“Crossed Swords” by Shuja Nawaz — A Review by Ahmad Faruqui

On the left sleeve of his khaki uniform, every soldier of the Pakistani army proudly wears an emblem – two white crossed swords on a green background. That striking image provides the title for Shuja Nawaz’s copious history of the Pakistani army. 

With half a million men in uniform and several hundred thousand in reserve, it is a formidable fighting force. What it lacks in conventional weaponry it makes up in its panoply of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  

The army regards itself as the heir to the martial traditions going back centuries to the days of early Islam. Indeed, the generals who commanded the British Indian army often referred to their Muslim soldiers as being a martial race.  

But the army’s most prominent role in Pakistan’s history has not been that of a military force but that of a governing body. In the early sixties, Prime Minister Nehru of India is believed to have said that while other states had armies, in Pakistan the army had a state. His counterpart, Field Marshal Ayub, Pakistan’s first military ruler, never disputed that contention. In fact, he often thought of his country as the Prussia of the subcontinent.

Commenting on the army’s frequent political interventions, the historian Stanley Wolpert once called the Pakistani army a wolfhound that was not afraid to turn on its master. These two faces of the army, military and civilian, have conflicted so often in history that Nawaz’s book could well have been sub-titled Crossed Circuits.

Nawaz is neither a soldier nor a social scientist but a journalist. The strength of his book derives from his interviews with serving and retired military officers. He comes from an army family and his brother once led the army. But he does not let these personal ties bias his research.  

Troubled by army’s frequent coups, he quotes Musharraf’s predecessor (who also served as his ambassador to Washington) as saying that the army has done no better than the civilians when it comes to ruling the country.

And when it comes to fighting wars, Nawaz shows in meticulous detail that the army has a weak resume. So much for Musharraf’s assertion when he seized power that the army had never let the nation down.  

For much of its history, the army has carried out misguided adventures against the much larger Indian army, believing until 1971 that one Muslim soldier was worth ten Hindu soldiers. More recently, it has been engaged in operations against rag-tag bands of militants allied with Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Waziristan. These battles have not gone well. Indeed, they have given the Americans an excuse to directly target the militants through drone-launched missiles.  Scores of civilians have been killed in the process, further hampering the army’s job.    

Last year, the army raided a mosque in the heart of Islamabad, where militants affiliated with the Taliban were holed up. That operation did not go well.  Similar operations against dissenters in prior decades have been carried out in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, all with singular lack of success.  

The biggest failure was in 1971 when the army’s decision to not uphold the results of a general election precipitated a civil war in the majority province of East Pakistan. This prompted an Indian invasion several months later which concluded with the surrender of the Pakistani garrison and the secession of East Pakistan.  

That failure led the army to acquire nuclear weapons. Widely regarded as the crown jewels of the arsenal, they have now become the object of much desire for terrorists and brought Pakistan front and center in America’s war against terror.

Ayub Khan, who seized power in 1958, was very popular in the beginning because he seemed capable of ridding the country of the miasma of corruption and incompetence that had entered its body politic during the first decade of civilian rule. His economic policies stimulated growth in the 1960s but also heightened economic inequalities between classes and exacerbated tensions between the eastern and western provinces.

A decade later, he left the country in disgrace after having presided over a failed war with India in 1965. His successor, General Yahya Khan, held fair elections but refused to hand over power to the victors. He presided over the 1971 dismemberment of the country. General Zia held non-political elections and presided over a proxy war with the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. While the war brought about the defeat of the Red Army, its legacy –Al Qaeda and the Taliban—continues to haunt not only Afghanistan or Pakistan but the entire world. 

And General Musharraf, while making a well-advertised U-Turn on the Taliban in the country’s foreign policy under American pressure, failed to rein in the religious militants on the home front. Despite Musharraf’s loud talk of enlightened moderation, the country is even more divided along ethnic, sectarian and other fault lines than it was in 1999 when he seized power.  

Despite the considerable heft of Nawaz’s history, which checks in at 655 pages, we are left searching for a theory that would explain the army’s troublesome past behavior, much less predict its future. 

Why do some army chiefs carry out coups and others don’t? Is it their personality, the circumstances, external influences or something else? And what can be done to prevent a fifth coup which would end Pakistan’s third democratic transition?  

Why does the army consistently under-estimate its enemies, fail to coordinate its operations with the navy and air force and count on its allies to bail it out when it fails? Why does it not learn from its failures? Is the promotion process flawed? Is loyalty rather than skill the main criterion in the selection of general officers?

What can be done to reorganize the army to fight tomorrow’s wars? Can anything be done to trim defense spending and focus on the human development of the country? What, if anything, can be done to stop the intrusion of the military in the economy? 

And, most importantly, why does the Indian army, the larger twin of the Pakistani army, not intervene in politics? 

The reader would be hard pressed to find answers to these fundamental questions in Crossed Swords. But even with its limitations, Nawaz has penned a book which will become a standard reference on the Pakistani army for years to come.    

One hopes it will also be read, and read carefully, by aspiring general officers. It is still a ways away from being “the finest fighting force in Asia,” a goal that was articulated for it by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he took over as the first civilian ruler of Post-Bangladesh Pakistan.    

Ahmad Faruqui, an associate of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford, is the author most recently of “Musharraf’s Pakistan, Bush’s America and the Middle East,” Vanguard Books, Pakistan.