Review: General Shahid Aziz’s Memoir Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak

Shahid Aziz retired from the Pakistan army after a long and successful career, reaching the rank of Lieutenant General (3 star general) and serving as DG analysis wing of the ISI, DGMO (director general military operations), CGS (chief of general staff) and corps commander (commanding 4 corps in Lahore). After retirement, he served as chairman of the powerful National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the main anti-corruption watchdog in Pakistan. In spite of having been one of General Musharraf’s closest associates (and related to him by marriage; the daughter of one of Shahid Aziz’s cousins is married to Musharraf’s son) he became increasingly critical of Musharraf after retirement and in 2013 he wrote a book that was highly critical of Musharraf and of Pakistan’s supposedly pro-US policies at that time.

In May 2018 there were several news reports claiming that General Shahid Aziz had left his home last year (or even earlier) to join the Jihad against the West and had been killed, either in Syria or in Afghanistan (General Musharraf was the one who claimed he was killed in Syria, most other reports said Afghanistan). While his family has denied these reports, they have not been able to produce any explanation about where he is if he has not actually died on Jihad. So I decided to read the book. Having read it, I think the combination of naive idealism and PMA-level Islamism found in his book makes it very likely that these reports are true. My review follows (please also read this review by Abdul Majeed Abid as a complementary piece)

The first surprising thing about the book is that it is written in Urdu. Most military autobiographies in Pakistan have been written in English, a simplified/desi version of which is the lingua franca of the Pakistani elite. This may be because General Shahid Aziz (like his mentor Musharraf) was a Mohajir, and unlike Musharraf he seems to have been well read in Urdu and comfortable with using it. While his own politics are firmly in the Islamist-PTI-PMA category, he is also a huge fan of the Marxist-Leninist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and quotes him un-ironically throughout the book. Whether this reflects positively on Shahid Aziz or negatively on Faiz Ahmed Faiz is up to the reader. In any case, points to General sahib for writing in Urdu, and that too, in good Urdu. Not that he did not know enough English; he even wrote poetry in English (a poem called “The Naked Deceiver” is in the book. It is not a great poem, but the vocabulary is extensive, which may be one reason he had such a great career in the Pakistani military: he could write good idiomatic English).

He describes his own motivation for writing the book in these words: “I did nothing in my military service over which I should feel eternal shame, but what I did in the last few years and where we brought the country in those years, the weight of those actions has been crushing me for the last 5 years.. what use are regrets now you may ask? ..but I wanted to write this book so that maybe some young person can learn something from my experience”.  This feeling is his main motivation for writing this book. A few years ago one may have dismissed this as the usual grandstanding where retired army officers transform into warriors of the Ummah (on TV) after retirement, but continue to hold on to green cards and foreign bank accounts. But if the story of General Shahid Aziz joining the mujahideen and dying in that effort is correct (as it appears to be) then in this case at least, the conversion was sincere.

What were these actions that he regrets to much? He was a participant in Musharraf’s coup (and as he makes clear in the book, it was no spontaneous response to Nawaz Sharif’s firing of the army chief, it was a pre-planned coup) and then in his martial law regime. Under this regime, Pakistan joined the American war on terror as a “non-NATO ally” and fought against the mujahideen in Afghanistan (and beyond). It is this betrayal of Islamic solidarity that Shahid Aziz regretted, and it is this regret that eventually drove him to write this book (and it seems, to join the mujahideen in his old age).

A military brat, Shahid Aziz grew up in cantonments all across the country, was an average to below average student and was madly in love with his cousin (who later became his wife). He joined the army, was an outstanding cadet (he got the sword of honor at PMA) and was posted as a young officer in the Chamb sector (in Kashmir) in the 1971. His memories of the war give an interesting window into the war as it looks to fresh young officers (complete with the fog of war and minor atrocities like an Indian prisoner who was shot dead by someone the day after Shahid Aziz happened to see him bound and helpless). Shahid Aziz comes across as idealistic and honorable (e.g. he refused to vote in Gen Zia’s fake referendum, and he claims a George Washington moment when Zia came to inspect his unit during a major exercise and asked about their training and Aziz answered that there was no training and this was all a fake show; a piece of information that Zia did not appreciate) but then again, he is writing the book. Whether there was another more calculating side to him is not revealed in this book, but it is hard to believe that he made Lt General in the army by always telling the truth. Some awareness of when to keep your mouth shut must have been there even in idealistic young Shahid Aziz.

He went on a course to the US and got a chance to travel through Europe, and was impressed by the honesty and friendliness of the common people in both places. He was also approached by an American officer with what Shahid Aziz took to be an effort to recruit him, though his claim that he was offered a position in the US army seems ridiculous.  By 1999 he had risen to become the director general of the analysis wing in the ISI and was at this post when Musharraf’s Kargil adventure exploded into the news. He claims that he had no idea this was in the works and was as surprised as Vajpayee when the news broke (and given the fact that Musharraf had not told other senior generals or the chiefs of the navy and the air force about his adventure, he is likely telling the truth). He is very critical of the whole operation and makes it clear that it was a tactical AND strategic disaster of epic proportions, though it appears that he did not share this opinion with Musharraf until after his retirement.

