Pakistan’s army: fighting the wars within


TODAY, sixty years after independence, Pakistan is well set on the path to economic development but is still struggling to craft a stable polity. Pakistan’s strategic location at the cusp of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia, and as the door to Central Asia and China, gives it added significance. Its proximity to a dominating neighbour, India, shapes Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies on the one hand and informs its domestic debates on the other. The presence of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems in both Indian and Pakistani hands makes this an even more volatile region than in the past.

Pakistan’s political reins off and on have been effectively in the hands of the Pakistan Army for more than 38 years since its independence. The country is now wracked by internal divisions between provinces and between the forces of modernism and militant and radical Islam that have created political uncertainty and tumult, most recently leading to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The recent elections have given some hope, trouncing the party of President Pervez Musharraf and allowing Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N group) to return to power. And the Islamist alliance in the North West Frontier Province was trounced by the Pashtun secular Awami National Party.

At the heart of the political maelstrom is the Pakistan Army, probably the best organized group and a veritable political force unto itself, whose every action and hint creates reverberations in Pakistan’s polity. Even today, under a new Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has sworn to take the army back into the barracks, there are many doubters who see the politicians facing a huge challenge in running the country effectively after over seven years of autocratic rule by Musharraf. They point to the gradual destruction or diminution of institutions: the judiciary, the constitution, the bureaucracy, and the legislature, and to the transmogrification of a parliamentary system of government into a highly personalized presidential system by Musharraf.

Against this background, cynics also point to past pledges by other army chiefs (including, in the interest of full disclosure, by my late brother General Asif Nawaz, Army Chief 1991-93), who all promised to keep the army out of politics. But when the crunch came some of them brought the army to power to fill what they considered to be a political vacuum. The weight of history leans towards a continuing role of the army in Pakistan’s polity, whether overt or behind the scenes. Whatever path it takes, the army faces some daunting challenges, as it begins the fight against home-grown insurgencies. For it too has changed dramatically over the years.

Pakistan came into being in 1947 as the most populous Muslim nation on the planet but the debate over its national identity has neither been conducted democratically nor concluded. It has also yet to craft a stable political system that establishes the supremacy of the civil over the military, as envisioned by its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam. Although the Muslim way of life was a motive behind the call for Pakistan, its early political leadership did not give it an Islamic blueprint for its political development or goals. The reason for this was that the movement for Pakistan was less an Islamic movement and more a movement by Indian Muslims to seek greater social and economic opportunity for themselves.

The Pakistan Army, the largely Muslim rump of the British Indian Army, too was saddled at birth with this paradoxical identity: the symbols of Islam but the substance of a colonial force, quite distant from the body politic of the fledgling state. It adopted, for instance, the number 786 for the identification of its General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. In Islamic numerology, 786 represents the Arabic Bismillah IrRahman IrRahim: the invocation that Muslims intone at the start of any action or venture of note. This numerical code was emblazoned on all gate posts and vehicles, as a reminder that this was the army of a Muslim country. And for its badge, it chose two crossed swords holding up an Islamic rising crescent and a five-pointed star against a green background.

But the Islamic identity was at that stage only in name. The senior echelons of the Pakistan Army at its birth were still British officers who had opted to stay on and they were succeeded by their native clones, men who saw the army as a unique institution, separate and apart from the rest of civil society and authority. This schism between the cantonment and the city pervaded the army’s thought processes and seemed to guide as well as bedevil the military’s relationship with the civilian sector in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s history is one of conflict between the underdeveloped political system and a well organized army that grew in strength as a counterweight to a hostile India next door and in relation to the political system. In the words of former Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat: ‘Whenever there is a breakdown in …stability, as has happened frequently in Pakistan, the military translates its potential into the will to dominate, and we have military intervention followed by military rule.’ But, he adds, ‘As far as the track record of the military as rulers in the past is concerned, I am afraid it is not much better than the civilians.’ General Pervez Musharraf’s rule supports this assessment. While it ushered in a period of false stability and ostensibly open public discourse, it stunted political growth and badly damaged the ability of civil society to participate freely in the political process. In many ways, Musharraf was a ‘liberal autocrat’ who lost his liberal leanings when push came to shove.

