Among Muslim countries, four stand out for their militaries’ involvement in politics. These are not in any particular order: Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt. A quick glance would show that in all four countries, the militaries are large. With the exception of Turkey, the others have not been able to wean their militaries from interfering in politics. Even in Turkey the situation is not so clear-cut. But since the July 2016 attempted coup that was frustrated because the masses came out to confront the tanks in the streets, the military’s wings have been clipped somewhat.
Militaries in at least two Muslim countries—Pakistan and Egypt—have followed a similar trajectory and caused irreparable damage to the social fabric of their respective societies. In both, the militaries exercise enormous influence and have spread their tentacles into most spheres of activity in society. As organized groups, they exercise disproportionate influence in politics, foreign and defence affairs as well as economic policies. In both locales, they have become multinational corporations and generals have become real estate tycoons and industrial barons.
With such obsession for real estate, their military performance has declined. Egypt has faced successive defeats against Israel and threw in the towel in 1978 eschewing any thought of liberating its own territory occupied by the zionists, much less liberating Palestine. In fact, the Egyptian army acts as a subcontractor for the zionist occupiers in oppressing the Palestinian people.
Despite a carefully-crafted image, the Pakistan army’s performance has also not been very impressive. While it played no role in the creation of Pakistan, it came to assume enormous influence in the new state. Let us begin with the state of Jammu and Kashmir. One-third of the state that was liberated from India’s clutches was the direct result of tribesmen from the North West Frontier Province (now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) rushing to help the Kashmiris in 1947-1948.
Pakistan fought two wars with India (1965 and 1971) without liberating an inch of Kashmir. There was also the Kargil operation of 1998 which ended in disaster because it was not well thought-out.
Let us begin with the 1965 war. Officially described as the September 1965 War, this characterization is not entirely accurate. Pakistani forces had already launched military operations in Kashmir in August. Dubbed ‘Operation Grand Slam’, the plan was to send Pakistani commandos into Kashmir. They would instigate an uprising against India’s occupation forces that the people of Kashmir would support, it was assumed.
Colonel Ghaffar Mehdi, commandant of SSG (Pakistani commandos) opposed this plan describing it as ill-conceived and faulty. He visited the GHQ and tried to impress upon the chief of General Staff, General Sher Bahadur that it would not succeed because no groundwork for such an operation has been done. Instead of listening to Colonel Mehdi’s advice, he was relieved of his responsibilities as commandant SSG and transferred to Sialkot (For details, see Colonel Mehdi’s Book: Politics of Surrender and the Conspiracy of Silence).
How did such a plan come about? Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the evil man of Pakistani politics and ruthlessly ambitious, convinced President ‘Field Marshal’ Ayub Khan that India would not attack along the international border even if Pakistan launched operations in Kashmir. Ayub bought into this diabolical folly and launched ‘Operation Grand Slam’.
Eight to ten commando units headed by majors and captains were launched into Kashmir to carry out sabotage and instigate an uprising. Concurrently, a ground assault was launched in Chhamb-Jurian sector inside Indian occupied Jammu in early August 1965. While the ground operations by the Pakistan army commanded by Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik (GOC 12 Division), made good progress, the commando operations were a complete disaster, as predicted by Colonel Mehdi.
In his book about the Indo-Pak War of 1965, Illusion of Victory, General Mahmud Ahmad (retired as DG-ISI) has described in detail what went wrong with the commando operations. Far from the Kashmiris staging an uprising, in many instances they reported the movement of Pakistani commandos to Indian occupation forces. Almost all of them were captured, some died fighting Indian troops and the whole operation ended in failure.
With his forces making rapid progress in Chhamb-Jurian, General Akhtar Hussain Malik was asked by Ayub Khan whether he could take Akhnur, the most important Indian military post in Kashmir at the time. The only road to Srinagar, capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir, passed through Akhnur. Even while battling three Indian divisions with one of his own and making good progress, General Malik asked for two additional brigades to complete the mission.
Instead of providing him the additional forces, Ayub replaced him with General Yahya Khan. The latter made no progress in Kashmir and the war ended in a stalemate. The Americans imposed a ceasefire that was to the detriment of Pakistan. The US had also imposed an arms embargo on both. It did not affect India at all because their weapons were Russian-supplied. The embargo had a major impact on Pakistan’s fighting ability. Despite the arms embargo, Pakistan still had the ability to inflict major damage on India after blunting its attacks but under US pressure, Ayub Khan accepted the ceasefire.
Bhutto’s role in the war also needs proper assessment. He knew that the war would cause enormous damage to Pakistan’s economy. His deliberately false opinion that India would not attack along the international border also put Pakistan at great risk. That Pakistani soldiers and young officers (lieutenants to majors) fought with great valour is a tribute to their courage. The same cannot be said about the senior officers, barring a few exceptions.
With the economy badly damaged, Ayub suffered a stroke in 1968 incapacitating him. By now, General Yahya had been appointed commander-in-chief of the army. Bhutto saw in Ayub’s illness an opportunity to launch a campaign of agitation against his former benefactor (Bhutto used to call Ayub Khan ‘daddy’!) He demanded Ayub’s resignation. When Ayub asked Yahya to impose martial law, the latter demanded that Ayub hand over power to him as president. This is what Ayub had done to Iskandar Mirza in 1958. History had caught up with Ayub.
