The Way Of The Janissary – Irfan Husain

THE heated speculation and feverish commentary over who would become Pakistan`s next army chief after Gen Kayani`s retirement would not have been out of place in a closely fought election.

This keen, almost unhealthy, interest reDects the army`s pre-eminent position in Pakistan`s politics.

More welcome were the calls to redress the military-civilian imbalance that has built up over the years. In an editorial, this newspaper called for Nawaz Sharif to reclaim civilIan control over foreign policy towards Afghanistan, India and the United States.

It is widely believed that the prime minister picked Gen Sharif even though more senior officers were available because he thought links between their respective fathers would bind the new army chief to him.

He made a similar mistake when he handpicked Gen Musharraf in 1999, superseding several other more senior officers, on the assumption that a Mohajir would have no constituency of his own, and thus depend on the ruling party for support.

He forgot that the military provides a powerful constituency, and the officer class is loyal, first and foremost, to the institution that has pampered them much of their working lives.

And like other institutions, the military has interests and perks to protect. Thus the army chief will always work to ensure the primacy of his power base, irrespective of his ethnic background or clan connections.Given our many military interventions, invariably legitimised by the judiciary, the political class has been weakened and hamstrung in its efforts to assert itself. Its own venality, inefficiency and lack of vision have not helped its cause.

And as the army has accumulated political power, it has used its clout to establish a host of industrial, financial, real estate and commercial interests. Retired officers are given berths here if they can`t be accommodated in different branches of the civilian bureaucracy.

Other armies in other periods have behaved similarly.

Centuries ago, the Janissaries spread terror as the Ottoman Empire expanded into Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. These elite troops inspired shock and awe among opposing forces as they provided the cutting edge to the Ottoman sword.

But then something changed, and the Janissaries declined, decayed and were decimated. Jason Goodwin describes the process in his Janissary Tree: `If the Ottoman Empire inspired fear throughout the known world, it was the Janissaries who carried the fear to the throats of the unbelievers. The conquest of Sofia and Belgrade. Istanbul, itself, wrested from the Greeks in 1453. The Arab peninsula, and with it, the Holy Cities.

Mohacs, in 1526, when the flower of Hungarian knighthood was cut down in the saddle… Rhodes and Cyprus, Egypt and the Sahara…

`Until who could say why? the victories dried up… The Janissaries petitioned for the right to take up trades when there was no fighting … They enrolledtheir sons into the corps, and the corps grew reluctant to fight.

`They were still dangerous: loaded with privilege, they lorded it over common people… Designed to die fighting at the lonely outposts of an ever-expanding empire, they enjoyed all the licence and immunity that the people and the sultan could bestow on men who would soon be martyrs… But they no longer sought to martyr themselves.

`The men who had been sent to terrify Europe made a simple discovery: it was easier and far less dangerous to terrorise at home.

Sultans who tried to rein them in were overthrown and often brutally executed.

Goodwin continues: `The common people became afraid of them. In trade, they exploited their privileges to become dangerous rivals.

Their behaviour was threatening and insolent as they swaggered through city streets. .

Finally, after a string of defeats at the hands of highly disciplined European armies and, humiliatingly, even an Egyptian force under Ali Pasha the sultan set up the New Army, modelled along modern European lines.

This force was used to level the Janissary barracks in 1826 with heavy artillery, killing hundreds in a surprise attack, and scattering the rest. Janissary power was finally broken.

Readers can draw whatever parallels they choose from this bit of Ottoman history.

But one thing is clear: institutions guard their perks and privileges jealously. Power is never handed over; it has to be taken, often by force.

Obviously, there`s little possibility of setting up ourown New Army to cut the existing military down to size.

Given Pakistan`s history, reclaiming basically civilian powers from the military is no simple undertaking, whatever well-meaning editorial writers might urge.

Nonetheless, the linkages between the economy, defence and foreign policy can no longer be ignored. We need good relations with Afghanistan and India. And whether we like it or not, America is too powerful to bicker with forever.

While Nawaz Sharif would like to have normal ties with all three, the army has its own agenda, and keeps civilians out of the loop as it makes its calculations and arrives at its decisions.

Thus far, the prime minister has showed little stomach for a confrontation with anybody, leave alone the powerful military. I suppose one can`t really blame him, given his own experience. After being bitten twice, most people would be wary of tackling a tiger.

And yet if he expects to achieve all he promised, he needs to move quicker than he has thus far. However, the master key to many of our problems is in GHQ. Above all, he needs the army to be onside for any strategy designed to fight the holy terror that is devastating the country.

The tdek then is to establish civilian control without alienating the military. Our knowledge of Nawaz Sharif`s past performance, as well as of the army`s arrogance, does not allow us grounds for optimism. Pm afraid the wait for a New Army and a sultan with fire in his belly will be a long one.