Book review: The Pakistan Military in Politics by Ishtiaq Ahmed - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 4 November 2013

Book review: The Pakistan Military in Politics by Ishtiaq Ahmed

The Pakistan Military in Politics: Origins, Evolution, Consequences
by Ishtiaq Ahmed
Amaryllis, New Delhi: 2103
540 pages, Rupees 795/-

If you are looking for that one authoritative book that tells you all about the Pakistan military and its role in that country’s politics --- your search continues. Ishtiaq Ahmed has flubbed the opportunity to slake rising global interest in Pakistan’s most powerful institution as NATO draws down from Afghanistan next year. Instead he has given us a turgid, inelegant, potted history of Pakistan that does not deserve to be on the same bookshelf as the excellent theoretical studies of Ayesha Jalal, Hassan-Askari Rizvi and Ayesha Siddiqa, or more recent historiographies by General Pervez Musharraf (In the Line of Fire); Shuja Nawaz (Crossed Swords); and Mark Mazzetti (The Way of the Knife).

The author apparently has the credentials to write an engaging and informative book on Pakistan. Born in Lahore around the time of partition, Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed now lives in Sweden and teaches at Stockholm University. But he is clearly no expert on the Pakistani military, and that shines through in glaring errors (Sample, Page 63: Pakistan got six armoured divisions at partition. In fact, it got only one).

The book loses the reader at the outset with a rambling academic discourse that stumbles through the theoretical frameworks of Samuel Finer, Samuel Huntington, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and Harold Lasswell to conclude (as tens of thousands of students of civil-military relations have concluded before) that the weakness of Pakistan’s polity and the relative modernity and strength of its military led to the former being dominated by the latter. Revealingly, Ahmed cites Max Weber’s observation that, in early Muslim society that lived by the sword, the warrior class quickly dominated the trader class, to infer that the Pakistan military’s primacy has historical, religious-cultural and social roots. Like many of his countrymen, Ahmed masks the failure of his country’s politics with the assertion of its warrior cult.

When the reader emerges from this intellectual bludgeoning, she is launched into a capsule of world history, apparently as a backdrop for the Pakistan military’s gestation. Context is laudable, but the author’s effort to flag every major global event results in a goulash of half-page sub-chapters with headings like “The United States”, “The Atlantic Charter”, “A Vision of Collective Security”, “Realism Replaces Liberal Idealism in US Foreign Policy” and “The Pakistan Scheme”. This perverse sub-chapterisation continues irritatingly for the rest of the book. Like when dancing with a far more energetic and insistent partner, the hapless reader is twirled now in the direction of “General Ayub Cultivates the Americans” (one page), and now toward “The Military and Internal Politics” (five lines).

On the plus side, the author does not shrink from evaluating the Pakistani military critically. He notes, for example, the generals’ opportunism in taking credit for winning control over one-third of Kashmir in the 1947-48 conflict, while blaming the British for preventing the capture of the entire state. Ahmed also treats sceptically the myth, propagated by the generals, that Pakistan handily won the 1965 war. He is even-handed towards India, making mention of Gandhi’s fast-unto-death to pressure Nehru and Patel to give Pakistan its share of Rs 550 million, which the departing British had left to be shared between the two militaries.

The book revives some interesting vignettes that otherwise tend to blur over time. Ahmed plays back the editorial reaction to Ayub Khan’s military takeover in leading English news daily, Dawn, which styles itself today as a liberal bastion. Welcoming the coup in an editorial entitled “A Sane Revolution”, Dawn wrote: “There have been many revolutions in the world… but this revolution of ours has been of a different sort. A complete change of both system and regime has been brought about without any strife or bitterness, and without disorganizing the normal lives of citizens… this unique feat will perhaps stand out in history as a shining testimony to the wisdom, humanity and large-hearted patriotism of the architects of the new order.”

Those who see this reaction as shockingly short sighted should remember that, in those days, an entire school of renowned American political scientists was justifying political interventionism by the militaries of post-colonial states. Lucian W Pye argued in “Armies in the Process of Political Modernization” that militaries in newly independent, post-colonial states had minimal stakes in existing autocratic governing structures and were therefore well suited to spearhead the charge to democracy! Hailing the military’s egalitarianism, Pye wrote that the “practice of giving advancement on merit can encourage people, first, to see the army as a just organization deserving of their loyalties, and then possibly, to demand that the same form of justice reign throughout their society.”

On the whole, the book works only as a Pakistan primer for someone who has not read or studied the country in any detail. It gets worse as it proceeds, with the penultimate chapter, “The Gory End of Osama bin Laden”, a poorly written journalist’s account drawn from press reports rather than from any insight into the military. The book finishes with an eminently avoidable chapter entitled “Analysis and Conclusions”. Fortunately, only the very conscientious would get that far. 


  1. Can we expect anything better from these people? :(

  2. Commend you for going through a book which in your own analysis is badly written and structured.

    Frankly I don't have the capability to punish myself in such a way :-)

  3. He is correct in that the Army and Mujhids are highly respected in Pakistani Society and it is one of the reasons military rule is not only accepted but welcomed. It is something indians on the whole will never understand(jat sikhs may do).

    In indian society father wishes his son to be docile and to study. In Pakistan in general fathers love the sons who are wild and tough but correct. When our children are small we tell stories about warriors from the family, the clan, our area and off course the islamic heros. They are always warriors. This may not be the case in general in lahore/islamabad but the rest of the country breathes this air.

  4. Dear Col,

    I note that in the review, at para 4, you refer to the reader as "she". So who actually read the book for this review?


  5. @ Anonymous 18:22

    In today's gender-sensitive world, the reader is not always referred to as "he". Since it might well be a woman, "she" is increasingly used in such a context.

  6. Raw13:

    If you knew anything about military history, you would know that Indians are the warriors, not the Porkistanis.

  7. Raw13:

    It is true that Indian fathers encourage their sons to study. If one does not, he is a shitty father - porkistani or not. Education is the gateway to opportunity. I don't know about docile, though. I don't know how many times I've seen Indians beating the shit out of Porkistanis. If Porkistani fathers encourage their sons to be wild, they need to do a better job of it.

  8. Comments like the one @raw13 wrote make me realize just how much the problems of that benighted country are because of the misplaced machismo and "mardaangi" of its so-called warriors (who have never won a single war, by the way). Poor little boys who have to grow up like that. No wonder they build nothing, destroy everything.



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