Courting Disaster

Courting Disaster

Why does the Pakistani military pick unwinnable fights?


Pakistan suffers from an enduring sense of vulnerability that was born of the calamities that attended its creation. It was the trauma of partition that formed Pakistan’s national psyche. The new nation inherited all of British India’s security challenges but with a fraction of its resources. In the post-partition distribution of state assets, it got the short end of the stick. Its military was formed from the rump of the old British Indian Army. Handicapped and impoverished, it had to contend with a troubled western frontier where Afghanistan—the only country to vote against its admission to the United Nations—was making irredentist claims. Its eastern neighbor, India, bore it even less good will. Its most populous province, Bengal, was separated by over a thousand miles of hostile territory.

The latent threats were not long in materializing. Pakistan went to war with India over Kashmir shortly after partition. The partition protocols had given the subcontinent’s princely states the right to accede to Pakistan or India. Among these were three large Muslim-majority states: Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. India forcefully annexed the first two. The third had a Hindu maharaja ruling over a 77 percent Muslim population. In a controversial move, the British had awarded India a land corridor to Kashmir. Fearing that Kashmir would suffer the fate of Junagadh and Hyderabad, members of Pakistan’s military and political establishments conspired to infiltrate tribal militants into the valley. Alarmed by insurgent advances, the maharaja appealed to India’s British governor general, Lord Mountbatten, who agreed to intervene if the maharaja signed the instrument of accession. In short order, Indian troops marched in and beat back the tribesmen, triggering the first shooting war between the two nascent states. India appealed to the UN, and the Security Council passed Resolution 47, which called for an immediate cease-fire and a plebiscite to decide the future of Kashmir. The resolution was never implemented.

For the Pakistani military, the war underscored the power imbalance and the consequent need to modernize. The government acquiesced, and state revenues were diverted to underwrite this enterprise. Starved of resources and authority, Pakistan’s civilian institutions languished. The military also intervened directly to subvert democracy. The politicians often made the job easy by using their terms in office as opportunities to seize patronage and distribute spoils to their supporters. In contrast to the corrupt and ineffectual civilian institutions, the military appeared disciplined and efficient. And in a state struggling to contain the centrifugal forces of ethnic nationalism, the military began to see itself as the custodian of the whole nation’s interests. Unwilling to trust the civilians with the country’s survival, the military assumed its guardianship.

There was an irony in this. Because of the colonial concept of “martial races”—that some races are inherently superior at war-making—the British recruited mainly from the Punjab (and the Pashtuns farther north). The Sindhis, Baluchis and Bengalis—the other major ethnicities that constituted Pakistan—were deemed lacking in these traits. This tendency persisted after independence. The army might have seen itself as a national institution, but because of its composition, the rest of the nation saw it as an instrument of Punjabi control. Though the army gradually instituted measures to increase its diversity, the perception of a “Punjabi Raj” abides. The military ended up fighting insurgencies in most of Pakistan’s provinces, including a particularly brutal one in Bengal that resulted in the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of the new state of Bangladesh.

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During the post-independence years, it became clear that the “two nations” theory—the official ideology of Pakistan, which holds that as a culturally and religiously distinct group, the Muslims of India constitute a separate nation that cannot thrive in a majoritarian Hindu-dominated state—would not be sufficient to hold the country together. The ideology had resonated with Muslims living in India’s Hindu-majority states, who felt a need to affirm their identity. It had little appeal for residents of the largely Muslim western provinces, who hadn’t suffered a similar identity crisis. But it’s the latter who formed Pakistan. And consequently, for the ideology to retain its validity, all Pakistanis had to feel as vulnerable as the Muslims of middle India. A state of conflict with India thus became a necessity of nation-building. The military ventured to create an imagined community united in fear of the “Hindu” other, India’s multicultural character notwithstanding. Domestic conflicts, too, became extensions of the wars outside: they were all presumed to have been foreign-instigated.

The military, however, had limited resources for such expansive commitments. The economy was weak. To sustain its foreign and domestic engagements, the military had to find patrons. Britain was approached, but it was reluctant to jeopardize its relations with India. Russia, too, favored New Delhi. Pakistan had to look farther afield.

