Armies are peculiar reflections of their national history, culture and mother society. Within each army there are sub-structures that correspond to the functional and operational needs of the force as it might be deployed for war, security or humanitarian tasks. However, the key is that their mission statement must remain intact. An attempt to adulterate the army’s mission with subjective or expedient notions, like what happened in our country over the last few decades, could result in horrific consequences as they eventually did here. The Pakistan army’s military culture is a mix of the secularist British Indian army and post-partition sectarian Pakistani society. While we are still struggling to retain the essentials of a remarkably egalitarian culture in the army, the intrusion of an Islamist sub-stream in the 1980s into the forces has been largely contained and usefully channelled into the military’s motivation stream where it belonged. In the process, the army suffered certain mutilations of military conduct and off-parade working. Most have been taken care of, some still linger, e.g. work almost comes to a standstill on military premises literally from the morning on Fridays. A similar occurrence sometimes takes place during serious operational exercises, impinging upon the element of realism.
Army culture is largely matter-of-fact, frugal and direct. Philosophic discourse and oratorical skills do not impress a soldier much. Exploding shells, shrieking fighter jets, tanks firing at point blank, buddies falling in battle and fearlessness in the face of danger do. A soldier is never more aggrieved than when he is made to realise that his fellow men lost their lives and limbs for nothing. He is not really looking for a ride in a golden chariot at the end of a hard won battle but grateful compatriots and a pat on his back before he limps back to duty.
It was 1994 and I was commanding an artillery brigade. We were out in the desert for winter collective training. It was decided to hold all inter-unit technical competitions on the field. The gun laying competition, the crown of the gunners’ professional efficiency, was being held. This entails being able to shoot at the target from miles away with precision in the shortest possible time. We were sitting on top of a high sand dune from where laying data was being passed over the mike. Below, close to 50 guns were deployed in a neat, single row, almost axle to axle over the vast sandy plain. A gentle nippy breeze was blowing and it was a beautifully sunny day with the thin veil of a mist hanging over the distant horizon.
There was intense excitement, anticipation and razor sharp competition in the air. Dhols and shehnai (drums and flutes) would play and the troops would burst into tremendous uproar as soon as the results of a particular test were announced. Those who felt wronged would challenge the field judge’s decision. I would go down to the protesting gun, examine and decide accordingly. On one such occasion, the gun position officer (GPO) of a battery (a command group of six guns) was found missing. A GPO, like the infantry company commander or armoured squadron commander, is the key officer whose grit can turn the tables in a battle. I asked for the GPO but, in the heat of the moment, forgot about him. Half an hour or so later, there was a cry from the same battery, again the officer was missing. This time I insisted and he appeared after a big scamper. I recognised him instantly from his appearance, typically like a madrassa (seminary) graduate who would not mix with other officers of the brigade, remaining aloof like a stranger. His explanation was revealing but shocking at the same time: “Sir I was busy doing a wazifa (recitation of God’s names) behind the dune as my sheikh dislikes this kind of fanfare.” “Excellent,” I said and ordered the proceedings to temporarily halt as we climbed up the dune to where the mike was. I collected all the men and officers below and said: “Captain X says his sheikh does not like our way of holding this competition. He obeys him. Let it be clear to all of you. I am the sheikh of this brigade. It makes no difference to me which religion, race or sect any of you belong to. The best amongst you is the best gunner, a thorough soldier. By this evening, captain sahib will no more be in this brigade. Any of you who think like him, let me know. I will let him go honourably. Thereafter, any unmilitary conduct like this will be dealt with harshly. Take post.” There was a pin-drop silence and then slowly the troops began to move to their guns. Soon the competition recommenced in earnest. The beat of the dhol, happy shehnai notes and hearty shouts by men filled the desert thereafter.
The late General Ziaul Haq’s spurious Islamism and resultant degeneration of military values had percolated deep down into the armed forces by the time he crashed to his death in August 1988. The army had been sadly pulverised by expedient but spiritless Islamism, prolonged bouts of martial law and a largely falsified Afghan jihad manufactured from a plain war of resistance. Two clear streams emerged; one mostly made up of Islamists who were patronised and undeservingly rewarded. The others were hard professionals, competent, unaffected but tenaciously hanging on to professional soldiering. The former were late General Zia’s military constituency and a convenient escalator to climb in the ranks. This sorry state of affairs created vertical and horizontal fissures in the army to its great detriment. Discipline, professionalism and our military value system took severe blows.
A time came when a senior officer was seen, privately, opening the door of his car for an office superintendent because he was senior in their ‘cult hierarchy’. Yet another insisted upon colleagues being ‘properly clean and washed’ before allowing them to travel in his staff car, lest they defile his ‘cleansed’ vehicle. Pretentious piety had become a profitable art and was becoming the practice of choice in a duplicitous service lifestyle. Surrounded by the rising tide of bitter sectarianism in the country, the Pakistan army was teetering on the edge before tipping over into becoming a sectarian mob in uniform. The two streams linking up was a terrifying probability. In that swirling madness the army command had to undertake a determined and massive decontamination. The matter was touchy and therefore had to be tackled with tact and patience. Consequently, see how remarkably a crumbling historic church in Multan cantonment was restored and renovated by the garrison last year using their own resources. The Pakistan army is a natural fellow of the liberal and left-of-centre segments of our society, their respective sharper focus on certain core issues notwithstanding. The Pakistan army has just begun to remerge into its classic and historically egalitarian mould. As it turns this difficult corner it has unfortunately bumped into General Zia’s equally unenviable civilian surrogates in government. Frictions are bound to occur.
Politicians are discombobulating, to say the very least. For decades, the narrative has been ...