Army Dreamers

‘We need to present a career in the army as a proven route out of the structural unemployment which dogs young Muslims’

Uncategorised

Carey Schofield is clearly an unusual woman. A new book by the Oxford-based defence expert should go some way to repairing the reputation of the Pakistani military, damaged by the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point. 

Like her earlier book on Soviet Spetsnaz commandos, Inside the Pakistan Army (Biteback, £19.99) is based on deep immersion in a military subculture. Former President Pervez Musharraf granted her exceptional access and she was helped by the fact that gossip is rife in Pakistani society, especially regarding the top brass: generals are celebrities in a country in which the army is the school of the nation. Schofield formed strong bonds with many of these officers, notably the dashing Special Forces commander, Major General Faisal Alavi, the brother of Nadira Naipaul, the journalist and wife of Sir V.S. Naipaul. General Alavi was dismissed in 2005, nominally over “the Pathan bitch” (a divorcee who was briefly his mistress). Three years later he was assassinated, either by resentful senior colleagues, or the Taliban, or both.  Schofield does not spare us the murky details of this shocking scandal.

In a country where disorder and squalor are ubiquitous, discipline, order and cleanliness pervade army facilities. The organisational model and ethos are those of the Imperial Indian Army. The regimental names will bring a tear to the eyes of military history buffs. With its huge collection of regimental silver, its motto (“Ich Dien”) borrowed from the Prince of Wales, and its sons of the rich, 5 Probyn’s Horse sounds like the Blues and Royals. Regimental halvidars suck liquorice sweets to counter the effects of bawling at the “gentlemen officer” cadets. 

Although much of the Pakistani army is more interested in ousting India from Kashmir, they have been obliged to fight Taliban terrorists as the Afghan war has “blown back” into Pakistan itself. Schofield is particularly good on the nature of this conflict, with some generals (like the very brave Alavi) up for a fight, while others prefer to spread baksheesh among tribal chiefs to avoid it. Too often, operations are delayed to cater to the needs of a suspiciously high number of pregnant women, which gives the ferocious Chechens and Uzbeks of al-Qaeda a chance to blast their way out of trouble. The Pakistanis may be justified in pointing to the huge casualties they have suffered in a war that is highly unpopular because it is said to serve US interests better than their own. What Pakistan’s soldiers think matters: given the corruption of the political class, theirs is the only institution which seems to work. However, it is a rare general who, like Musharraf, retires relatively poor.

Muslim soldiers of a more local kind concern Shiraz Maher in Ties that Bind, a remarkable new report issued by Policy Exchange (£10). At present there are only 600 Muslims in Britain’s armed forces. That represents 0.3 per cent of the total, whereas Muslims comprise an estimated 4.6 per cent of the general population. Maher, who also writes for Standpoint, shows how Islamist activists have succeeded (partly through our negligence) in substituting a story of conflicted loyalties for a historical reality where there were none. 

In the Great War, Indian Muslim leaders successfully countered German propaganda which sought to portray the Allies as anti-Islamic, particularly after they found themselves at war with the Ottoman Caliphate. The British military went to considerable lengths to cater for these Muslim servicemen, who realised that the conflict was political rather than religious and served everywhere from Flanders to Mesopotamia. Much the same pattern recurred during the Second World War, when the Japanese made their anti-colonial pitch amid the fraught climate of demands for Indian independence. A high proportion of Muslims again fought with great distinction in the Indian Army, a sacrifice belatedly recognised in the commemorative stone gates at the Hyde Park end of Constitution Hill. 

Maher rightly argues that this Muslim contribution needs to be incorporated into the “renationalised” school curriculum we have been repeatedly promised, not least to counteract the religious separatism being propagated by Islamist extremists. As in other areas of our national life, so-called community leaders are more hindrance than help. The Education Secretary Michael Gove’s rediscovery of the 18th-century Prussian practice of using retiring NCOs as village schoolteachers may reconnect the services with British society. Just as Muslims in the empire made a rational choice to fight for Britain, so nowadays we need to present a career in the army as a proven route out of the structural unemployment which dogs young Muslims.