A cool army wonk – By Anjum Niaz


Benazir Bhutto “scooped” Shuja Nawaz! He had filled her in on some important details. She included them when she updated Daughter of the East. “We had long sessions in Dubai and Washington where I reminded her of certain facts she had long forgotten,” says Shuja Nawaz who was planning to use the nuggets for his own book. “But she beat me to it! However, she apologised when I told her that I was the one who gave her the information,” he said in good humour. Here’s one more sidebar from the author: some generals when they retire cart home classified documents in the hope of writing a blockbuster. One such ex-fauji was loath to show him documents containing vital information, but when he realised that Shuja Nawaz had done his “homework” and knew more than the general, he relented and let him borrow the papers. The author headed straight to a photocopier shop in Lahore and made copies. “I got hold of sensitive information for this book through all means available,” he smiles during our 60-minute conversation over coffee in a hotel in Pindi.

At an earlier encounter with the author I had tried drawing him into his family tree but failed. The name J D Malik rings a bell, I began. It was written in stone, I continued. To be more precise, it was engraved on the right pillar of the gate at a house where we once lived, I said. After a lapse of some 60 years, suddenly I came across this very name on his “dedication” page in Crossed Swords: Pakistan Its Army, and the Wars Within. Did J D Malik own a house in Satellite Town in Rawalpindi when the capital moved to Islamabad? I haltingly ask son-in-law Shuja Nawaz. We are standing holding our dinner plates at a do in the author’s honour. Was it by any chance named “Al-Anjum”? As I wait for an answer, my mind has already flown back to those early days–lonely, long and laboured. President Ayub Khan had uprooted the government from Karachi and plunked the officers and their families in requisitioned homes scattered all across Rawalpindi. “Al-Anjum” was particularly a sadness filled abode overlooking a pond where people went in but never came out. “My father-in-law sold the house,” was the only dry response I can draw out from Shuja Nawaz.

He’s too serious a historian to get all excited about a house that his father-in-law owned and occupied by my family for some years. Perhaps I should have opened the conversation with his book instead of describing the mural on the guest room wall. But if truth be told, his book overwhelms me. As we get talking, he says he wrote 1,000 pages, but his publisher asked him to cut them down 655 pages. The book is a magnum opus on our military. “This is a book that I have lived with most of my life,” is the first line of the preface. Doubtless, it’s the best, the greatest, most authentic work ever done by anyone on the “nature and operation of the army in Pakistani society and its actions in war.”

“But this story is incomplete without the role of the United States,” says Shuja Nawaz. One has to plough through the book to get an idea of how diligently the author has collected information spanning 30 years of his labour of love. It’s mindboggling how he has referenced each quote, each event, each piece of history with a flawless reference to the context contained in the “Notes” after every chapter. In other words, the journalist who trained at Columbia School of Journalism, going on to work at The New York Times and later editing the IMF’s and the World Bank’s Finance & Development quarterly, is heedful of his sources and flags them at every stop of his way.

“I wrote this book for the intelligent layman as well as a robust academic who wouldn’t mind stepping down from his pedestal to read it,” Shuja Nawaz says when I ask him who is his intended audience. He admits that not many Pakistanis would have read his book because most belong to the “second-hand information” cliques who typify the “oral culture” tradition where they prefer to be told rather than read. He met only four people in Pakistan who had read Musharraf’s book when it came out.

In today’s diet of ‘breaking news’ doled out 24/7, who wants to find out what Yahya Khan told Shuja Nawaz lying in a hospital bed in Washington after his 1971 fiasco? More currently, we all want to know what General Kayani has up his sleeve on the impeachment of his predecessor Gen (retired) Musharraf. Will the president use Article 58 (2) (b)? Any thoughts? I query Shuja Nawaz, who is to meet the COAS the next morning. His general response: read the book and the reader can draw useful conclusions to the current questions. “I have given so many instances which carry lessons for our present politicians and the pitfalls they must avoid.” He thinks the politicians never learn from the mistakes of the past and hence they continue to bungle, including the present lot.

Does Asif Zardari read books? I pointedly ask Shuja Nawaz. “I find him well-informed and a keen reader,” he replies. “I have met him and Benazir Bhutto a couple of times.” Shouldn’t Zardari and “buddy” Nawaz Sharif, then, make his book mandatory reading for their party workers if the coalition has to survive, I say, adding that the book contains political lessons they can ill afford to ignore. For example, the PPP in the past suffered by rashly issuing notifications concerning the appointments of defence chiefs without taking the issue of timing into consideration. This time again the notification saying the ISI was now under the ministry of interior came at a time when all the top brass was attending the wedding of General Satti’s daughter in Islamabad. They were all gathered in one place and were able to brainstorm and reach a decision. Within hours the PPP was forced to back off!

“Well, the greatest lesson I learnt during the last 30 years, ever since I have been working on this book, is that people are willing to talk only if you ask them,” he says of the 65 interviews he conducted over the years. “They are bursting to tell their stories. Go and ask.” Not only did Shuja Nawaz use the information that he collected from his interviewees hitherto hidden from the public, he dug out valuable data from the records made available to him by the GHQ and contained elsewhere in UK and US archives.

He always used the tape recorder during his interviews–some as long as five hours at a go. “Being a prisoner of one’s sources, I always triangulate and get the information verified that I have been told by a third person.” Another very interesting observation Shuja Nawaz picked up during his forays into the army archives was that some of the reports contained at the GHQ, the Staff College and the National Defence College were written by young officers with independent views highlighting issues that showed a different viewpoint from their seniors’. “Unfortunately the senior officers either have not read those illuminating reports or have disregarded them while making top-level policy decisions,” he says. “The reports are biting the dust while some others are marked “top secret” and are unavailable to the COAS even. “Even General Jehangir Karamat, when he was the army chief, did not know of the existence of a secret report highlighting the 1971 fiasco.”

The Pakistan Army is like the Free Mason’s Society or a secret club where information is confined to the four walls of the room and never allowed out. “Unfortunately, the Indian Army suffers from the same malaise,” says Shuja Nawaz, who was told this by military analyst Jogindar Singh, son of former foreign minister Jaswant Singh.

The Pakistan Army, in the coming days, will face its biggest setback if its former COAS gets impeached. It will be a first.

Email: aniaz@fas.harvard.edu

Courtesy: The News, 12/8/2008

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