Durrani was punished not for disclosing any secret, but for analysing the tantalising event of the 2011 American operation in Abbottabad to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The general retired in 1993, which means he wasn’t privy to any
secret, but could still analyse based on his knowledge of his institution. Perhaps due to his pride in the military, he could not believe that the Pakistan Army could be caught with its pants down. And so, he claimed in an interview to Al Jazeera that the top generals negotiated the Osama bin Laden operation with the Americans. While the interview was
ignored, Durrani repeating this claim in the book angered army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was totally sidetracked by his political ego. Durrani’s theory about the Abbottabad operation took attention away from what the army chief was trying
to do – tell the world that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had hurt national interests by disclosing to the newspaper Dawn that the world was concerned about Pakistan’s involvement with militant groups and extremism.
The jury on how much the army top brass knew about the American operation is still out. In his recently published book The Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama claims that it was a secret kept from Pakistan because some of its intelligence personnel were deeply connected with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Former army chief General Ashfaq Kayani seems
to have only demanded that
Washington come clean about the operation after it was all done. None of this means that the generals at the helm of the Pakistan Army did or did not have more details. We will probably have to wait many more years when American records get declassified to
get a clearer picture. Durrani, and many other officers like him, might eventually get disappointed as they realise that the military high command continued to sleep during the operation, as they did during the outbreak of the 1965 war with India.
Impact of the Durrani leak
However, Durrani’s article is important
due to six factors. First, there is unrest in the larger military fraternity of Pakistan caused by actions of the new generation of generals. Second, there is an indication of a shift in the army’s culture. The institution has strayed away from its tradition
of showing respect to the senior command, and even the retired ones. What started under General Pervez Musharraf in the form of criticising Lt. General Ali Quli Khan in his book has come full circle with a senior retired general being mercilessly hounded.
Third, the article says a lot about the military’s socialisation process. Power is maintained not just through distribution of perks and privileges, a system that Durrani criticises
as being abused by the top brass, but also by revoking security clearance of officers that are seen as having stepped out of line. While Asad Durrani’s clearance was withdrawn for using his pen instead of the sword, Maj. General (retd) Mahmud Durrani
lost his clearance that would enable him to attend functions where the chief would be present probably for his admission that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani citizen. There are many more stories waiting to be told about how men may retire from their respective
services but can never return to civilian life.
Fourth, Durrani seems to have exposed the working of General Bajwa’s cabal, the influence of former generals, and the petty-mindedness behind the targeting of a senior retired officer. The former spy chief came out guns blazing about corruption
of the military leadership, especially the story of
General Beg extracting money from a Karachi banker, Younis Habib, to finance an ISI operation against Benazir Bhutto’s government. I remember my own interview with General Beg for my first book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making at his think tank in Rawalpindi, in which he confessed that this was not the first time that the ISI had got money from private
entrepreneurs. Intriguingly, Beg also managed to extract resources from the Germans, who continue to be a significant European source for financing both kosher and dubious think tank activities in Pakistan. The picture that emerges then is of a military with
issues at the top.
Fifth, such close-mindedness means that the top-brass lacks capacity to deviate from their traditional behaviour, and are not capable of any strategic
policy review. This means they are more likely to get stuck geo-politically and politically in situations from which they will be unable to extricate themselves. Finally, the institution’s capacity to harm people, including its own officers, has multiplied.
The building of an echo-chamber
Durrani published his thoughts in an Indian news blog probably
because because he didn’t think it would be printed in Pakistan. He timed it well to further expose the shallowness of the existing top brass that is confronted with mounting political opposition to its hybrid rule formula. His article is a rap
on Bajwa’s knuckles, and could become painful if it gets circulated widely in military circles. In his novel Honour Among Spies, Durrani shows the army chief exiting from the office, which is not a probability in
real life except in case of a coup by another general. But additional pressures could be consequential for Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed’s future, whose desire to become the next army chief is no secret.
The Durrani leaks tell us about the growing weakness of an institution that has made it a habit
not to expose itself to critical examination or alternative views. This particular problem dates back to the Musharraf years, when any discussion of the Kargil operation and shooting down of Pakistan Navy’s Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft at war colleges was totally forbidden. At that time, any discussion that took place was by the larger security
community and in the country’s media. However, over the years, this became a bad habit with the military shifting from not listening to alternative views to gagging voices and planting views that would echo its own. The 14-15 think tanks in Islamabad
mostly say what is approved. This creates the problem of an echo chamber that only regurgitates what the military leadership wants to hear.
There is a larger problem at
the back of this behaviour: the proclivity of military leadership to generally consider itself like Caesar’s wife — above questioning. It tends to enforce its sensitivity on society as a fact of life. From a command-and-control perspective, such
sensitivity is tricky. From the Pakistan Army punishing its own general for reviewing his institution’s performance to the Indian Air Force chief complaining about something minor in a Netflix series, this kind of behaviour implies that military leadership is not open to the idea of evaluation, or even laughter. In the process, it’s a bid to create
a special category for the military as an institution that cannot be examined.
Surely, modern militaries are technologically advanced and more complex, which makes control
difficult. The myth-building about their service to the nation and how critical they are for ensuring security to the State then puts them at a pedestal where questioning becomes relatively difficult. This is not easy to ignore because it presents a long-term
issue for civil-military relations. The sensitivity of the military is negotiated through the society with the legitimacy of politicians, depending upon the respect they show their armed forces.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was told not to allow any discussion of the 1971 debacle and the military’s performance. He ensured silence, but paid with his own life. The survival of politics
makes it vital for societies and polities to engage with the armed forces and treat them as one of the institutions, rather than the only one.
The author is a research
associate at SOAS, London, and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. Views are personal.
17 Dec 20/ Thursday