Gen Ayub Khan, president of Pakistan 1958-1969, was a simple man. His solutions to complex issues could sometimes take your breath away. On page 101 of Friends Not Masters — his autobiography written while in office — he complains that student indiscipline is rampant because “there are far too many students and not enough buildings, laboratories, and libraries”.
His suggested fix: “One instructor on a platform with a loudspeaker can take a very large body of students at one time, and just half an hour a day should build up their bodies and minds, and take the devil out of them.”
Actually, the business of purging devils is called exorcism, not education and sending PT masters to colleges or universities is absurd. But Ayub Khan’s charming modesty buys him reprieve. He readily admits that: “I was not a very bright student, nor did I find studies a particularly absorbing occupation.” In 1926, his father, a risaldar-major in the British Army, paid his fees for the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst where “life was spartan” and there was much rough and tumble among cadets. In keeping with the academy’s tradition to create a privileged officer class, he was duly assigned a British soldier as orderly.
Ayub’s cockeyed views on education owes to Sandhurst where physical drill and discipline came first and foremost. This would ensure that “the cadet has a graceful carriage, stands easy and erect, and shows by his bearing that he is manly and self-reliant. Mr Molesworth, an English authority, has said: The contrast between Hyperion and a Satyr is scarcely more striking than that which exists between the loutish bearing of a Lancashire lad and the firm, respectful, and self-respecting carriage of the same person after he has been disciplined and polished by the drill.”
Had Sandhurst-trained UK officers run British organisations they too might have failed like PIA, PSM, etc.
Hyperion (a deity who holds the cosmos in place) rather than Satyr (a goat-like man) was how the handsome young Ayub thought of himself. Although he never won any war, a strong self-image encouraged him into becoming the world’s first self-declared field marshal. It also gave him sufficient confidence to launch the coup of 1958, dismiss president Iskander Mirza from office, and spend the next decade steering the country. While these were years of extraordinary movement, they were not always in the right direction.
Ayub firmly hitched Pakistan to the American wagon and, flush with American weapons, launched Operation Gibraltar. This started the 1965 war but with all options gone he had to end it inconclusively. He irreversibly alienated East Pakistan from West Pakistan. In 1968, widespread agitation finally ended his so-called Decade of Development. Nevertheless Ayub Khan is popularly rated higher than the generals who succeeded him: Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf.
Fortunately, British military academies have produced very few Ayub-like putschists. Certainly several British officers must have had Ayub-sized egos. Many an officer must have preened himself before a mirror and seen Hyperion there. But a military coup in the British system was and remains unthinkable. Why?
Successful societies know that those who fight wars well are not always best suited for running industries, academia, or government. Therefore British military officers, whether serving or retired, are not given preferential treatment outside of their specific skills. It is broadly realised that men in uniform can be heroic fighters in wartime but in other situations they can be just as clueless and bureaucratic as their civilian counterparts.
Imagine for a moment that the British military ran Britain or had a big hand in running it. Would British Airways survive cut-throat competition if its CEO was a retired RAF air marshal rather than some tech-savvy hi-fi business type? In working out complicated Brexit policy options, would a retired lieutenant general negotiate British interests better than a PhD in economics from Cambridge? Should the British Electricity Authority look for some distinguished electrical engineer or for a British army colonel instead? And would a Royal Navy admiral — serving or retired — be best placed to protect Britain’s interests in North Sea oil?
Fortunately for Britain, such an experiment has never been tried and military officers are not automatically made heads of organisations upon retirement. Else the result would be a graveyard of failing or flailing institutions similar to chronically sick organisations such as Pakistan Steel Mills, PIA, Suparco, Wapda, PCSIR, and countless others. In these places merit is regularly superseded not just at the very top but inside departments as well.
Military mindsets undeniably contain some exceptional qualities. The testing conditions of war require that militaries develop a spectrum of capabilities stretching from command and control to logistics and materiel management. Many develop their own engineering and medical facilities that are very useful when a natural or man-made disaster strikes. In fact, most countries have legislation requiring armed forces to support civilian authorities during emergencies and war.
But what can keep a military from wandering into civilian and administrative affairs during peacetime? At the end of World War II powerful militaries in the Western world were flush with victory. Adoring publics showered rose petals upon hero generals who, at some point, could have asserted themselves and become dangerous. That is why president Harry Truman had to sack Gen Douglas MacArthur. The political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in 1957 that asserting civilian control is crucial and requires professionalising the military by setting it apart from the rest of society while teaching it to execute but not formulate policy.
Although military men in the age of electronic warfare have to be smarter and better informed than their predecessors, a graduate from some military academy is no substitute for those who have spent their careers honing specific skills in academia, industry, commerce, and a plethora of technical fields.
All Pakistani institutions are desperately short of competence and sorely need the right people in the right places. Retired officers when put at the head of organisations can make cosmetic changes and may superficially improve institutional discipline but not much else. Soldiers should stick to what they are good at and paid for — fighting wars rather than running businesses or making movies.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer. Views are personal.
This article was first published in Dawn on 10 October 2020. It has been republished here with permission.