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In hindsight

on October 24 | in TNS_Columns | by | with No Comments

A slew of new appointments were announced the other day. And very soon we will also have a new army chief and joint chief. Having got it disastrously wrong on an earlier occasion, Nawaz Sharif intends to let performance and seniority – and not some too clever by half advisers, or his own intuitions – determine the selection.

Of course, that’s no guarantee that he will have judged wisely or that the performance-seniority approach will not hurt. Not all generals realise their dreams when they become the army chief; for some that’s when they really begin to dream.

I recall receiving tightly bound dossiers of army officers recommended for promotion when working for BB (1993-96) and being asked by her whether I had read them or had any observations to make. “Good lord, no, Prime Minister. I wouldn’t know where to begin, or even what to look for”, I said. As she appeared perplexed, I added, “May I suggest you sign off on whatever the army chief has recommended. You will have no use for the man promoted in the foreseeable future, and if you do it will only mean you have failed to prevent a war, or measure up to the military’s expectations in which case he will be just one of the half a million force you will have disappointed”.

I can’t remember what BB said but I do not recall complaints that the chief’s promotions were ever turned down except, of course, when it came to the appointment of the naval chief but that’s another story.

Prime ministers have far more leeway to indulge personal preferences when making civilian appointments. BB was always quick to recall incidents why a person recommended for promotion should not be promoted and why one not so proposed deserved to be promoted. She arrived at promotion board meetings with a shortlist of those she wished promoted and it was pointless trying to stop her.

BB also had her pet theory of how intelligence agencies and departments ‘cook’ the books, so to speak, by slipping in information damaging to some while excluding it where another is concerned only to give their favoured candidate a leg up.

One difficulty a prime minister faces in evaluating a civilian official stems from the fact that those in mainstream cadres have two reports being maintained on them. One is by the relevant ministry division and the other is by the ISI and the two very often differ.

ISI reports on civilian officers are collated mostly by low-level ISI sleuths and can contain just about anything – lies, fabrications trumped-up stories – all of which perforce remain unchallenged because unlike the reports being maintained by the establishment division they are never communicated to the individual. What is worse is that our military rulers rely on these reports. Musharraf, for example, would not move without consulting ISI reports on civilian officers and many a promising career was resultantly cut short.

Promoting the right man based on his performance, intelligence and character to the right job is crucial. A bit more sense, in 1965 and 1971 and our history would have been very different. And that’s not because hindsight is always perfect. On both occasions, wise and brave men spoke up undeterred by what the cost may be but there were more, too many more, who did not. Likewise, in 2001, there must have been those whose advice, if accepted, would have helped deflect the disaster that now seems inevitable.

But to single out only Pakistani civil servants for being spineless is unfair. The popular British TV series, ‘Yes, Minister’, correctly suggests that lying, as much as lying low, is the norm among civil servants even in mature democracies which is why in most bureaucracies the tallest grass invariably get’s cut first.

I discovered that while serving as a staffer in the second BB government. Puzzled by our mindless support of the Afghan Taliban – termed ‘our boys’ – to differentiate them from the mujahideen, I questioned the wisdom of this policy pointing out how disastrous a Taliban victory in Afghanistan could prove in the long run. Although my notes were meant only for BB, word got around that I was promoting a markedly different viewpoint from the one their boss was dinning into BB.

But I was not especially bothered by such talk. I work for the prime minister, I thought to myself, if she was with me no one could harm me and if she was not, no one could save me. Alas, I never suspected their reactions would be as severe.

One colleague had said I would be hanged when the BB government was removed. He was nearly right; I was hung out to dry for a year as OSD following BB’s ouster in November 1996, till finding nothing against me, I was exiled to Nigeria by the regime of the then aspiring ameerul momineen.

I was also stripped of my promotion (to Grade 22), notwithstanding a High Court stay order although the promotion was later restored. Very few civil servants, I was reminded recently, have been promoted to the same grade twice and that too by such different individuals as BB and Musharraf. I suppose that was said to enable me to belatedly thank Nawaz Sharif for doing me a bad turn.

At the time, the foreign minister took the opportunity at a meeting in which all the members of ‘Team Pakistan’ were present to demand my head for acting ‘too big for my boots’. He was caught completely unprepared by the sharpness of BB’s response and never dared broach the subject again. The army chief, who had unwittingly started off the campaign against me by letting on that if he were ever to be in a position to make changes the first change would be my removal, also seemed somewhat taken aback by BB’s swift and strong defence of a staffer.

The fact is that our top bosses don’t like anyone treating them as mortals. Unfortunately, some of us don’t really know how else to treat a mortal except as one and, besides, when it comes to debating policy we believe those who dish it out should be prepared to take it too rather than whine about being ‘accorded due respect’.

Such then were some of my random thoughts and feelings as the announcements of fresh appointments were being made the other day. Are these men and women made of the right stuff? Do they have the courage of their own convictions? Will they read the situation correctly and give the right advice? Will they stand up to the prime minister? Or will they cower silently like many before them did – and still do?

Though the new ambassadors have former colleagues they were much too junior for me to form a lasting impression about them although I know both Ibne Abbas and Tehmina Janjua. Both are level-headed and capable.

And then there is my friend, Kamran Shafi, a truly inspired choice for London. Let’s hope the more important choices to follow will be equally inspired and, like Kamran is rightly wont to do, they will say it as they see it.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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