Crossed Swords | Shuja Nawaz
The Pakistani army has time and again taken the political reins of the country. These takeovers have occurred at times when the credibility of its civilian rulers has been very low. The army, in turn, has always returned to the barracks when its credibility is hit hard. Why and how has this recurring pattern become a near-constant feature of Pakistan’s history since 1958?
There are two explanations: One is the simple one, which is that of incompetent politicians making a mess of things, leaving the army with no alternative but to step in; the other is that from 1947, when the army emerged as the most organized arm of the Pakistani state, the army and the bureaucracy have systematically derailed the country’s political process. The culmination of that process was the assumption of dictatorial powers by the first president of the country, Iskandar Mirza (a retired bureaucrat) in 1958. Mirza was, in turn, nudged out by then army chief, Mohammad Ayub Khan.
Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within:Oxford University Press, 655 pages, Rs695.
In recent decades, the second argument has been in vogue, especially in academia. Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within, the new book by Shuja Nawaz, a US-based political analyst who specializes in Pakistan and West Asia, offers a more balanced perspective. The strength of Nawaz’s book lies in its detailing of history and its interpretation, without losing sight of the facts. He does not mince words when it comes to the failings of the army, but he refrains from criticism for the sake of it, not allowing his own beliefs to intrude into his analytical scheme.
The history of the Pakistan army is complex, and cannot be boxed into a single explanation. Nawaz says that the army’s interference in politics is due to a combination of factors: recklessness of politicians and the presence of ambitious soldiers in the army. That, of course, is not the whole picture. The age of ambitious soldiers probably ended with General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan in 1971. After the era of General Zia ul Haq, which ended in 1988, army chiefs have been reluctant to take over executive control, directly at least.
At least three generals, Asif Nawaz Janjua (the author’s brother), Abdul Waheed and Jehangir Karamat, have been conscious of the army’s limited abilities in the political domain—all three were chiefs in the 1990s. All three had a difficult time with an ambitious politician, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The author shows (with ample documentary evidence) that the breakdown of civilian political order in 1999, when Sharif was ousted, was due to his drive to “tame” the army. There was no need for that because, beginning with General Asif Nawaz Janjua, there was a clear acceptance of civilian control by the army. What was required was a steady institutionalization of the process.
On vigil: The army in Pakistan has a complex history and troops are omnipresent in the country. Photograph: AFP
After reading Nawaz’s book, one gets the feeling that Sharif was in a hurry to control the army, and, in the process, lost the distinction between asserting control and browbeating generals. He finally paid the price after the Kargil conflict in 1998.
One chapter of the book is devoted to the genesis of the Kargil episode. Nawaz argues that the presence of like-minded generals at the top and the closing “window of opportunity” for deciding the Kashmir issue in Pakistan’s favour, triggered the war. Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, was briefed many times. He was aware of what was going on, but tried to extricate himself by saying that he did not know the scale of what was taking place. These attempts led to a breakdown in relations between him and General Pervez Musharraf.
The coup by Musharraf took place when the credibility of politicians had hit rock-bottom. Musharraf had to give up his uniform when the army, in turn, lost credibility after years of misgoverning Pakistan. This only reinforces the idea of the cyclical, civilian-military-civilian nature of Pakistan’s history.
The final chapter of the book outlines how organizational changes in the army, and an alteration in its command structure, may prevent the occurrence of coups. That may help, but one cannot but be sceptical about the efficacy of those changes. For, unless Pakistan gets a stable political order, nothing can help it.