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Instances of an army continually occupying its own country are rare. Yet the Pakistan army has systematically been engaged in the job for the past fifty years. It was Justice M.R. Kayani who first made note of this occupation factor, drawing in the process the very great ire of General Ayub Khan, known today as Pakistan's first military dictator. Or you could even say, without batting an eyelid, that Ayub was the man in Pakistan's, or South Asia's, history who first taught soldiers the art of overturning civilian governments and then giving themselves a very wide berth in statecraft. In all these years since October 1958, when Ayub and Major General Iskandar Mirza first went into the business of clamping martial law over Pakistan, Pakistan's soldiers have spread their wings nearly everywhere, to the extent that Ayesha Siddiqa recently spilled all the beans about the army's hold on the economy in her disturbing (for the army) Military Inc.

Unlike Siddiqa, though, Shuja Nawaz stays clear of any controversy around the army. Little indication is there of the army's having transformed itself into a business organisation. But that it has consistently and carefully turned itself into a supra-constitutional body, or even become a state within a state, is not left in doubt. That was not, however, Nawaz's intention. What he brings forth in this extensive tome is what the subtitle points to. The army has had its own wars, first in the early 1950s when Ayub Khan began maneouvering to have the soldiers enter the corridors of power (a clear hint he first made in his 1967 memoirs Friends Not Masters); and later in the times of his three military successors. Nawaz is in a unique position to inquire into the way the Pakistan army has evolved since the partition of India, given that he is the younger brother of the late General Asif Nawaz, the chief of staff who died of what was subsequently given out as a heart attack. Of course, the Nawaz family has always suspected poisoning to have been behind the general's death. He had, after all, not been on friendly terms with the man then in power, Nawaz Sharif. Shuja Nawaz's links to the top brass in the army have been there for years, and not just because of his brother. Judging by the meticulously put details he brings into his work, there remains little doubt as to the kind of friends he has in the military establishment.

In Crossed Swords (which is actually the logo of the Pakistan army), the writer throws up intriguing bits and pieces of information on the doings of powerful men over the years. Take the matter of Ayub Khan promoting himself to the rank of field marshal before handing over charge of the army to General Muhammad Musa. And who advised him to become a field marshal? None other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the young upstart with ambitions of his own laid out for the not so distant future. Ayub was Pakistan's saviour, so felt Bhutto, and so he needed to be above every other general in rank and esteem. What better way to ensure such a position but by becoming (or appropriating the rank of) a field marshal? The Ayub years were a time when the army grew in strength and yet found itself mired in pointless military operations. Nawaz speaks of the Rann of Kutch episode in early 1965; and then he raises the matter of how the army may have miscalculated the strategy and intelligence of the Indian army in the run-up to the September 1965 war. The Ayub regime was forced into a climbdown when it agreed to a ceasefire twenty three days into the war.

If in the ten years of Ayub Khan's rule Pakistan's army became a well-entrenched presence in the Pakistan state structure, in the brief period of General Yahya Khan it certainly mutated into a morally decadent force. Yahya's ambitions had been growing in the years since he replaced Musa as army chief in the mid 1960s; and they nearly came to fruition in 1968 when Ayub succumbed to long illness. By early 1969, as a political movement against Ayub Khan gathered pace, Yahya saw the opportunity, and took it. He would go on to preside over the break-up of the country through refusing to hand over power to the electorally triumphant Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was the worst moment in its history for Pakistan's army when it capitulated before a combined force of Indian soldiers and Bangladesh's Mukti Bahini. But that is precisely where the author, in a manner typical of many Pakistani intellectuals, falters. He stays away from all mention of the genocide that provoked the Bengalis of East Pakistan into opting for independence after March 1971 and in almost cursory manner records the surrender of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka on 16 December 1971. But Nawaz does record the chaos and the catcalls that greeted General Abdul Hamid Khan as he tried to gauge officers' reaction, three days after the loss of East Pakistan, to a possible taking over of power by him from Yahya. Expletives and loud denunciations forced Hamid into a retreat.

The section on the ZA Bhutto administration and the prime minister's use of the army, to the extent of appointing Ziaul Haq over a whole range of senior officers to the position of army chief of staff, brims over with unknown details. And detailed too is the narrative on Bhutto's fall and his subsequent agony as Zia's prisoner. For the first time, perhaps, Pakistan observers are treated to information on the physical beating the fallen prime minister may have endured in his cell at the hands of majors and colonels. It makes morbid reading. And similar is the experience with the author's enumeration of the rise of army's Inter-Services Intelligence, a body noted for the sinister way in which it has undermined politicians at home and destabilised conditions abroad, as in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's army, never a well-meaning body of soldiers, comes off even worse in Shuja Nawaz's work. The book is a smooth study in how an army can leave a country writhing in perpetual suffering. Pakistan keeps going through the pain. And, lest we forget, so does Burma in our neighbourhood.

It was a disbelieving Kwame Nkrumah who was taken out of jail and installed as prime minister of what had been the Gold Coast in 1957. As independent Ghana's leader, he thus turned into an instant symbol of African liberation. Eight years later, pampered and corrupt and having proved ineffectual as president, he was forced out of power by his army while on a visit to China. He spent the rest of his life in Guinea, where his friend Sekou Toure had given him sanctuary, before dying forlorn in 1972.

Martin Meredith brings into focus the long tale of Africa's political evolution, or its decline, in the fifty years between 1957 and 2007. There was promise when the process of decolonisation began, indeed when Harold Macmillan spoke of the winds of change sweeping across the world. And yet that promise was to wear down, and patience was to wear thin, as time went by. Algeria's independence came about after years of a protracted struggle, in 1962. Within three years, Ahmed Ben Bella would be ousted by his defence minister Houari Boumeddienne and put away for years on end. Men like Sekou Toure and the Ivory Coast's Felix Houphouet-Boigny would turn autocrat and chances of an African renaissance through democracy would swiftly recede. In Nigeria, where hope remained high, tribalism would come in the way of democratic politics. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was murdered and his body was left lying in a ditch. The country would slide into one military coup after another, with an interlude of Biafra for three years between 1967 and 1970.

Nigeria remains corrupt. And the Congo, where Patrice Lumumba launched a blistering attack on King Baudouin and his ancestors on the eve of independence in 1960, soon gave notice of what was ahead. Lumumba was ousted, captured by Moise Tshombe and murdered, with Belgian officers complicit in the crime. Uganda lurched from possibility to chaos to sheer buffoonery, the last in the person of Idi Amin. Tanzanian socialism, even with mwalimu Julius Nyerere in charge, did not work. Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda failed to deliver. And Robert Mugabe, having struggled mightily to free his country of white racist rule, then went on to destroy it.

Only Senegal's Leopold Sedar Senghor and South Africa's Nelson Mandela were to prove the exceptions to the rule.

Read on. Your interest will not wane.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star .

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