None of this means that the generals at the helm of the Pakistan Army did or did not have more details. We will probably have to wait many more years when American records get declassified to get a clearer picture. Durrani, and many other officers like him, might eventually get disappointed as they realise that the military high command continued to sleep during the operation, as they did during the outbreak of the 1965 war with India.
Impact of the Durrani leak
However, Durrani’s article is important due to six factors. First, there is unrest in the larger military fraternity of Pakistan caused by actions of the new generation of generals. Second, there is an indication of a shift in the army’s culture. The institution has strayed away from its tradition of showing respect to the senior command, and even the retired ones. What started under General Pervez Musharraf in the form of criticising Lt. General Ali Quli Khan in his book has come full circle with a senior retired general being mercilessly hounded.
Third, the article says a lot about the military’s socialisation process. Power is maintained not just through distribution of perks and privileges, a system that Durrani criticises as being abused by the top brass, but also by revoking security clearance of officers that are seen as having stepped out of line. While Asad Durrani’s clearance was withdrawn for using his pen instead of the sword, Maj. General (retd) Mahmud Durrani lost his clearance that would enable him to attend functions where the chief would be present probably for his admission that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani citizen. There are many more stories waiting to be told about how men may retire from their respective services but can never return to civilian life.
Fourth, Durrani seems to have exposed the working of General Bajwa’s cabal, the influence of former generals, and the petty-mindedness behind the targeting of a senior retired officer. The former spy chief came out guns blazing about corruption of the military leadership, especially the story of General Beg extracting money from a Karachi banker, Younis Habib, to finance an ISI operation against Benazir Bhutto’s government. I remember my own interview with General Beg for my first book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making at his think tank in Rawalpindi, in which he confessed that this was not the first time that the ISI had got money from private entrepreneurs. Intriguingly, Beg also managed to extract resources from the Germans, who continue to be a significant European source for financing both kosher and dubious think tank activities in Pakistan. The picture that emerges then is of a military with issues at the top.
Fifth, such close-mindedness means that the top-brass lacks capacity to deviate from their traditional behaviour, and are not capable of any strategic policy review. This means they are more likely to get stuck geo-politically and politically in situations from which they will be unable to extricate themselves. Finally, the institution’s capacity to harm people, including its own officers, has multiplied.
The building of an echo-chamber
Durrani published his thoughts in an Indian news blog probably because because he didn’t think it would be printed in Pakistan. He timed it well to further expose the shallowness of the existing top brass that is confronted with mounting political opposition to its hybrid rule formula. His article is a rap on Bajwa’s knuckles, and could become painful if it gets circulated widely in military circles. In his novel Honour Among Spies, Durrani shows the army chief exiting from the office, which is not a probability in real life except in case of a coup by another general. But additional pressures could be consequential for Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed’s future, whose desire to become the next army chief is no secret.
The Durrani leaks tell us about the growing weakness of an institution that has made it a habit not to expose itself to critical examination or alternative views. This particular problem dates back to the Musharraf years, when any discussion of the Kargil operation and shooting down of Pakistan Navy’s Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft at war colleges was totally forbidden. At that time, any discussion that took place was by the larger security community and in the country’s media. However, over the years, this became a bad habit with the military shifting from not listening to alternative views to gagging voices and planting views that would echo its own. The 14-15 think tanks in Islamabad mostly say what is approved. This creates the problem of an echo chamber that only regurgitates what the military leadership wants to hear.
There is a larger problem at the back of this behaviour: the proclivity of military leadership to generally consider itself like Caesar’s wife — above questioning. It tends to enforce its sensitivity on society as a fact of life. From a command-and-control perspective, such sensitivity is tricky. From the Pakistan Army punishing its own general for reviewing his institution’s performance to the Indian Air Force chief complaining about something minor in a Netflix series, this kind of behaviour implies that military leadership is not open to the idea of evaluation, or even laughter. In the process, it’s a bid to create a special category for the military as an institution that cannot be examined.
Surely, modern militaries are technologically advanced and more complex, which makes control difficult. The myth-building about their service to the nation and how critical they are for ensuring security to the State then puts them at a pedestal where questioning becomes relatively difficult. This is not easy to ignore because it presents a long-term issue for civil-military relations. The sensitivity of the military is negotiated through the society with the legitimacy of politicians, depending upon the respect they show their armed forces.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was told not to allow any discussion of the 1971 debacle and the military’s performance. He ensured silence, but paid with his own life. The survival of politics makes it vital for societies and polities to engage with the armed forces and treat them as one of the institutions, rather than the only one.
The author is a research associate at SOAS, London, and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. Views are personal.