Knights of The Long Table

King Arthur had his knights of the Roundtable, the closest thing to that in Pakistan are the Army’s Lieut Gens, Corps Commanders and Principal Staff Officers (PSOs), all accommodated on a long, rectangular table in GHQ with the COAS Gen Pervez Musharraf at the head. One could possibly equate the Army Chief (even though Musharraf has far more powers) with King Arthur but Sharifuddin Pirzada is certainly the closest thing to Merlin the Magician (with apologies to Ardeshir Cowasjee who calls him the “Jadoogar of Jeddah”) that there is. Every Army Commander-turned-President needs a Merlin of sorts, Pirzada has been excelling in the witchcraft he has successfully practiced in manipulating the hapless Pakistani Constitution at will to suit his Army Chief clients, four of them, starting with Ayub.

Compared to Musharraf’s present democratic predicament King Arthur had it easy, he wasn’t being hooted by the Opposition in and out of Parliament, straitjacketed by retirement laws, extension of services, etc. Unless he pulls a surprise, which by the way is quite possible given his SSG (Special Services Group) origins, he has to retire his present Lancelot, Gen Mohammad Yousuf, Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) Pakistan Army, on Oct 7, 2004. Whoever is the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staffs Committee (JCSC) really doesn’t matter.

Unless one of the incumbents is given extension, most unlikely, two Lt Gens will be promoted to rank of Gen to occupy the two vacant four-star slots. It is also quite possible that the Naval Chief becomes Chairman JCSC, thereby limiting the promotion to one Lt Gen from the Army. With the President hardly likely to vacate the office of the COAS in the present circumstances, it is to be expected that his choice of Lt Gen (s) to be promoted may be the senior-most (in this case Lt Gen Ahsan Saleem Hyat, Comd 5 Corps) and a whole lot of Lt Gens will not retire because of the tradition that would have required them to do so if they had been superseded. The undeserving who have lived high off the fat of this land will breathe a sigh of relief. This could be an interim arrangement till the President feels secure enough to doff his uniform and make a full-time COAS. In the absence of authentic information, the rumour mills are working overtime, with speculation rife about various permutations and combinations. One major factor is sacrosanct, the acid test for four-star selection will be personal loyalty to Pervez Musharraf.

Lt Gens are supposedly the crème de la crème of the Army, having come through a very demanding and exhaustive process, at least till they reach Brigadier’s rank. Professionalism must be underscored by individual honesty and integrity. Starting with the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Kakul, their performance is evaluated as a Gentleman Cadet (GC) and the graduation seniority thereof. A Sandhurst cadet or a Sword of Honour winner certainly gets a head-start, the high-office aspirant must go into one of the fighting arms, infantry, armour and artillery. While Engineers one must count as a fighting arm, in Pakistan their involvement in Military Engineering Services (MES) and construction projects undercuts their credibility as future leaders of formations (and the Army). One Engineer officer did make it to the top, being appointed COAS on Oct 12, 1999 by then PM, Mian Nawaz Sharif, Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt froze at a crucial moment of truth, holing out in the PM’s House when any soldier worth his salt would have been heading for GHQ. While Musharraf remained cool and calm in the air, his loyalists on the ground mopped up Mian Nawaz Sharif’s future as PM and Ziauddin’s few hours as COAS.

Appointment holders in PMA usually do well in their Army careers, as time passes, the system catches up and hard working and capable officers who have not been heard of as younger officers come to the fore. The first real big test is the Command & Staff College Entrance Examination and qualifying that, the performance in the Course itself. Those who graduate at the top of the class get coveted appointments that stimulate career advancement, the pyramid then starts to narrow down. After a stint in Staff (and/or as an instructor) comes the upwardly mobile officer gets a posting back to the unit for a report on field command before promotion (by selection for the first time) to the rank of Lt Col. At this stage a majority of officers drop out of contention, retiring as Majors. As Battalion (Infantry) or Regimental (Armour or Artillery) Commander, the person is then measured in the next posting of a Staff or Instructional Appointment. Those who do well go on to the next rank, Col Staff of an Infantry or Armour Division or Col GS of a Corps, etc. The next stage is the Army War Course, selected Brigadiers (and equivalents) go on to do the National Defence Course (NDC). With such criteria it would be almost impossible for a non-professional to reach two-star rank, nevertheless one or two do manage to slip through the system from time to time on sheer favouritism.

The officer is then ready to be promoted to the rank of Maj Gen to command an infantry or Armour Division or equivalent (Corps Reserve). From here onwards the selection is tough, it also depends upon one individual, the COAS, almost exclusively. From 34th PMA Long Course only six became Maj Gens, only one from my Course becoming Lieut Gen. The three who should have, Maj Gens Malik Saleem Khan, Khursheed and Mushtaq didn’t. Whether the PMA intake is 200, 300, 400 or 500, only six or seven will make Maj Gens and only one or two Lieut Gens on the average. There are exceptions, Pervez Musharraf’s 29th PMA Long Course was a very good intake, it had four Lieut Gens.

Regretfully I do not know much about the current crop of Lt Gens except that most of them have not seen combat. There is a system flaw somewhere as otherwise this should have been an immediate disqualifier for promotion to their present rank, how can anyone in this Army, which has seen the 1971 Indo-Pak War, 1973-1975 Balochistan Operations, 1983-84 Sindh Anti-dacoity operations, Siachen (ongoing since 1984) and Kargil (1999), be promoted past the rank of Major without having heard a shot being fired in anger? Whether to put a person in the Chairman JCSC or VCOAS slot without combat experience may not figure in the President’s calculations as he must have considered this before making them Lt Gens (since all present Maj Gens and Lt Gens are his promotions), I would sincerely hope (and pray) that at least the particular Lt Gen (or Lt Gens) he selects for four-star would have a good reputation as an honest and upright professional.

It may not be out of place to quote some “Arthurian” guidelines, paraphrasing it from the legendary Roundtable to the reality of the Long Table in existence in the Pakistan Army, viz (1) The Table was founded in patience, humility and meekness (2) The Knights were men of courage, honour, dignity, courtesy and nobleness (3) they must keep their word to all and not be feeble of good belief and faith. Right must be defended against might and distress must be protected. They must know good from evil and the vain glory of the world, because great pride maketh great sorrow (4) An envious knight shall be dishonoured twice, all men of worship hate an envious man and will show him no favour, and lastly (5) they must not fail in these things, charity, abstinence and truth. One hopes it will be charity for all, abstinence from greed and not camouflaging of the truth.

The Pakistan Army deserves the best, and therein lies the litmus test for Pervez Musharraf. His circumstances are such that it is impossible for him to take off his uniform, so be it, after all Lancelot did ultimately rebel against King Arthur. In his selection/s Musharraf must choose leader/s who are perceived by the citizens (and the Army) to be of outstanding character and integrity, dedicated professional/s with a commitment to the Army rather than to their pockets. The President owes it to this nation and this Army, to give us our rightful due in military leadership.