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Pakistan: Under the Shadow of the Military Jackboot

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • August 19, 2014

    Like Pakistan, the nation, its army has been passing through turbulent times. The army’s counter-insurgency operations in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (erstwhile North West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have not been going well; its establishments have been repeatedly attacked with at least some attackers coming from within; its relations with its NATO allies had plummeted to an all-time low after the spectacular US raid to kill Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad in May 2011; the morale of the rank and file is low; and, its senior leadership is once again at loggerheads with the political leaders of Pakistan.

    Despairing at the role played by the Pakistan army in meddling in the country’s politics and governance in the context of the ‘memogate’ scandal in December 2011, then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had called the army a ‘state within a state’. Though this phrase has been in use for long, many analysts are of the view that the Prime Minister got it wrong because, in Pakistan, the army is the state. In fact, the army and the ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) together form the ‘deep state’.

    The military jackboot has ridden roughshod over Pakistan’s polity for most of the country’s history since its independence. While Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq and Musharraf ruled directly as Presidents or Chief Martial Law Administrators, the other army chiefs achieved perfection in the fine art of backseat driving. The army repeatedly took over the reins of administration under the guise of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ and, in complete disregard of international norms of jurisprudence, Pakistan’s Supreme Court mostly played along.

    Almost since the birth of Pakistan, the army has effectively ensured that Pakistan’s fledgling democracy is not allowed to take deep root. The roots of authoritarianism in Pakistan can be traced back to General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan who promoted the idea of ‘guided’ or ‘controlled’ democracy. The concept of the ‘Troika’ emerged later as a power sharing arrangement between the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). The ‘political militarism’ of the Pakistan army imposed structural constraints on the institutionalisation of democratic norms in the civil society.

    Some key national policies have always been dictated by the army. The army determines Pakistan’s national security threats and challenges and decides how to deal with them. Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir is guided by the army and the rapprochement process with India cannot proceed without its concurrence. The army controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and the related research and development. The civilian government has no role to play in deciding the doctrine for nuclear deterrence, the force structures, the targeting policies and the process of command and control. The army Chief controls the ISI and decides the annual defence expenditure and all defence procurements. He also controls all senior-level promotions and appointments; the government merely rubber stamps the decisions. Lt Gen Shuja Ahmed Pasha, DG ISI, was given two extensions at the behest of the COAS and General Kayani was himself given a three-year extension.

    In keeping with its visceral hatred of India and in order to weaken India, as also to further China’s objectives of reducing India’s influence in Asia and confining it to the backwaters of the Indian Ocean as a subaltern state, the Pakistan army has adopted a carefully calculated strategy of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’. This has been given effect overtly through irregular warfare – the Razakar and Mujahid invasion of Kashmir in 1947-48 and Operation Gibraltar in 1965; and, the Kargil intrusions of 1999. A proxy war has been waged through ISI-sponsored militancy and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and state-sponsored terrorism in other parts of India, like the Mumbai terror strikes in November 2008. In the 1980s, Pakistan had encouraged and supported Sikh terrorist organisations in their misplaced venture to seek the creation of an independent state of Khalistan.

    The ISI provides operational, intelligence, communication, training, financial and material support to fundamentalist terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayebba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to wage war against India. Similarly, it provides substantial intelligence and material support to various Taliban factions like the North Waziristan-based Haqqani Network to operate in Afghanistan against the Karzai regime and against NATO-ISAF forces. This is done despite the fact that Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally in the so-called ‘global war against terrorism’ (GWOT). The killing of Osama bin Laden in the army cantonment of Abbottabad, where he had been housed by the ISI for almost five years, provided direct proof of the ISI’s complicity in anti-NATO activities.

    This duplicitous working ethos of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds comes naturally to the Pakistan army and the ISI. In fact, during the Kargil conflict, the Pakistan army had earned the infamous sobriquet of ‘rogue army’ for asking its soldiers to fight in civilian clothes, returning badly mutilated bodies of captured Indian soldiers and refusing to take back the bodies of soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry killed in action on the specious grounds that they were Mujahideen.

    Some of the powers usurped by the army over the years can be attributed to the political parties’ self-inflicted injuries. The shenanigans of the two main political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League – and widespread corruption led several times to the people’s complete disenchantment with the rule of PPP’s Benazir Bhutto and her father before her and PML’s Nawaz Sharif. In addition to poor political leadership, the failure of democratic institutions can also be ascribed to constitutional and judicial weaknesses and the unsatisfactory levels of socio-economic development. The people were disenchanted with the poor quality of governance provided by the Yousaf Raza Gilani/ Raja P Ashraf-led PPP government; it is to General Kayani’s credit that he did not stage a coup.

    External factors have also led to the army playing a larger role than is warranted in a democracy. By arming the military to the teeth, the US has caused Pakistan to become a praetorian state in which the army plays a dominant role. It is only recently, in the face of the Pakistan army’s perfidious role in Afghanistan that the US government has begun to come to terms with its ill-considered policy. After the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO-ISAF forces in a border outpost in November 2011, US-Pakistan relations had hit a new low. The incident led to the Pakistan government’s decision to stop the flow of logistics convoys through Quetta and Peshawar, deny base facilities at Shamsi airbase and demand re-negotiation of the rules of engagement. In turn, the US government announced that it would withhold military aid to Pakistan.

    The army and the Nawaz Sharif government were till recently at loggerheads over the government's counter-insurgency policy, which had lacked cohesion. The army had been recommending to the government for quite some time that firm military action was necessary to deal with the menace of home grown terrorism, but the political leadership had disagreed. The commencement of a peace dialogue with the TTP by the government, allowed the terrorist organisation to re-arm, recruit and train fresh fighters. It also gave the TTP leadership the opportunity to cross the border into Afghanistan. In March 2014, the TTP offered a month-long cease-fire. The army honoured the cease-fire and refrained from active operations, but TTP factions fought on. On April 16th, the TTP withdrew its pledge and blamed the government for failing to make any new offers.

    In the face of mounting public and army pressure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reluctantly agreed to approve military strikes. He was apprehensive that General Raheel Sharif, the COAS, may unilaterally decide to launch an all-out offensive. The PM is now backing the army fully and has said that he will not allow Pakistan to become a “sanctuary of terrorists” and that the military operation will continue till all the militants are eliminated. On June 15, 2014, the Pakistan army finally launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting), its much delayed offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan. Two months after it was launched, the operation is yet to achieve its goals.

    The precarious situation in Pakistan is headed towards a dangerous denouement. Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and Tahir-ul-Qadri, a rabble-rousing cleric, are leading a march to Islamabad. The likelihood of a military coup is being openly discussed again. The economy is in a serious mess. The funds are low, the debts are high, exports have dwindled to a trickle and the rupee has fallen to all time low of about 100 rupees to a dollar. Pakistan dependent on US largesse to meet its obligations for the repayment of its burgeoning debt. The beleaguered Prime Minister appears to be at his wit’s end.

    The army remains central to the survival of Pakistan. Pakistan cannot survive as a coherent nation state unless the army gives up its agenda of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan, its attempts to destabilise India through its proxy war and stops meddling in politics. The army must pull itself up by the bootstraps and substantively enhance its capacity to conduct effective counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. The army has to realise that it has let down Pakistan and must make amends. In the national interest, the army must give up being a state within a state and accept civilian control, even if it does so with bad grace.

    The author is a Delhi-based strategic analyst.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India