All Together but not Quite
By Brig® Mehboob Qadir
Armies are peculiar reflections of their national history, culture and mother society. Within each army there are sub structures which 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 into as horrific consequences as they eventually did here.
Pakistan Army’s military culture is a mix of secularist British Indian Army and post Partition sectarian Pakistani society. While we are still struggling to retain essentials of a remarkably egalitarian culture in the army, intrusion of Islamist sub-stream of the 80s into the forces has been largely contained and usefully channeled into the military’s motivation stream where it belonged. In the process army did suffer certain mutilations of military conduct and off-parade working. Most have been taken care of ,some still linger around like working almost comes to a standstill in the military premises literally from the morning on Fridays. Friday is a working day.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 but only when he is made to realize 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 in the field. Gun laying competition, the crown of the gunners professional efficiency was being held.It entails being able to shoot at the target 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 fifty 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 a thin veil of a mist hanging over the distant horizon.A lone desert hawk was lazily gliding overhead for a partridge or a desert mouse to break cover.There was intense excitement, anticipation and razor sharp competition in the air.Dhol, shehnai and troops would burst into tremendous uproar as soon as 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 that battery( a command group of six guns) was found missing. A GPO , like the infantry company commander or armor squadron commander is the key officer whose grit can turn the tables in a battle. Though I asked for the GPO but in the heat of the moment forgot about him. Half an hour or so latter 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 recognized him instantly from his appearance typically like a madrassa 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 behind the dune as my Shaikh 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.Collected all the men and officers below and said:-
‘ Capt Zaman( name changed) says his Shaikh does not like our way of holding this competition .He obeys him’
‘ Let it be clear to all of you.I am the Shaikh of this brigade.It makes no difference to me which religion, race or sect anyone of you belongs. The best amongst you is the best gunner,a thorough soldier.’
‘By this evening Captain sahib will no more be in this brigade.Anyone of you who thinks like him ,let me know.I will let him go honorably. Thereafter any unmilitary conduct like this will be dealt with harshly.’
There was a pin drop silence and then slowly the troops began to move to their guns. Soon the competition recommenced in earnest. Challenging beat of the dhol, happy shehnai notes and hearty shouts by men filled the desert evermore.
Late Gen Zia’s spurious Islamism and resultant degeneration of military values had percolated deep down into the Pakistan Armed Forces by the time he crashed to his tragic death in August 88.The army had been sadly pulverized by the expedient but spiritless Islamism, prolonged bouts of martial law and a largely falsified Afghan jihad from a plane war of resistance. Two clear streams had emerged; one, like madrassa alumni, apparently soaked but mostly made up Islamists who were patronized and undeservingly rewarded. The others were hard professionals, competent, unaffected but tenaciously hanging on to professional soldiering. The former were late gen Zia’s military constituency and a convenient escalator to climb in the ranks ,and the later were a dire service necessity.
This sorry state of affairs created vertical and horizontal fissures in the army to her great detriment. Discipline, professionalism and our military value system took severe body 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 to be ‘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 a practice of choice in a duplicitous service lifestyle. Surrounded by the rising tide of bitter sectarianism in the country, 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 therefore had to be tackled with tact and patience. Consequently ,see how remarkably a crumbling historic church in Multan Cantt was restored and renovated by the garrison last year form their own resources. Pakistan Army is a natural fellow trekker with the liberal and left of center segments of our society, their respective sharper focus on certain core issues notwithstanding
Pakistan Army had just begun to remerge into its classic and historically egalitarian mould. But as it turned the difficult corner it unfortunately bumped into late Gen Zia’s equally unenviable civilian surrogates in power. Frictions are bound to occur.