The image of the Pakistan army existed before the image of Pakistan, because the army existed before the country came into being. The charisma developed during Partition when the people saw it as a saviour and a protector against communal violence. This was particularly true of West Pakistan which had impressive cantonments where the British recruited their forces. It was not true of East Pakistan, where the common man was at best puzzled by it: there were no impressive cantonments, Bengalis had hardly joined the army.
Brig A.R. Siddiqi thinks it a measure of West Pakistan´s indifference to the defence of East Pakistan that the first General Officer Commanding in the person of Major General Ayub Khan was sent to Dhaka five months late at the head of a force no larger than a brigade. The Bengalis were not greatly enamoured of West Pakistanis clad in unfamiliar uniforms. Worried by this state of affairs, the Major General asked his officers to go around the country and ‘show arms’. One wonders if that improved the PR.
On the other hand, West Pakistan was of the soldierly stock and the people identified with the army easily. In the first decade, political bickering destroyed the image of the civilian leaders, while boosting that of the army. The first martial law in Punjab in 1953 boosted the reputation further, with Gen Azam Khan seen as a saviour rather than a trespasser.
Governor General Khawaja Nazi-muddin toured the cantonments with Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and put off the British-trained officers with his dirty eating habits, wiping his greasy hands with a large kerchief which he kept in his pocket. Liaquat Ali Khan, on other hand, endeared himself with the army by brandishing a fist at India.
From the point of view of the soldiers, Liaquat was warlike while Nazimuddin was a buffoon from East Pakistan. This laid the foundation of a mutually negative image between the army and East Pakistanis.
In 1948, when East Pakistani politician Muhammad Ali Bogra was leading a protest in Dhaka, Ayub Khan collared him and said: ‘Do you want a bullet?’ The foundation of the 1971 tragedy was thus laid at the very start.
Decade of Reforms
Ayub as the soldier-king commanded charisma among West Pakistanis, but had to buy loyalties from quislings in the East. He called the Bengalis ‘one of the down-trodden races’. Army rule was supported and its image built up by a suppressed press. Brig Siddiqi observes: ‘It is amazing how a good military image is often the precursor of political involvement and coup d´etats. Civilian politicians went up to him and asked him to take over; some asked him to become king. The setting up of the Writers´ Guild was a PR coup by the military regime after 1958.’
An interesting turn in the East Pakistani attitude came when Ayub consolidated his rule in the eastern wing under GOCs Gen Umrao Khan and Gen Azam. Having fought West Pakistan politicians for ten years, the Bengalis appreciated the political neutrality of the army. Gen Azam became so popular that even Ayub became bothered by it. But while image became cult in West Pakistan after the 1965 war with India, the mood in the east changed.
East Pakistan and the East Pakistani officers were ignored during and after the war, as the western wing got busy with nation-building on its own on the basis of this war. Ayub ruled for ten years, and Ayub was army. When his public relations exercise, Decade of Reforms, collapsed, however, it hurt the army grievously. The war that had covered Ayub with glory now exposed his weaknesses at home. People who had admired his fair rule now rejected the whitewash of the Decade of Reforms.
Brig Siddiqi maintains that the public relations campaign hurt the government (and the army) more than a normal post-war disenchantment would have. When Yahya Khan succeeded him, he had to overcome his predecessor´s failed PR exercise. The chained press was there with its slavish editors, writing in superlatives, but then the trouble in the East scuttled everything.
The next big PR bid was Yayha´s appointment of a retired general Sher Ali as minister for information and national affairs. The general was himself a PR fiend, a short-statured soldier who fancied himself a Napoleon, and who first thought of an ideology with which to burnish the army´s badly scratched image even as Yahya continued to make his drunken inroads into it. Sher Ali soon trod on the corns of colleagues still in uniform; his Islamic forays offended the East Pakistani secularists who thought he was using ideology to strengthen West Pakistan´s domination of the eastern wing.
In 1971, East Pakistani officers formed the Liberation Army of Bangladesh. The new state charged that Pakistan army had killed 1.5 million people and raped thousands of women. After 1971, the disfigured image of the army was deliberately curtailed by Bhutto when he removed the C-in-C at gunpoint. From the heraldry of lion rampant, the image of the Pakistan army was reduced to that of a crawling worm symbolised by Zia-ul Haq kissing Bhutto´s hand in Multan.
The author brings his account to a close around this time, telescoping what later became the most significant period in the life of the Pakistan army. Bhutto´s assault on the army´s image was avenged. Gen Zia, calling himself a soldier of Islam, set on foot new efforts to refurbish the tarnished image. The Afghan war came as a godsend, the dollars followed in its wake, and the humiliation of the surrender at Dhaka was washed off at least at the psychological level.
When Brig Siddiqi says that in August 1990, the army stood towering over everything in the country, he is in fact also pointing to a psychological renewal within the army. There is no doubt that ten years of running everything in the country gave the army its towering image, and General Beg´s holding elections after Gen Zia´s death was an extraordinary act of self-denial.
The author will agree that the Afghan war also carried the sub-text of victory for an army that had been defeated in 1971. The defeat at the hands of a middling power like India had been subsumed by victory over a superpower. It was, however a voyeuristic experience: someone else funded the war and someone else fought it.
But it was difficult to stop ´victorious´ generals like Aslam Beg and Hameed Gul from going political before the statutory two years were up. Brig Siddiqi deplores the fact that the army allowed a blow to its image by not pulling up the talking generals. He recalls that Gen Ayub Khan, Air-Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, all went ´political´ after the two years of quarantine. He makes note of the fact that ideology seeped into the army and gradually made it less and less professional.
Today, we have reverted to the term ´professional´ to indicate an army with a good image. But in so doing we are doing penance for our mistake of nurturing a fighting force under the highly political rubric of jehad. When armies fight professionally they ask no questions. When they turn around and ask questions about the immaculacy of the civilian leadership, they become dangerous. Perhaps that is why civilian leaders don´t get embroiled in wars.