March Issue 2003

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 19 years ago

The historical concept of a professional army has been that of a force supplementing political power. Kings and conquerors raised armies to stretch the physical boundaries of the state and guard them against hostile enemies. They were welcome to make their mark on the battlefield and earn accolades there, but the political arena was off-limits to them.

Conquerors rarely allowed soldiers to cast their shadow over the political turf. Alexander the Great kept a soldier-hero like Ptolemy at arm’s length and rewarded him with the conquered colony of Egypt to keep him at a safe distance from the centre of power. Caesar Augustus did the same with Mark Anthony.

History is replete with instances of political rulers giving short shrift to soldiers who tried to encroach on their political authority. Adolf Hitler did not hesitate to fire a master-strategist like Field Marshal Rommel; nor did FDR have any apparent qualms about turfing out a soldier-genius like General George Patton. Another more celebrated case of a war-hero being unceremoniously dumped was that of General Douglas McArthur who was eased out by President Truman at the height of the Korean War.

In Islamic history the trail-blazer in this context was the second Rashid caliph, Hazrat Omar Farooq, who decided to give the chop to a revered general and commander-like Khalid bin Waleed because he had overstepped the bounds laid down for him.

The generals of Muslim states in the modern era have apparently taken no inspiration from Omar Farooq’s sterling example of drawing a clear and categorical line of demarcation between political and military domains. They have grown so accustomed to grabbing power for its own sake and meddling in politics with such impunity, that in some countries the boundaries of political and military authority have become totally blurred. It is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.

This is most strikingly so in three major Muslims states — Pakistan, Turkey and Algeria — all predominantly non-Arab, and with no non-Muslim minorities worth mentioning. (Despite common perception, Algerians are predominantly Berber in their ethnic complexion and origin rather than Arab.)

In their genesis, however, the three armies are quite different from one another.

The Algerian army began as a guerrilla force in the countryside of what was then the most redoubtable stronghold of French colons. Algeria was more than a colony to France; it was regarded as an extension of mainland France across the Mediterranean. French colons used to sit in the French Parliament as deputies from Algeria. France never had any intention to give up its proudest possession, although the demand for Algerian independence began as soon as Algeria was colonised in 1831. Because of the intensity of the movement, and an equally arrogant response from the colons and their imperialistic supporters in France, the guerrilla movement had to pay a very stiff price for liberation. At least a million and a half Algerians were killed in the eight year war of independence between 1954 and 1962. In fact, there was hardly a family which did not sacrifice a son or daughter for the cause of liberation.

After independence, most war veterans were absorbed in various branches of government and organs of state. But the hard core of the fighting men made the bedrock of the newly- formed Algerian armed forces.

In the beginning, it was hard to draw a firm line between the military and civilian leaderships, because those manning the two ramparts were mostly veterans of the war of liberation. But there was still a qualitative difference between the two. Men like Ahmed Ben Bella, who became Algeria’s first president, or Farhat Abbas, the first head of its National Assembly, were not soldiers. They had not fought in the mountains or in the labyrinthine alleys of casabah in Algerian cities. But their sacrifice was even greater. They had languished in French jails and suffered terrible indignities. And they were the ones who, in fact, ultimately won Algeria its independence — at the conference table, not on the battlefield.

Yet, within three years of independence, Ben Bella was overthrown by Houari Boumedienne, the head of the army who was one of the most celebrated heroes of the liberation war.

The indictment against Ben Bella was that he had deviated from the course of the revolution. The truth was, this was just an alibi to grab power, triggered by the army’s belief that it alone was the guardian of the spirit of the Algerian revolution which had won independence from the hated colonisers.

The same belief of soldiers being the standard-bearers of their country’s ideology or creed and guarding this privilege jealously is also the reason for Turkey’s generals interfering in its politics at will and holding it hostage to their whims.

Like the Algerian army, the Turkish armed forces, too, are a product of revolution, with one notable difference. The Turkish army, from its very inception, was not a guerrilla force but a force of nationalist volunteers who fought pitched battles to save their country from marauding imperialists from Europe.