The alliance it formed with the United States was not inevitable. The United States had little at stake in South Asia, so Pakistan’s early overtures were rebuffed. It was only after the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, secured a state visit to Moscow that the Truman administration took notice. But the experience was humiliating: Pakistan was thrown crumbs. It wasn’t until John Foster Dulles went on a tour of Asia and realized Pakistan’s value as a Cold War asset that things began to change. The Pakistani Army’s chief, Gen. Ayub Khan, had impressed Dulles, even volunteering his troops to fight for the United States.

This arrangement was later formalized in three significant defense treaties: the Baghdad Pact, SEATO and CENTO. The anticommunist alliances brought Pakistan some military assistance in return for major Cold War commitments. Pakistan did the minimum to justify the support while forgoing any entanglements that might jeopardize its interests. Though formally bound in an anticommunist alliance, Pakistan maintained close ties to Mao’s China. It gave pro forma support to the United States during the Korean War but declined to commit troops. It also demurred on Vietnam.

During the 1980s, the two states’ interests converged when they backed the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. But a chill followed when, beginning in 1990, the United States imposed punitive sanctions to check Pakistan’s nuclear pursuits. September 11 changed all that. The United States once again needed Pakistan, and an alliance was formalized to prosecute the “war on terror.” The anti-Soviet struggle had helped rehabilitate military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq; the “war on terror” rehabilitated Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Both Zia and Musharraf welcomed the support, but neither ceded any more help than they deemed necessary. Pakistan’s Afghan policy remained unchanged. Like their British predecessors, every Pakistani government has been committed to preventing the emergence of a hostile government in Kabul. For imperial Britain, Afghanistan was a buffer against Russia; for Pakistan, it is a buffer against India. In its eagerness to defeat the Pashtun-dominated insurgency, the United States had leagued with the India-friendly Northern Alliance. Pakistan couldn’t abide this: it backed the Taliban.

This is not a tale of unilateral perfidy. Pakistan has never been more than an inessential ally to the United States. The amity is episodic. The United States has given Pakistan only so much to advance its own geopolitical interests. It has never backed Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Depending on the circumstances, it also hasn’t refrained from aiding Pakistan’s chief rival, regardless of the regional balance of power: it armed India during the 1962 border war with China and is once again buttressing it with a nuclear deal. This context is essential to understanding why the Pakistani military tacitly supports forces that are at war with the United States, despite the two nations’ formal alliance.

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Two important new books fill in this context. In Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, C. Christine Fair argues that it is the military’s strategic culture that has always defined Pakistan’s defense and foreign-policy posture—and that to understand this strategic culture, one has to understand the concerns and influences that animate its architects. Drawing on decades of writings by Pakistan’s military strategists, Fair shows how a peculiarly self-serving understanding of history, an inflation of threats and a simultaneous disparagement of the enemy’s martial prowess have led the Pakistani military to pick unwinnable fights, courting disaster but escaping consequences.

The military has hitherto escaped accountability because, as Aqil Shah explains in The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, it has always resisted democratic control. Shah traces its praetorian instincts to the seminal conflict over Kashmir, which set the tenor of the relations between military and civilian institutions. The relationship evolved with this balance of power intact. Shah highlights the missed opportunities of the 1970s, when, after the humiliating surrender in East Pakistan, the army’s prestige was at its lowest, making it more amenable to civilian control. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), took some measures to this end in the 1973 Constitution, but they were undermined by his own authoritarianism and eagerness for deploying force. The limited gains were undone when General Zia overthrew Bhutto in a military coup.

Shah is rightly scathing of the military’s role in politics. But he is overly gentle in his treatment of civilian politicians who, through their own ambition or venality, have often legitimized such interventions. In 1971, it was Bhutto who gave the military an excuse to intervene in East Pakistan: he refused Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the right to become prime minister, even though the latter’s party had won a simple majority. During the 1990s, both major parties—the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)—courted the military to unseat their rivals. Indeed, the conservative coalition Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was actually cobbled together by the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Fair, by contrast, is unsparing: she argues that civilian rulers also bear responsibility for Pakistan’s militarism. They were the ones, she says, who instigated the 1965 war over Kashmir. Likewise, it was Bhutto who took the initiative on Pakistan’s nuclear program. It was also under Bhutto that Pakistan began supporting the Pashtun rebels in Afghanistan. After the 1973 overthrow of King Zahir Shah, Afghan President Mohammad Daoud had renewed claims on Pakistani territory and started backing separatist movements in Baluchistan. In response, Bhutto gave sanctuary to Afghan rebels like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud (who would later lead the anti-Soviet resistance).