General Yahya only compounded Pakistan’s problems. Bhutto’s devilish mind went to work and easily manipulated Yahya into a series of disastrous decisions. Elections for the new civilian government were held in late 1970. The East Pakistan-based Awami League headed by Shaikh Mujibur Rahman won an absolute majority in the new parliament (153 seats). There was, however, a lacuna. Awami League’s seats were exclusively from East Pakistan. In West Pakistan, the vote was split but Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party came out on top with 82 seats.
This is where his criminal mind went to work. He was absolutely determined to frustrate Mujibur Rahman from becoming the prime minister. When Yahya Khan called the National Assembly session in February 1971 in Dhaka, Bhutto threatened to “break the legs of anyone” who dared to attend from West Pakistan. He also started to work on Pakistani generals telling them that Mujib was a ‘traitor’ and if he came to power, he would break-up Pakistan.
The already-prejudiced minds of Pakistani generals and some bureaucrats easily fell into the trap. Far from convening the assembly session in Dhaka, Yahya unleashed the army against the people of East Pakistan to “teach them a lesson”. True to his evil nature, Bhutto declared: “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved”.
How many people were killed in East Pakistan is anybody’s guess but even one civilian killed was one too many. There was absolutely no need for a military operation. It sealed Pakistan’s fate and provided an opportunity to arch-enemy India to meddle in East Pakistan. A massive propaganda campaign was also launched against Pakistan.
As India amassed forces along the borders with East Pakistan, instead of seeking a political solution with Shaikh Mujib who had been arrested in March 1971 and flown to West Pakistan to face ‘treason charges’, Yahya blundered into launching a war against India. The loss of East Pakistan was a foregone conclusion. Yahya and the coterie of generals around him were not only incompetent, they also indulged in debauchery and orgies while the soldiers and young officers died in defence of their country.
Bhutto was not done with his evil plans. At the United Nations Security Council, Poland presented a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from East Pakistan and release of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman. As Pakistan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Bhutto contemptuously tore up the resolution and throwing it in the air, walked out of the council chamber. Pakistan’s fate was sealed. A few days later, all Pakistani forces and civilians surrendered to the invading Indian army.
This is exactly what Bhutto wanted. He was close to succeeding in his evil design to become the prime minister of what was left of Pakistan. He could not have done so without getting Shaikh Mujib out of the way and humiliating the army through a widely-televised surrender to arch-enemy India.
When he took over power in January 1972, he went about destroying Pakistan’s industries and agriculture. While claiming to be a western-educated liberal democrat, in reality he had a feudal mindset. He brooked no criticism or opposition, going so far as to order the murder of political opponents. The late British journalist Harold Evans wrote about him: “Beneath his polished exterior lurks a medieval tyrant”.
His tyranny led to his downfall, at the hands of his own appointed army chief, General Zia ul-Haq in July 1977. While General Zia dispatched him to the gallows for the murder of Ahmed Raza Qasuri’s father (the actual target was the son), there are many other crimes, far too numerous to recount, that Bhutto committed. His family continues to plague Pakistani politics to this day.
General Zia (1977-1988), however, imposed his own evil plans on the hapless people of Pakistan. Saved by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—engineered by the CIA to trap them into their own ‘Vietnam’—General Zia launched his ‘Islamization’ program to hoodwink the people into believing that he was a ‘pious’ Muslim. At the personal level, he may have been but Islam is much more than rituals that most Muslims indulge in. His ‘Islamization’ plan was to steal the clothes of the opposition alliance that had raised the slogan of Nizam-e Mustafa to oust Bhutto from power.
Zia spawned two other evil forces, the Sharif family and MQM. The first was propped up to undermine People’s Party support in Punjab and the second to reduce its appeal in Sindh. While he succeeding in both objectives, Zia bequeathed two monstrosities that have caused havoc with the lives of people ever since.
Following Zia’s death in a fiery plane crash, the people had hoped that military rule would be over for good. Not so fast. After a short interregnum, the military was back with a vengeance in the form of General Pervez Musharraf (1999–2008), declaring himself ‘chief executive’. We need not detain ourselves with the details of the intrigue that led to his coup but his complete surrender to the US to wage war on Afghanistan following the 911 attacks devastated Pakistan. Human and material losses of Pakistan have been enormous.
While today Pakistan is not under direct military rule, it does not mean that the army has stopped interfering in politics. The latest blow it delivered to the body politic and economy of Pakistan was to impose a bunch of criminals, murderers, thieves and money-launderers on the people. What precisely did the army top brass want to achieve by this move which has led to the destruction of Pakistan’s economy? Was it because Imran Khan as prime minister was showing too much independence and refusing to obey the army’s orders?
History will render a very harsh verdict against the army, especially General Qamar Javed Bajwa, if Pakistan survives this latest blow. The only force standing in the way is the masses, awakened by Imran Khan to stand up for their rights.