Marshal of all he surveys

Whereas in Egypt there is a developing tradition of promoting army chiefs to field marshals to keep them in good humour, in Pakistan Ayub Khan’s self-elevation to the rank of field marshal has an interesting background

(Daily Times, 6 February 2014)

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been promoted to the rank of field marshal by Adly Mansour, whom he himself not so long ago had appointed interim president of Egypt after overthrowing and imprisoning Mohammad Morsi, the elected president. 

Meanwhile, the hapless Morsi, who had earlier promoted Sisi to the rank of general and the post of defence minister, languishes in jail. Occasionally, he is hauled before a hand-picked court located within Cairo police academy to defend himself against multiple charges from inside a soundproof cage.

Sisi’s predecessor as army chief and defence minister, Hussain Tantawi, had been promoted to the rank of field marshal by President Hosni Mubarak to keep him happy. And happy both were, for Field Marshal Tantawi did not mount a coup, and President Mubarak let him continue as army chief into the ripe old age of 75, when he would have been too weak to lift a rifle, let alone shoot straight.

But when the Egyptian people thought they had had enough of Hosni Mubarak and occupied Tahrir Square for days on end to make the point, his friend and, in theory, subordinate, the field marshal asked him to go.  And to add insult to injury, Tantawi even put Mubarak and his two sons on trial. I doubt Sisi will last half as long as Mubarak or Tantawi. For times are different.

But whereas in Egypt there is a developing tradition of promoting army chiefs to field marshals to keep them in good humour, in Pakistan Ayub Khan’s self-elevation to the rank of field marshal has an interesting background, if we are to believe Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

According to the late, redoubtable Ardeshir Cowasjee, on Aug 13, 1976, Prime Minister Bhutto wrote as follows to his secretary general, army chief and cabinet secretary:

“I will tell you how Ayub Khan became a field marshal. When he promoted Lt Gen Mohammed Musa to the rank of general and made him commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army he told me in Nathiagali in 1959 that he was worried over the quarrel between Gen Musa and Gen Habibullah. He told me that he was worried about Habibullah`s intrigues and ambitions. He asked for my advice on how to place himself head and shoulders above their squabbles.

“I told him that one way of doing it was to show complete impartiality, fairness and justice, and I made the other suggestion rather cynically. I told him that since it was essential for him to be head and shoulders above the others, it would be better if he elevated his own rank from that of a general to that of a field marshal. He thought it a brilliant idea. … Ayub became field marshal in October 1959.

“At that time I was leading the Pakistan delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The formalities were completed in my absence…. After the decision was taken at Karachi, Ayub Khan told his military secretary to phone me in New York and to thank me for making such a sound suggestion. I am therefore the hero of Ayub Khan`s valorous battles.”

Fortunately, Ayub’s example did not become a tradition in Pakistan, although we have had three generals seize the reins of government after him.

Other interesting self-elevations to the rank of field marshal have been President Idi Amin of Uganda and Iraq’s Saddam Hussain.  Downright ridiculous is the case of Jean Bedel Bokassa, president of the impoverished Central African Republic.  He not only appointed himself field marshal but also emperor of the Central African Empire!  Less ridiculous – only because it was expected – was the elevation of 29-year old Kim Jong Un of North Korea to the rank of Field Marshal.  It runs in the family.  Both his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, were Field Marshals in life and were promoted to Grand Marshal in death!

To his credit, Gemal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, never elevated himself above the rank of colonel, which he had held at the time of the 1952 coup which deposed King Farouk.  Similarly, although he held absolute power from 1969 until his brutal death in 2011, Muammar Gaddafi remained a modest colonel of the army.

Ayub’s downfall has similarities with Mubarak’s ouster. Just when he thought he was unassailable and at the peak of his power after pompously celebrating his “Decade of Development, 1958-68”, Ayub Khan was confronted with massive unrest in the country, particularly in East Pakistan, which not only shook him but also shocked him.

It was left to his army chief, General Yahya Khan, to tap the field marshal on his shoulder and show him the door. Unlike Mubarak, though, Ayub went rather gracefully, bringing tears to many eyes with an emotional resignation speech in which he said: “I cannot preside over the destruction of my country”.  In light of later developments, one is tempted to say that General Yahya Khan took over saying “But I can”. And he did.

The Field Marshal never quite understood why the people of Pakistan had rejected him.  Dr G. W. Choudhury, himself from what was then East Pakistan, who had been close to the Ayub government and had been a federal minister in the Yahya government, recalls that when he met a sick and forlorn Ayub Khan in a New York hospital after his downfall, Ayub expressed bewilderment that the people of East Pakistan had so vehemently opposed him even after “I gave them a Bengali governor, Monem Khan”!

Choudhury expresses his astonishment that the field marshal should have thought that all that was needed to satisfy the people of East Pakistan was to appoint a Bengali as governor.

Ayub should have known that the most popular governor of East Pakistan had also been appointed by him at the beginning of his rule.  And, tellingly, this man was not even an ethnic Bengali and not even a civilian.  He was a Pakhtun and a general of the Pakistan army. 

His name: Azam Khan.  An honest, practical, no-nonsense general who liked to do his job well and to serve the people.  Incidentally, it was he, who as the General Officer Commanding of 10th Division in Lahore in 1953, had put down the violent anti-Ahmadi agitation in the only way it deserved to be, by force.

Lt-General Azam Khan never craved bungalows, banquets, medals and ranks.  Not for him the title of field marshal, though he was a master of all he surveyed, for he won people’s hearts.

By Razi Azmi

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2 Responses to Marshal of all he surveys

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Azmi, Thank you for putting the record right.

  2. Sohail Mehmood says:

    Quite an intersting fact unveiled, truly agree with your comments, ” Fortunately, Ayub’s example did not become a tradition in Pakistan”, although one wonders how in ideal dynamics of Pakistan, nursery of Field Marshals could not nurture:)

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