It was Kemal Ataturk who galvanised a demoralised Turkish people at the end of World War I and led them to salvation. Modern Turkey, no doubt, is, to a very large extent, a one-man miracle and owes a lot to the indomitable will of its founding father. But it is an erroneous belief perpetuated by the Turkish generals that they alone are the custodians and safe-keepers of ‘Kemalism,’ the bedrock of the modern Turkish state.

Kemalism’s defining thesis of secularism has pervaded the whole spectrum of the Turkish nation and society for nearly 80 years — ever since Ataturk laid it down as the sole creed for the nation he had salvaged and reconstructed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed there has been considerable resistance to the Kemalist creed that religion should have no role in statecraft, for Turks, just like Algerians, are a fundamentally religious people.

There was no concept of land or territory-based nationalism or ethnicity in the Ottoman Empire. One’s station in life, or rights, in the eyes of the rulers, was defined by one’s religion. All other things and considerations were secondary.

This Ottoman trait also pervaded and anointed Algeria, which was an Ottoman wilayat until the French colonisers arrived on the scene. It was, therefore, quite in the fitness of things that the first standard of resistance against them was raised by a religious tribal leader, Amir Abdel Qadir, who, in the eyes of most Algerians, remains the father of the Algerian independence movement.

Abbasi Madani, who launched the Islamist Front for Islamic Salvation (F.I.S), in 1988 was seen by his adoring followers as a reincarnation of Amir Abdel Qadir. And just as he stoked the fires of resistance against the alien colonisers bent upon eroding the Islamic character of Algeria, Madani was seen raising the battle-cry against the endemic corruption of the Algerian ruling elite. This oligarchy of vested interest — led by civil and military veterans of the war against France-had monopolised political power for a quarter century and made a mess of it. Despite its immense oil, gas and other mineral wealth, Algeria had virtually become a basket case because of rampant corruption institutionalised by the ruling FLN — Algeria’s sole political party — and their military cohorts.

Madani sought to cleanse the Augean stables by purely democratic means. His movement had no element of violence or terrorism. The F.I.S. was poised to wrest power from the corrupt oligarchy by legitimate means — on the strength of the ballot box and not through the barrel of a gun. But the F.I.S. was robbed of that chance when the Algerian army thuggishly scuttled the entire process of general elections in the country at the last minute in January 1992, toppled President Chadli Ben Jadid, imposed military rule, incarcerated the top leadership of the F.I.S. and drove its peaceful cadres into becoming guerrillas, fighting state terrorism in their own country. Globally respected human rights watchdogs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have held the Algerian security apparatus’ draconian search-and-destroy methods against radical Islamist bands as a major source of blood-letting in that country.

army-2-mar03To their abiding shame, the leaders of western ‘democracies,’ who are now denigrating Algeria as a failed state, hailed the military’s sabotage of a very democratic and transparent process as legitimate. The coup leaders were hailed as saviours of Algeria because they had ‘stalled the march of militant Islam.’

Why did the power-drunk Algerian generals subvert a peaceful and organised movement? Because it had challenged their false assumption that they alone were the godfathers of the Algerian spirit and threatened to change the rules of the game. I recall a conversation I had with a besotted general at a dinner in December, 1991, only days before I took leave of Algeria. Disarmed of all his inhibitions by one drink too many, the general boasted that the “bearded-ones” (the derisive terminology coined by the Algerian generals for the leaders of the F.I.S.) would come to power “over our dead bodies.”

No precise count has yet been made of the number of those killed in the Algerian fratricide in the past 10 years. It runs into hundreds of thousands — according to some as high as two hundred thousand.

