18th March, 2010

The Armed Forces of Pakistan are once again making news. To be precise, it is the Pakistan Army that is being talked about in the media. This is not surprising as the Air Force and the Navy generally operate ‘beyond visual range’. By virtue of an army’s role and task, it is always the ‘boots on the ground’ that interface directly with the civilian population. And, it is due to this interaction that the Army bears the brunt of public sentiment; both adverse and favorable.

Much to the chagrin of those who delight in lambasting the Pakistan Armed Forces, the Pakistan Army is nowadays being viewed in a favorable light. Its operations against the Taliban and Al Qaida, initially reviled are now being appreciated. The efforts of its rank and file are being lauded; those men and officers who have laid down their lives in this war are being acknowledged as heroes. Much to the discomfort of those ‘independent thinkers and analysts’, who believe that the responsibility for the mess that Pakistan is in lies squarely on the shoulders of its uniformed citizens, the Pakistan Armed Forces are once again being consulted on non military matters. Once again the General Headquarters is the focal point for strategizing Pakistani political moves; once again it is the generals who are advising the civilians on how to deal with its mercurial partner, that empire of ‘evil’, the United States of America. Once again, the Pak Army, flanked by the Air Force and the Navy (albeit in the shadows) is calling the shots.

Like it or not, this is and has always been the case. This simple truth has however eluded most Pakistanis The involvement of the Pakistan Armed Forces in day to day affairs of the country is largely discreet and takes place unobtrusively, only surfacing when absolutely unavoidable. Many have tried to disturb this equation; some have even sought foreign help to wrest the nation away from the ‘grip’ of the Armed Forces but the Armed Forces have always been involved and shall always remain involved. Their role is both preventive and curative. Our military exists to prevent national catastrophes and to take decisive action to recover from any disaster that befalls the nation; natural or manmade. The Armed Forces of Pakistan shall never stand idly by and watch someone destroy the Nation, either from within or outside.

This does not in any way suggest that our Armed Forces are perfect. It does not mean that the manner in which the Pakistan Army goes about protecting the State is ideal. There are many gaffes and errors, some evident to all, some only to a few select individuals privy to the ‘behind the scene’ happenings, that punctuate the efforts of the Military. The saving grace is that the pluses outweigh the minuses by far. Our military is an extremely important, indeed fundamental, element that ensures the existence of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Many will sit up and cry foul at this reality. Armed Forces have no business in the day to day affairs of a nation they say. This is the domain of the politicians and the armed forces must be subservient to the political process. While asserting this stridently, the very same individuals then make a fatal error. They dupe the Pakistani nation into believing that while the Armed Forces are not important in any political process, the individual that leads them is very much the one who calls the shots.

In doing so, the Pakistani nation sadly equates a forest with an individual tree. We determine the status of a forest by simply looking at an individual tree. The beauty of a green and verdant forest lies in the complete whole, not in any one, singular component. We consciously disregard this fact. When things go wrong, we castigate the forest. When good happens, we ignore the woods and simply heap praise on one tree. Actually, we do something much worse. We take a regular, average tree, isolate it, pamper it, nourish it, hoping that it shall produce the cure for all our ills. We then beat our chests in dismay when, instead of flowering and bearing the desired fruit, it decays and infects both the forest and ourselves with some horrible disease. We do this with alarming regularity. Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq, Musharraf; competent, average military officers, pampered and mollycoddled by self serving sycophants, forced into believing that they were divinely ordained to steer the ship of the Pakistani state, are but the most prominent examples. There are many others at all levels of the military hierarchy.

For as long as we continue believing that it is an individual officer that makes or breaks an efficient and well structured fighting force, we shall continue to suffer as a nation. Individuals are indispensable only when they have some specific skill or ability. An accomplished sportsperson, a profound thinker, an outstanding actress, a visionary leader; these are gifted beings who acquire prominence by virtue of their unique qualities. They are personally responsible for the events they control within their individual domain. Not so the Military. The very essence of any military force is its intrinsic quality of being homogenous, each individual equally trained, designed to be equally capable, expected to be equally able to execute assigned tasks. Yes, there will be failures and when they happen, the system incorporates all the necessary elements to remedy the fault and move on. And yes, there will also be amazing successes. Once again, the system is designed to absorb them in its stride and continue onwards. Individuals do not matter; they shall come and go; it is the system that has permanence.

We are once again committing the cardinal error of mistaking the achievements of an institution for the abilities of an individual. Yet again we are bent upon disregarding a well structured and purposefully tiered organization and subscribing to the falsehood that it is the individual that is important. Even as we laud the performance of the Pakistan Armed forces in the war on terror, even as we credit the rank and file for the achievements in the battlefield, we are simultaneously eulogizing an individual. By doing this, we do a major disservice to everyone; the nation, its military and, perhaps most importantly, to that particular individual. Because all individuals are human and, being human are fallible, susceptible, vulnerable. If one is repeatedly told that he or she is indispensable, that person shall eventually end up believing in that falsehood. The individual will become self delusional.

He will celebrate a Decade of Progress. He shall believe himself to be an Ameer ul Momineen. He will conjure up a ludicrous concept of Enlightened Moderation.

Recognize the organization; appreciate the system; respect its individuals; all of them. The Seconds in Command are there for a purpose. The Vices and the Deputies are appointed for a specific reason, trained for all eventualities. They are knowledgeable, they are capable, they are competent. Respect them and their capabilities. Respect the new, the young, the bold.

And, most importantly, acknowledge the truth that if a leader is really good, he or she will have made sure that there is a trained successor to assume the mantle of responsibility at the appointed time. Alternatively, if that leader has failed to do so, then this individual is not the kind of leader that a nation needs.

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Alfred Tennyson