Was Gen. Ayub Khan a coward?

Lt Col Khalid Masood Khan (Retd)

Dr Lord Wilson C. McMorran, who served as a medical officer during WWI and earned the gallantry award, military cross (MC), carried out a study on the psychology of soldiers in combat. Based on his studies he published his book, the ‘Anatomy of Courage.’ In his book, he asserts that the physical courage of a person converts into moral courage when he grows older and his physical strength weakens. He maintains that the courage of a leader or a commander should be judged by his decisions based on his moral principles and character traits. It is ironic that some people claim General Ayub Khan was a coward due to his alleged poor performance during the WWII Burma campaign. Ostensibly, he was demoted and declared a coward in his war report. The roots of this assertion originate either from some sort of personal vendetta by a few people or out of ignorance. In this article, we shall focus solely on these allegations of cowardice made against the late general, leaving aside the legitimacy of his assumption of power, the political aspect of his tenure, and his statesmanship.

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In January 1945, while Ayub Khan was serving in the 1st Assam Battalion as a major, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel W.F. Brown was killed. Consequently, officiating command of the battalion was handed over to him being the senior most major; the second in command. This was a temporary arrangement till the arrival of the new incumbent, the commanding officer. Being part of the divisional troops, the unit was directly under the command of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Thomas W. Rees, commanding 19 Indian Division, Burma. Meanwhile, the unit was ordered to take part in an offensive action. Major Ayub Khan, showing probity, rightly suggested that the unit was unfit for war due to losses suffered during previous engagements. This was done with complete sincerity and loyalty to the unit and to the cause. In his view, pushing the unit in that inadequate condition would not only have resulted in fighting a loser’s battle but also caused a high rate of casualties.

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Major Ayub’s assertion was unprecedented in those colonial days. It was based on ground reality and required a lot of moral courage. The English GOC was not accustomed to these kinds of suggestions from a native officer. He, therefore, removed him from the officiating command and defined Major Ayub’s proposition in his report as, ‘tactical timidity’. In case the meaning of timidity is taken as cowardice, then the expression, ‘tactical timidity’ would imply ‘tactical cowardice’, which does not make sense, nevertheless, its synonym, ‘ambivalence’ connotes an inability to choose between two courses of action at the tactical level, does make sense, being a viable articulation. He neither mentioned the word, ‘cowardice’ nor did he demote him. Cowardice is an offence in the army punishable with death on active service. Had Major Ayub Khan been considered a coward, the GOC wouldn’t have hesitated to convene a court-martial against him. In the later days to come, in 1965, General Ayub Khan as the President and the Commander in Chief (C-in-C) of the Pakistan Army, declared war against India; had an army about three times bigger in size and resources. He planned and executed the operation “Grand Slam” which aimed to capture disputed Indian-held Kashmir and was able to capture areas up to the suburbs of Jammu. Similarly, he repulsed heavy Indian advances on Lahore and Sialkot axes and captured an Indian town, Monabao, in the south with only a brigade-strength army. Notwithstanding the causes and effects of this war which are highly debatable, his courage and tenacity for this daring initiative at the strategic level cannot be denied.

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Cowardice is an intricate insinuation and is perhaps the foulest insult for a person. Human behaviour is unpredictable and cannot be stereotyped, since people tend to behave differently in different environments. Thus, it has to be differentiated from expediency. In battle conditions, commanders are subjected to extreme mental and physical stress and strain conditions, and have to make hard decisions in a particular environment to the best of their abilities which suit their missions as well as the safety of the troops and the reputation of their outfits. This aspect is given due consideration in the Profession of Arms, which was done in both the cases of Major General Rees who was awarded MC after the end of WWII, as well as Major Ayub Khan who soon after the incident was promoted as a Lieutenant Colonel and given the command of 1/14 Punjab of the British Indian Army in India. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Brigadier and trusted with the command of an infantry brigade in Waziristan by the British Indian Army authorities.

Later, Ayub Khan rose to the rank of Major General and subsequently, after partition while serving under the command of General Gracey, C-in-C of Pakistan Army, Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan the Prime Minister, selected him to be appointed as the first native C-in-C of the Army out of many other competitive candidates, all senior to him. The question arises, if he were a coward, then what prompted the British Indian Army High Command to continue promoting him up the ladder to excellence and later, the Prime Minister to appoint him as the C-in-C of the Army? Thus, the allegation of cowardice on him appears to be totally baseless and fabricated and solely amounts to tarnishing his image.

March 8, 2023

Source: The Nation

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