While over time the army gained the respect of Pakistan’s population for its spirited defence of the country’s borders against a powerful India, and continued to attract large number of youth to its ranks, its dominance of the polity of Pakistan eventually produced public questioning of its role. Through coups and largely unfettered access to state resources, the army won the battle between authority, represented by the state’s various instruments of government, and coercive power, reflected in the army’s military prowess, leaving the instruments of state weakened and unable to function even when the military returned to its barracks.

The paradox of power that hobbled Pakistan’s slow political development was that as the army grew in strength and size, it stunted the growth of the political system whose leaders either made no attempt to re-balance the relationship between the state and the centre of power, the army, or worse, invited the army to settle political differences amongst themselves. Successive political leaders suborned and eviscerated the vaunted bureaucracy and managed to weaken the educational system, thus depriving the country of alternative governance mechanisms and an informed electorate. The army meanwhile over time established patron-client relationships with the bureaucracy and with Islamists, whom it used in its efforts to fight internal populist leaders in both East and West Pakistan and fuel the Kashmiri insurgency against Indian rule.

The army gradually expanded its remit to include protection of the national ideology, as defined by itself. That ideology changed from a loose definition of a Muslim state at birth to an Islamic polity under General Zia ul Haq and recently back again to the ‘enlightened moderation’ of General Pervez Musharraf, even as the large and growing urban population, and importantly the army, appeared to be heading toward the conservative end of the social and political spectrum.

But conservatism in the Pakistani context does not necessarily translate into militant Islam, neither in the army nor in society in general. Contrary to the more recent view of an ancient nexus between the army and Islamist groups that has become fashionable, especially in the West and among scholars pandering to the worst fears of the West about Pakistan, the Pakistan Army has not always had a close alliance with Islamic parties.

It was only during the regime of General Zia ul Haq that the military-mullah nexus was formed, first for the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union and then to help the Kashmiris against the Indian Army. Recently, an electoral deal under General Pervez Musharraf allowed the mullahs to gain political traction for the first time ever. In return, they supported an amendment to the constitution that allowed him to be concurrently army chief and president.

Today, Pakistan is at another crossroads, as a partner of the West in the global ‘War on Terror’. And its army is operating in a changed and highly charged domestic political environment. Its two leading mainstream parties (the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif and the PPP of Benazir Bhutto) were largely excluded from the political process for seven years. Only in late 2007 were their leaders allowed back from exile and permitted re-entry to Pakistani politics. Unfortunately, the assassination of Bhutto last December deprived the country of a political counterweight to Musharraf. After decades of conflicts and tensions with India, today for the first time, Pakistan’s army is waging a difficult war against an unseen enemy: Islamist terrorists within its own border.

The eastern front against India is relatively calm. But the western front bordering Afghanistan is awash in insurgent activity spilling over from Afghanistan and also home-grown, involving radical Islamist Taliban who are intent on fighting the United States in Afghanistan and putting their stamp on the tribal areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. For the first time in decades, today the Pakistan Army is operating in force inside its own borders. The ‘enemy’ this time is a growing Islamist militant movement known as ‘Talibanization’, after the radical right wing and fundamentalist former regime of Afghanistan, and ‘foreign’ elements aligned with Al Qaeda, the amorphous network of terrorists that operate from the no-man’s land between Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan’s eastern border, the Durand Line.

Over the years the Pakistan Army has been regarded, with some merit, as a highly disciplined and trained force, relying on volunteer recruitment. (Unlike India it has no shortage of recruits for its soldiery or officer corps.) The Pakistani population traditionally has shown great respect, even adoration, for its soldiers and officers. Many youth sign up voluntarily for service in the army as officers or soldiers, following family or tribal traditions in the past and recently as a means of upward social and economic mobility. Its soldiers and junior officers have time and again shown their professional skills on the battlefield. But the leadership of the army has let down the forces and the country repeatedly. How will it face today’s challenges?

