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HomeOpinionPakistan’s retired officers shouldn’t head civilian organisations. Military is only for war

Pakistan’s retired officers shouldn’t head civilian organisations. Military is only for war

Had Sandhurst-trained UK officers run British organisations they too might have failed like Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Steel Mills.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Also read: The writing is on the wall: Pakistan’s Imran Khan govt is on the edge of collapse

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.

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  1. I wish he had written something about India’s strong democratic roots and how it has avoided military rule and “presidential” models. This is something about which India can truly be proud of.

    Parvez Hoodabhoy is a good writer. I frequently read his articles in DAWN. He presents more balanced view on things in Pakistan, and in Indo-pak relationship, though sometimes, he falls prey to calling J & K as India Held Kashmir, or write about “oppression of Muslims” in India. Please continue to publish his articles in The Print. Indians must understand their antagonist / enemy better.

  2. Before the draft law ended, everyone in US and UK was an exmilitary man. Ayb Khan sacked disgracefully 303 of the country’s best civil servants and judges who resisted his authoritarian rule. It caused permanent damage to beaurocracy that lost its sense of security. PIA remained great until capable air martials ran it. A general appointed by Nawaz Sharif ran PSM very well as there was a good team of engineers and only administrative discipline was needed .

  3. Who can be better fighter then the Pakistani armed forces. Pakistani civl services are quota base merit, even not fair in selecting the quota based merit. They discourage merit. How can they run anything big

  4. Also a physicist should not be writing as Journalist in newspapers. He should mine his own business as scientist.

  5. I am from Bangladesh, as Mr. Hoodboy drawn reference to UK officials, let me clarify you something since the military culture is similar in BD as well as in Pak. Couple examples does not represent every scenario. Ayub Khan and today’s military officers are not same kind. In Bangladesh, some of the worst performer private firms stood in the top after retired military officials headed them. Having worked in two, I can tell the difference between having both the leadership.

    • Bangladesh military and Pakistani military has parallels. In Bangladesh, military is in every pie which is resented by the civilians. There is a possibility army will take over power or control the country superseding the civilian government as they do in pakistan.

      • Faster the better. Let the subcontinent be a conglomerate of all garrison countries. All militaries think alike, so make miltary the new global political philosophy for runing daily business. Bureaucracy is as such useless and mostly carries out quick fixes for political gains of their bosses.

  6. The article is too generic and fails to grasp the intrinsic value system differences between European/UK and Pakistan.
    It is true that armed forces should be supportive and answerable to civilian rule and Turkey’s recent steps to ensure this are actually quite pertinent to Pakistan however the strong Turkish and British civilian institutions have been honed over many centuries and buracracy thus developed is interwined with a high degree of complexity that it would be impossible for any military takeover to manipulate.
    Unfortunately that is not the case with Pakistan were the civilian institutes are feebly weak and barely capable of standing on their own two feet as they have barely been allowed to mature due to repeat military intervention and corruption, that is not the case with the well oiled Pakistan Military machine that understands command and control on a very high level of maturity.
    The Pakistani armed forces no doubt are allowing room for the current government to operate interceding now and then eg recent Foreign Office spat with Saudi however in that case the civilian government was very much onside and both the UAE and Saudi need to know their limits and Pakistans red lines on Kashmir and it’s IP on nuclear weapons vis a ve both Arab countries recent ‘love affair’ with Israel whilst cold shouldering Palestine.
    Pakistan Armed forces are the glue that binds Pakistan together and until Pakistans civilian civil service is re-built devoid of corruption and manned by a honest professional workforce with only Pakistans national interest rather than individuals selfish interest then expect the Pakistani armed forces to play their full responsibility to the safety and security of the state both within and outside its borders.

  7. Hoodbuy is the person who consider Quranic education to the kids is an additional burden on their mind. And now he will enlighten us on some more issues. What a moron he is.

    Shame to the this news paper as will. I fully with Romil

    • Now I know why there are so few scientists in the Islamic countries. You should shut down all universities and build few thousands of madrassahs.

  8. Why the website from the corruption culprit accused based in India should run the article on pakistan civilian organization. Are they also giving you any Cut for your “Good Tone” like #agustawestland scam#

    We have already many places and issues in India to use your journalism experience.


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