16th Dec: Towards a New Military Leadership? | DAWN.COM

December, 2010

About 5 years ago, the commandant of the Pakistan Army's most reputed cadet-officer training academy  invited this writer to address the trainees on a date of my choice in the second half of December .

There were a couple of options other than the date that one finally gave him : 16th December. The specific date was chosen deliberately. To  remind the young cadets of the date on which East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan.Political factors and Indian intervention  played a decisive role in the disintegration. But  the then- military-led Government of President General Yahya Khan was ultimately responsible for taking crucial  political  and military decisions particularly between 1st March and 16th December 1971. Those decisions by military government led to the catastrophic disintegration of the original Pakistan.

To one's pleasant surprise the date was accepted without demur. Even more so, my opening remarks  which stated the context of the date and stressed to the cadets that never again in Pakistan's future should the military intervene in the political domain were also heard without the slightest  discomfort. One pointedly said that one or more of the cadet-officers in that assembly was one day going to be a Chief of Army Staff and several of them would become Corp Commanders. A solemn duty faced them. Even as the rule of the then-resident and serving COAS General Pervaiz Musharraf continued unabated, this writer cautioned them to focus on exclusively military duties. One then shared a few thoughts with them on why and how we could possibly evolve a stable future for a uniquely-created nation-state. The question-and-answer session was candid and lively. Inevitable scepticism about politicians came through. But there was not a single attempt to justify military intervention, past, current or future.

Perhaps three aspects of this  recalled episode are  notable. The person who gave this sermon on civil supremacy had himself served in the Cabinet of the military-led government of General Musharraf during its first year  (1999-2000). At the outset, one said that one had no regrets about such  participation. The peculiar,  bizarre circumstances in which the military intervened and the several positive initiatives taken in that first year justified, at least to me, that association. My early departure should convey that one did not want  a continued military presence in politics. Yet my participation in a military government represented the willingness of civil, political persons to co-operate with the military even while knowing that the military's intervention in politics was violative of Constituitonal provisions. The fact that one was historically in   prominent company ranging from Z. A. Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif to Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani is still cold comfort.

A second notable aspect was the fact that the remarks were made and accepted with equanimity in a military training academy for young and future commanders. The conventional view is that the military is unwilling to permit any distraction from the indoctrination which is conducted to prepare young cadets for their future elitist role. Which leads on to the third notable aspect. That the inter-action took place somewhere near the " peak " of General Musharraf''s tenure, well before his downward spiral began with the killing of Nawab Bugti and the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry.That frank comments about the inadvisability of the military's role in politics were accepted without challenge inside a military institution indicated both a self-confidence which would not be affected by such remarks as much as that a distinct change  had already taken place, and continues to this day, within the Pakistani military psyche. A change which accepts the questioning of its political dimensions and is willing to frankly exchange views about it. To the credit of military education and training institutions, as also sometimes  in garrisons,  expression of non-majoritarian views by visiting  speakers uninhibited by the military hosts is accepted with grace and exchanges are straightforward and always courteous.

To delve into this dimension on the anniversary of the most tragic day in the country's history is to suggest that we need to re-visit the period leading up to 16th December 1971 to examine whether the subsequent four decades have created a genuine basic change in the military's political mind-set .

 Today's military is certainly more open to  critical civil and media appraisal than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Cantonments continue to exist but they are no longer cocoons.The intolerant  darkness of the General Zia ul Haq era and the liberal, mixed- to- deteriorated era of General Musharraf have ironically contributed to producing exceptional, strictly-professional Chiefs such as General Waheed Kakar and General Kayani. The change may be too thin and too misleading but some of the fundamental strategic errors committed between 1969 and 1971 are unlikely to be repeated.

Four decades after a traumatic event  about which we need sustained reflection and re-learning, the military leadership is more mature and balanced  than it was in 1971. Going by the tone and the ambience one finds in military training institutions at this time there are grounds for confidence that the future leadership of the Army, in the face of disorder and dysfunction that are likely to persist in the years ahead, will resist the temptation for overt intervention. The military's views on important security and foreign policy issues are, in any case, reflected in official policy. Yet the contrast between the clarity (notwithstanding the west's constant harping about secret support to some Taliban) of the military's  role in Swat, FATA and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa on the one hand, and the real or alleged role of military agencies in Balochistan on the other hand deserves forthright debate both within and between the civil and the military spheres.     

(The writer is a former Minister and Senator of Pakistan  and author of the book " Pakistan : unique origins ; unique destiny ?".)