The Pakistan Army currently, though large and ubiquitous, is ill-equipped and untrained for low-intensity conflict and has suffered heavily at the hands of well trained guerrillas that melt into the population. And increasingly, its association with the American superpower that is driving the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan pits the army against its own population. Pakistan, with or without Musharraf, faces a long war on this front. The army is not yet fully equipped for that war. Many army officers recognize the situation clearly. But the change will take time and will be affected by the composition of the army itself.

Traditionally, the army was a predominantly Punjabi force. In British India, three districts: Campbellpur (now Attock), Rawalpindi, and Jhelum dominated the recruitment flows that helped India send some 2.5 million soldiers to fight in World War II on behalf of the British Empire. The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) gradually began supplying troops and officers, as settled areas Pushtun tribesmen joined the military.

My research, based on official Pakistan Army data, indicates that by 1990 the percentage representation in the Pakistan Army as a whole (officers and Other Ranks or soldiers) was as follows: Punjabis 65 per cent; Pushtuns 14 per cent; Sindhis and Baluchis 15 per cent; Kashmiris 6 per cent; and Minorities 0.3 per cent.

Since then, with the provision of waivers for both physical and educational qualifications, recruitment has been increased from the formerly less well represented areas. Punjab shows an overall decline in recruitment of soldiers from 63.86 per cent in 1991 to 43.33 in 2005, with Central Punjab outpacing Northern Punjab, the traditional recruitment ground, by 7,500 to 5,000 recruits in 2005. Southern Punjab had 1,800 recruits. The NWFP and FATA increased from 20.91 per cent to 22.43 per cent, Sindh rose from 8.85 per cent to 23.02 per cent, with rural Sindh accounting for the majority of the recruits (5,095 to 2,500 in 2005), Baluchistan rose from 0.49 per cent to 1.52 per cent in 2005 with 200 urban to 300 rural recruits in 2005, and Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas rising from 5.86 per cent to 9.70 per cent.

Comparing the periods 1970 and 1990-2006, we also see a change in the relative share of officers recruited from different parts of the country. The Punjab rose marginally from 66.46 per cent to 66.93, but within the Punjab there are notable changes in the home districts of the officers shifting to the more populous and emerging urban centres of Central and even Southern Punjab. This is in line with rapid urbanization trends nationwide. Dramatically, the army recruited more officers in the decade ending 2005 from Karachi than from Jhelum!

These bigger cities and towns are also the traditional strongholds of the growing Islamic parties and conservatism, associated with the petit bourgeoisie. The Zia period (reflected in the statistics for 1980-89) shows a sharp bulge in all cases, as the army became a visibly more lucrative and attractive profession for the urban youth and a means for upward social mobility.

The officers who joined in that decade are now poised to rise into the general officer category. When the current group of senior Lieutenant Generals retires over the next two to three years, most of whom were commissioned in the early 1970s, the Zia Bharti will take over the running of the Pakistan Army. (Kayani was commissioned in late 1971.) In recent years, the senior cadres have been spoiled by their association with the civilian administration that has taken them away from their professional roots. The new Army Chief, General Kayani, appears to have realized the need for the army to go back to its professional roots and has begun to keep a professional distance from the former chief, Musharraf. But disengaging the army from the economy and from commercial enterprises will take time.

Pakistan’s location in a tough neighbourhood dictates that it should maintain a strong defence establishment. Today, Pakistan has a large conventional army, tasked with defending every inch of its borders: a latently hostile one on the east against India and a hot one in the west against Afghanistan. The army needs to reorient its training and force structure not only for coping with external threats but also to combat internal insurgencies, starting with the current situation in FATA. It needs specialized units and training in low-intensity ‘fourth generation’ warfare and to indoctrinate both officers and soldiers in the principles of such counter-insurgency warfare, where ideas not weapons alone matter. But this is a long-term process.

