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Exposing The Pakistani Military

You cannot understand Pakistan without understanding its military. It is involved — and profits — from nearly every nook and cranny of Pakistani life. Which is why Shuja Nawaz's examination of Pakistan's military, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the … Read More

By / May 2, 2008

You cannot understand Pakistan without understanding its military. It is involved — and profits — from nearly every nook and cranny of Pakistani life. Which is why Shuja Nawaz's examination of Pakistan's military, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the War Within, recently published by Oxford University Press, should be required reading for policy makers.

Pakistan's army has ruled the country for a majority of the sixty years the nation has existed. The country's political history contains volatile and uncertain democratic periods with long military dictatorships in nearly every decade. Since 9/11, Pakistan's military has essentially served as an arm of America's War on Terror. All in all, Pakistan received nearly $12 billion in aid from the United States since 2001, nearly three quarters of which went to the military (what's more, about one quarter has been in the form of untraceable cash transfers).

Nawaz, former newscaster with Pakistan Television and winner of the Henry Taylor award at Columbia University School of Journalism, begins his exploration with the fledgling state in 1947 on through to the present day. It is a fascinating, thorough and in many ways awesome narrative.

Nawaz has a command of every major book written about Pakistan over the last 60 years, and as a member of one of Pakistan's leading military families — his brother, Asif Nawaz, was Pakistan's top general between 1991 and 1993) — he was able to gain unprecedented access, including Pakistan's mysterious and shadowy intelligence service, ISI, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Parvez Musharraf, and a number of American generals, including Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni. (In fact, Mr. Nawaz knows some of these people so well, that when I spoke to him, he casually mentioned receiving Blackberry messages from Benazir, and cracked jokes Nawaz Sharif told him in Punjabi). His research and sources coalesce into a history of Pakistan's army, its cronyism, its involvement in civil society, its corporatism, and its unstated project to centralize power in Islamabad.

Crossed Swords is not just history. There are important lessons and warnings to be found in the text. For example, the immense number of generals appointed by former Islamist dictator Zia ul Haq — who seized the presidency from Benazir Bhutto's father in a coup — have not yet taken hold of power. When they do, after the current group of leading generals resign in perhaps five to ten years, Pakistan's famously secular military may be disposed to take an Islamist turn.

Its not all pessimism though. Pakistan's military is becoming less dominated by the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnicity and slowly becoming more representative of the national character. History also reveals that it has contained good and honest individuals within it.

What makes Crossed Swords fascinating for the general reader, beyond the larger
narrative about the military, are the little anecdotes: the way Zia ul Haq really lived; how a gift of BMW cars led to a conflict in the military; how the ISI played its hand in various conflicts. These are nuggets from an insider to which no pundits in the US and most Pakistanis do not have access. That's no surprise: the military has done a remarkable job hoarding information. And the information they do release is unreliable, as with a military report on Zia ul Haq's 1988 death in a plane explosion which makes no mention of any form of combustion at all.

One of those little anecdotes, hidden in the appendix, reveals the author's personal motivation for writing the book. General Asif Nawaz Janjua, Shuja Nawaz' brother, died under mysterious circumstances in 1993. (His hair was revealed, in an independent toxicology report, to contain perplexingly high levels of arsenic and chromium.) Mr. Nawaz details how the efforts of General Asif Nawaz' widow and family to get clarity around the causes of death were stymied by the Pakistani military. As Mr. Nawaz puts it: "the army command had closed ranks and was protecting itself." Closing ranks — or crossing swords if you will — is what the Pakistani military does best.

If there is a shortcoming to the book, it's that it would have benefited from a more spartan editor. Crossed Swords is a bit longer than most comparable investigative books, and some of the portions should have been cropped (though I'm at a loss to say which ones). The length will be prohibitive to some general readers. Also, the linguistic style is probably appropriate for the kind of formal English that Pakistani and British academics speak, but it takes a bit of getting used to for an American ear. Also, it's reportedly not very widely available, which is quite a shame given how often Pakistan is in the news today and how important it is for Pakistanis to have transparency when it comes to their nation's most powerful institution.

But all in all, Crossed Swords is an essential reference for anyone doing research on Pakistan and a worthwhile, informative read for anyone interested in the ways autocracy, power and corruption have intersected in a Republic that has too often been a dictatorship.

Related in Jewcy: Pakistani politics, a Darwinian struggle; Michael O'Hanlon and Frederick Kagan's imbecilic fix for loose Pakistani nukes

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