The Turkish generals too have generously used the alibi of politicians and political parties ‘deviating’ from the parameters of Kemalism as justification for their repeated subversion and sabotage of Turkey’s democratic process. Between 1960 and 1980, the generals periodically imposed their own military will over the country because they found the politicians incapable of guarding the Kemalist legacy. A popular prime minister like Adnan Menderes was unabashedly hanged by the generals in 1962 to make a horrible example of ‘deviationist’ politicians. Then after the third coup in 1980, General Kenan Evren (who was a role-model for our own Bonaparte, General Zia-ul-Haq ) bestowed a permanent constitutional role on the army in politics through the institution of a National Security Council in which, for the sake of form only, the generals and politicians were given equal representation. However, everybody knows that, in Orwellian parlance, generals are more equal than politicians. Evren’s masterly innovation has recently been copied, two decades later, in General Musharraf’s Pakistan. Musharraf, like Zia, is a great admirer of the Turkish generals and their strong-arming of Turkish politics.

Evren had justified according permanency to the armed forces in politics on the assumption that this would ‘keep the army away from taking over political power.’ With the passage of time, this has proved to be more an illusion than reality.

The generals have not felt the urge to loosen their grip over the country’s politics because, like Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ they keep a stern watch over the activities of politicians. Political leaders, too, know that ‘Big Brother’ is watching intently so they dare not be ‘deviationist’ in the eyes of the generals who are quite unapologetic about their vigilante role. I recall a conversation I once had with a Chief of the General Staff (akin to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US military establishment) who was, otherwise, a very suave and charming man. In reply to my query why his ilk considered themselves custodians of the country’s politics, he replied, without batting an eyelid, ‘because the politicians are not fully capable of guarding Kemalism.’

Turkish politicians daring to challenge the generals on their turf have been made to pay a very stiff price for their temerity. The way the popularly elected Islamist Prime Minister Necmeddin Erbakan was hounded out of office in the summer of 1997 illustrated the generals’ choke-hold over power in its most grisly dimensions.

Erbakan and his Islamist Refah (Welfare ) Party were faulted by the generals on two counts. That they were trying to weaken the roots of secularism, decreed by Ataturk, which was as good or bad as treason against the ideological foundations of the country; and, two, they were guilty of promoting religion as a substitute for secularism as the state’s bedrock. Erbakan was subsequently disqualified from politics for life.

Today, a protégé of Erbakan is Turkey’s most popular leader. Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced as Rejab Tayyab Erduan), the leader of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is the new meteor in the Turkish’s firmament, just as Turgut Ozal was in the ’80s, or Kemal Ataturk in the ’20s. Erdogan’s immense popularity is a slap in the face of the Turkish generals who wanted to finish him off as much as they had snuffed out his mentor, Erbakan. But Erdogan is more imaginative than Erbakan. He has learnt the lesson, at a big price no doubt, that no purpose would be served by taking on the generals headlong. He is more circumspect and pragmatic. He has been assiduously trying to distance himself from his mentor’s creed and taken the country’s secular credentials more seriously.

And yet Erdogan cannot, at least for now, become Prime Minister despite his party having swept the elections in a landslide. Erdogan was also disqualified from holding public office for the ‘crime’ of spreading “religious hatred.” He was impugned for reciting a revolutionary poem at a public rally by a legendary poet of the freedom struggle, Nazem Hikmat, who happened to be a great favourite of Ataturk. Hikmat had likened the minarets of mosques to spears, and their domes to helmets of soldiers. However, to the Turkish generals, a mosque is as much anathema to their secularism as those going into it.

Yet, for all their faults of aggrandisement, oppurtunism and unbridled lust for power, the Algerian and Turkish armies are, unquestionably, products of revolution and entirely home-grown. But no such credit can be given to the Pakistan army which is a legacy of colonial rulers, had no role at all in the freedom struggle of Indian Muslims for Pakistan, and has consistently behaved like a colonial army. And yet, its grab for power has far outstripped its Algerian or Turkish counterparts.

The Algerian and Turkish armies have kept their involvement in their countries’ affairs within well-defined political parameters. One could almost say they have acquired a sophistication of sorts in the process of their repeated subversion of their countrys’ politics.