In the near term, the new Army Chief, General Kayani, and his commanders will face a number of challenges, as the newly formed political alliance of Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, who inherited Benazir Bhutto’s weighty mantle, tests its political muscle by challenging and possibly removing Musharraf from the presidency. Whether they do this via the national assembly or in the Supreme Court is still not clear, though the court as currently constituted is stacked in Musharraf’s favour. Whatever the process, it will be messy and will test the mettle of General Kayani. While his appointing authority is currently the President of Pakistan, he reports to the Prime Minister as the head of government. In the event of a conflict between the two, he may choose the path taken by a previous Army Chief, Musharraf’s predecessor, General Karamat, and sit it out. That would help Zardari and Sharif.

His main focus will remain the counter-insurgency campaign in the frontier badlands bordering Afghanistan and in Swat. From all accounts he has pressed his colleagues to move quickly to prepare the logistical ground for anti-terror operations in those areas. But it will be important for him to allow the new government to make the political decisions on the use of the army in that mode and to define the collaboration with the Afghan and United States governments. This will be a hard transition for an army that has been used to independently working with its foreign partners under Musharraf. Equally important will be the need for Kayani to recognize what the US under the thinking of General David Petraeus has come to learn the hard way in Iraq that counter insurgency operations are 90 per cent political and economic and only 10 per cent military.

From my two conversations with him (one a formal interview for my book and the other a private chat), Kayani gives the impression of a thoughtful general, not a blustering gung-ho type. He appears sure of himself and, if he resists the temptation to use unbridled force for short-term gains, he may be able to help quell the situation in the frontier. The key will be to avoid punitive actions alone and to provide security for the local population. His experience in the ISI should also have given him insight into the difficulty of a military solution to Kashmir.

Without the army’s support, given the current power balance in Pakistan, the civilian government will not be able to move quickly on resolving issues with a dominant and hegemonic India to the east. Kayani recognizes the need for peace and open borders, but he is also aware that he cannot move too far ahead of the general public sentiment. India too will need to show an open-mindedness that has been absent in its public discourse on Kashmir or open borders. For many in Pakistan, there is deep-seated fear of India swamping Pakistan economically and culturally. However, Kayani appears to be a man of inner confidence, hence the quiet that marks his demeanour. And, unlike Musharraf’s one-step forward, two-steps back approach on key issues relating to India, he will likely take those steps forward that matter most and stick to them.

With a civilian government in charge again, the role of the ISI will need to be tempered. The army high command will want to favour greater oversight of the ISI by the civil authority and even parliament, with the involvement of the military. If Kayani’s studied silence in the episode involving the browbeating in Army House in March 2007 and subsequent arbitrary removal of the former Chief Justice by Musharraf is any indication, he will likely favour a reduced political role of the ISI, allowing it to concentrate on important counter-intelligence operations. His main focus though will be returning the army to its professional roots and keeping it out of politics.

The composition of the Pakistan Army today better represents the society in which it operates than the army at independence. It is also much better trained than ever before. As it expands its membership into other less represented areas and provinces, it can became a true national army and regain its position of trust and devotion. If it does not, and if the civilian politicians also fail to pay heed to the changes around them, then the rising tide of conservatism may be transformed into a radical Islamist wave that will sweep both civil society and the Pakistan Army into its embrace, with results that are entirely predictable and not what Pakistan nor its neighbours and friends desire.

While the army remains a conservative institution at heart, it is not yet a breeding ground for large numbers of radical Islamists that many fear. Islam though remains a visible force in Pakistani society and in the army today. Keeping the militant Islamists at bay remains a daunting task however, but it need not be used only as a scary scenario to gain western support for the military in Pakistan. A progressive and pluralistic Pakistan needs to provide opportunities for its citizens to lead their lives without fear of the radical forces of Islam that are vying for power today.

More important, given the dominant role of the army in Pakistan’s polity, if Pakistan is to mature, thrive, and survive as a successful state and a nation, the army needs to take a back seat and allow the politicians and civil society to make their mistakes and allow the other critically important elements of society: newsmedia, businesses, professionals, lawyers, and so on, to function unfettered. These are the challenges that both the army and civil society in Pakistan must surmount through a return to democratic norms so they can fulfil their promises to the country and win the long war in this Age of Terror.

  • Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within for Oxford University Press, due April/May 2008. He regularly appears as a commentator on television, radio, and at think tanks in the United States, where he now lives. He can be reached at

April 2008


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