He has shared interesting details of the coup preparations and the day of the coup itself. Like most army officers, he had a low opinion of politicians (and civilians in general) and believed that a strong man with a “sincere” team was needed to clean up Pakistan and put it on the road to modern-Islamist prosperity. Unsurprisingly, he saw himself and his fellow generals as exactly the sincere people who were needed. By the end of the book he concedes that their scheme did more harm than good, but as usual he blames faulty execution, not the idea of a military coup in itself. After the coup the generals made lists of qualified people to run the country and conducted formal interviews in GHQ, but at the same time other outsiders (such as Shaukat Aziz) were mysteriously parachuted into top positions without this vetting and interviewing process. He claims to have no idea how and why this happened and seems to have been remarkably incurious about these matters, which suggests that he was either extremely naive or has conveniently forgotten some details. Readers can be forgiven for thinking the latter is more likely.

By 2001 he had been promoted to Lt General and posted as CGS (chief of general staff) at GHQ. He was there when Musharraf got the famous call from Colin Powell and joined the American war on terror. In hindsight, Shahid Aziz is very critical of this decision and its aftermath, but even in his own book he does not report that he ever dissented from this policy while in office. Musharraf, who was now related to him by marriage, seems to have trusted him and promoted him regularly. After serving as corps commander in Lahore, Shahid Aziz retired and was made head of the National Accountability Bureau. He claims he tried to go after big fish, but was stymied by Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz and their political calculations. Eventually he resigned from this post and went home to contemplate all he had done with life. If we take his book at face value (and in this matter, I see no reason not to) then Shahid Aziz comes across as a (mostly) honest man with a rather simple Islamic faith, a VERY simplistic view of society and history (Naseem Hijazi comes to mind) and a strong desire to live in a “modern country” (a combination common among educated middle class Pakistanis, and especially in army officers; what we may label “Mehran Man“, the sort of person who is a PTI supporter). As long as he was in service he managed to stay upright with just enough compromises to get ahead, but once retired he seems to have taken his Islam more seriously than the average real-estate tycoon/retired general. From within his worldview, the fact that Pakistan had sided with an infidel power against fellow Muslims was an unforgivable sin and this weighed on his conscience (he says as much). Finally it caused him so much heartache that he decided to write this book and get it off his chest. Given that a few years later he went ahead and joined some Islamic warriors and got killed, it seems that writing this book did not assuage his conscience to the extent desired.

The book is worth reading for its picture of army life in the 1970s, its anecdotes about the Zia era and the insider (critical) view of Kargil and the Musharraf era. While one can imagine that the real-life Shahid Aziz must have been a shade more calculating and shrewd than the book implies, my impression is that the book is generally sincere and honest, and therefore is a good window into the mind of a typical “good Muslim, sincere Pakistani” officer. His anecdotes and impressions of Kargil, the 1999 coup and the Musharraf era are revealing not just because of what they tell us about these events but also because they show what pygmies are making these decisions on our behalf and what level of analysis and historical understanding they are working with. The downside is that the book is repetitive and could do with some aggressive editing.

All in all, worth a read.

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5 Replies to “Review: General Shahid Aziz’s Memoir Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak”

  1. and was madly in love with his cousin (who later became his wife).

    This thing about Pak bros I like the best. They know how to maintain C Asian blood purity. Very important. Can always have non-Muslim laundis and baandis (concubines) for eclecticism and experimentation but cousin = wife for procreation is a must.

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  2. was madly in love with his cousin (who later became his wife)

    This thing about Pak bros I like the best. They know how to maintain C Asian blood purity. Very important. Can always have non-Muslim laundis and baandis (concubines) for eclecticism and experimentation but cousin = wife for procreation is a must.

    Shahid bhai was a true warrior of the Ummah. Would have been an honour to ride with him to Delhi… alas Allah in His infinite wisdom had other plans.

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  3. Thank you very much. I still cannot make up the mind whether sincere Islamists or cynical opportunists are preferable at the helm of Pakistan’s leadership. Imran Khan’s leadership would be a fascinating thing to watch, from a safe distance away.

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  4. Thousands of Urdu and Punjabi speaking Pakistanis fought in Iraq 2003-2016. Why isn’t this discussed more? One of the main challenges of the Iraqi Army 2004-2008 and 2014-2016 was a shortage of Urdu translators and Pakistani culture specialists.

    Much of the command and control and communications for the Iraqi resistance was in Urdu. Urdu graffiti was widespread over much of Iraq.

    This is one reason why Iraqis are so anti Pakistani. In 2007 and 2008 a lot of Sunni Arabs from Al Anbar and other Iraqis lobbied the Government of Iraq to let them fight Pakistanis in Afghanistan. The Iraqi Government chose not to deploy Iraqi forces to Afghanistan to fight Pakistanis.

    General Shahid Aziz appears to have played a significant role in the Pakistani participation in the Syria and Iraq wars.

    Did Pakistan want to send over a hundred thousand Pakistanis to fight all over the world so that they couldn’t cause mischief at home?

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