The Algerian generals have cleverly chosen to stay behind the curtain and pull the strings from that invisible sanctuary. Boumedienne’s frontal exposure at the centre of power was a different case. He was a national hero with near-mythical mystique and appeal in his own lifetime. But since then, even though they have kept an iron grip on the reins of power, the generals have preferred to become eminence grise rather than hog the centrestage as outright Bonapartes. The incumbent President, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, another hero of the war of liberation, is there, in the limelight, entirely because he enjoys the generals’ trust and will do their bidding. To their satisfaction, he has not failed them to date.

Turkey’s generals have, likewise, shunned the political spotlight since their last direct intervention in 1980. General Kenan Evren-a role model for General Ziaul Haq-was the last of the Turkish Bonapartes. They have since carved out their own fief at the center of political power which is well known to every politician and political party of Turkey. It is, in a sense, like the mythical Laxman Rekha of Hindu mythology. Every Turkish politician worth his or her salt knows that ignoring this line, etched in granite, would be like crossing the Rubicon and that chances of surviving a challenge to the generals’ domain are practically nil. The fate of Erbakan was the starkest reminder of the oblivion awaiting anyone stepping on the generals’ turf.

In a way , it has induced the evolution of a modus vivendi of sorts between the generals and the politicians. Each is aware of the privileges and limitations of the other. In fact, privilege is , mostly, on the side of the generals and limitations are the lot of politicians. But co-habitation — its questionable merits aside — has so far worked with increasingly fewer aberrations, especially since the political demise of Erbakan. The newly elected government of the AKP, which has come to power in a landslide, has gone to pains to insist that it harbours no ill-will towards the army. Obviously, it does not want to upset the political applecart, painstakingly arranged, over the past two decades.

But this co-habitation, more visible and pronounced in Turkey than in Algeria, has become feasible because the generals have placed limitations and checks on their own ambitions. They are content to call the shots from behind the scenes, and that too in their clearly defined fields of interest and suzerainty. The touchstone for their privileged position is Kemalism. They will brook no transgression of their monopoly of the Kemalist creed, and as long as they do not lose sight of the limitations imposed on their freedom of action by strict obeisance to this creed, the politicians can continue as masters of their own fief.

There are no such limitations on the suzerainty and total domination of power wielded by the Pakistani army and its generals.

Unlike Turkey or Algeria, the Pakistan army has not tied itself to the petard of the political fief only. The extent and unbridled involvement of the Pakistan army in the everyday life of the country and its citizens is not only staggering, but also unparalleled. There is no other army in the world with such varied and far- flung interests and involvement in the economic and commercial life of the country.

Because of its constant presence in the saddle of power over more than four decades, the Pakistan army has built an empire of mundane economic and commercial interests. And when it comes to the entrepreneurial reach and ‘skills’of the Pakistan army, it is, arguably, a state within the state. It is a matter of record that the army, because of its finger in every pie, is the second largest employer in the country after the government.

The army in Pakistan is involved from the production of breakfast cereals to the building of irrigation canals, dams and highways. It is operating its own fleet of trucks from Karachi to Khyber; it is engaged in agriculture production at its own farms; it has factories that make everything from cement, sugar, and building material to canned fruit juices; it runs huge real estate enterprises in every major urban centre of Pakistan in the guise of ‘Defence Colonies.’ The list of its business enterprises, run for profit, with hefty doses of managerial skills and cash injections from state-owned banks and financial institutions, is mind-boggling.

No colonial army, even in the halcyon days of imperialism, lived as regally and pompously as does the Pakistan army and its officer corps, from lieutenants to generals. The British, whose army won an empire of epic proportions, never let its soldiers and officers spill over the dull and tasteless confines of their cantonments. No such restrictions check the ambitions for power and pelf of the Pakistani men in khaki.

Defence colonies is a phenomenon unique to the Pakistan army, which opens up a short cut to quick ‘growth’ for every officer in uniform. This is an officially ‘blessed’ and sanctified vehicle for enrichment without the need of any special skills. All that is needed is to allow an officer to have a ‘plot’ of land in defence colonies in a few major cities, and he has well and truly embarked on his journey of ‘growth’ in the strict material sense of the word.

Small wonder, therefore, that even middle rank officers of the Pakistan army can afford a relatively luxurious lifestyle. I have been to the homes of retired Turkish generals where frugality was the norm, not an exception. Most of them lived in crammed apartments bought from their life-savings. That, indeed, was a world apart from the regal splendour of the homes of our retired generals, admirals and air-marshals.

Another unique feature of the officer corps of Pakistan army is the phenomenon of a life-after-retirement. These soldiers never fade — they are recycled.

It was Zia-ul-Haq who started the lucrative business of assigning serving and retired army officers to civilian jobs. His objective was twofold: one, to ensure that he would have men he trusted in responsible and sensitive civilian jobs and, two, that a new and lucrative tenure would ensure the loyalty of the officers corps essential to perpetuate himself in power.

General Musharraf has taken Zia’s invention to absurd lengths. Every major government or semi-government corporation in the country today has a serving or retired military officer as its head. Police ranks and other sensitive government departments in the civil sector are being beefed up with military officers. Generals and brigadiers are running universities at home and embassies abroad. The Pakistan army has, in a nutshell, infiltrated each and every aspect of life in Pakistan and its choke-hold over the country and its people is total and complete.

Seen from the over-arching perspective of the Pakistan army stationed on every niche of the country’s ramparts, the Algerian and Turkish models look almost insipid, despite the Turkish model ostensibly being the Pak army’s virtual template. In fact, the only real feature the Pakistan army has borrowed or copied from the Turks is the institution of a national security council. But there is a lot more that the Turks, or the Algerians could learn from the Pakistanis.

The Turks and the Algerians have constricted their hand by confining themselves to the ramparts of secularism and ideology. These, in the modern context, are uncertain, infirm and slippery grounds to stand on. The politicians , for the sake of convenience and pragmatism, may eventually learn to trim their sails to suit the winds that keep the army afloat. The example of the rejuvenated Islamists in Turkey, in the guise of the AKP which insists on being secular, is a case in point. The Turkish army is involved in a losing battle of wits with the young and inspired stalwarts of the AKP. Moreover, if and when the decades-old Turkish dream of entry into the EU materialises, it will sound the death knell for the incumbent special status of the Turkish army; its pompous generals may then quickly become a threatened species.

There is no such imminent danger for the Pakistan army which has tactfully woven itself into the fundamental matrix of the Pakistani nation.

Unlike the Turkish and Algerian armies, the Pakistani men in khaki have no commitment to secularism, despite General Musharraf’s avowed moderation or soft, non-hirsute visage. The Pakistan army, since Ziaul Haq, has stayed, lock-in-step, with the rising tide of religious fundamentalism. The army is, thus, in no threat of being out of step with the popular current or becoming irrelevant to the mainstream.

It has also worked hand in glove with the other dominant streak of the Pakistani national life, i.e. feudalism.

The Pakistan army’s strong links with the landed aristocracy, and its deep-seated involvement with the feudals in agro-industries and in a variety of industrial enterprises is rapidly inter-weaving and twining the organic interests of these two pillars of the establishment in Pakistan. Unlike the Algerian or the Turkish army, the Pakistani army has manifestly feudal moorings. It is becoming a feudal army, or an army of feudals with inseparable links to the fruits of the land. The feudals and generals have evolved a community of interests that binds them, organically, in a symbiotic relationship.

In short, the Pakistan army has all bases covered in the country and is ideally placed, as far as its basic and acquired interests are concerned, in an indomitable position. It is hard to conceive that it could be dislodged from its deeply-entrenched position at the fulcrum of power by another force in the foreseeable future. A quote attributed to the late Jawahar Lal Nehru after Ayub Khan’s first martial law goes, “every state has an army, but in Pakistan the army has a state.” There could not be a more befitting description of the status quo.