In 1998, when India tested its nuclear weapons, the Sharif government was initially reluctant to respond. In the end, it was pressure from Islamists and the PPP as much as from the military that compelled Sharif to test the weapons.

Fair’s chapters on Pakistan’s post-partition travails, its alliance with the United States, its relationships with Afghanistan, its cultivation of proxy militants and the evolution of its nuclear strategy are illuminating. She shows that Pakistan’s seemingly incoherent policies were often a response to circumstances, sometimes born of necessity. But Fair abandons scholarly dispassion when she starts to revise history to bolster a defective judgment. In recent years, many experts have concluded that the road to peace in Kabul runs through Kashmir. Afghanistan will remain a proxy battleground between Pakistan and India until the dispute over Kashmir is resolved. Fair rejects this notion: Pakistan, she contends, is a “greedy state,” and Kashmir is merely a part of its maximalist ambitions. To resolve the Kashmir dispute would be merely to “appease” Pakistan and encourage further intransigence.

To downplay the significance of this seminal conflict, Fair absolves India. She argues that it was, in fact, Pakistani provocation that forced Kashmir’s Hindu maharaja to accede to India, triggering India’s defensive intervention. She dismisses as hypocritical Pakistan’s commitment to the UN Security Council resolution calling for a plebiscite to determine Kashmir’s future. Pakistan, she contends, failed to fulfill its obligation under the resolution to withdraw its troops first. Pakistan was also the aggressor, she notes, in all of the wars it fought over Kashmir (in 1947–48, 1965 and 1999).

Beyond the fact that the Kashmiris themselves never figure in Fair’s analysis, she elides critical context. It is true that Pakistan refused to withdraw its forces from Kashmir, but that is because it rightly doubted that a free plebiscite could be held under Indian Army supervision. Pakistan accepted the revised UN proposals for the simultaneous demilitarization of the region, but India refused. Although Pakistan’s military has used the Kashmir issue cynically, that does not obviate the fundamental injustice of the situation; nor does it detract from the quarter-century of brutal repression that Kashmiris have endured under Indian military occupation. The more than 80,000 dead don’t even earn a cameo in Fair’s account.

Fair notes the dangerous idea among some in the Pakistani Army that a nuclear umbrella provides useful cover for waging limited wars. The fear of a nuclear war would limit India’s response, they believe, and also induce major powers to intervene. This view, however, is not exclusive to Pakistan: Indian generals have issued very similar statements. But where the civilian leadership has hitherto restrained the Indian brass, the Pakistani Army is more likely to act out its whims.

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This is precisely what Gen. Pervez Musharraf did in 1998. Alarmed by a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, Shah notes, the army infiltrated paramilitary forces into Kashmir’s Kargil sector, triggering the fourth major military confrontation between the two states. The military’s calculation proved correct insofar as India’s response was limited and President Bill Clinton intervened to defuse the situation. But it gained Pakistan nothing beyond universal opprobrium, and thousands of lives were lost.

Fair shows that Pakistan’s military leaders have known since the 1960s that they cannot take Kashmir by force. Why, then, have they persisted? The answer is simple: political solutions haven’t been forthcoming. India holds the balance of power, and for all its repression in Kashmir, the world sees no evil. For the Pakistani Army, confrontation has become the only way to keep the issue alive, forcing the world’s attention. India’s brutal counterinsurgency might not make news, but a shoot-out between two nuclear powers gets everyone’s attention. As long as the deadlock over Kashmir remains, Pakistan’s need for confrontation will persist.

There is a growing realization in both countries of the ruinous costs of this confrontation. In the past two decades, Pakistan has initiated high-profile overtures to engage India in dialogue. The first, an initiative of the conservative Nawaz Sharif, was sabotaged by Kargil. But the architect of that war, Pervez Musharraf, would later make bold proposals himself for resolving outstanding disputes; among other things, he proposed mutual nuclear disarmament. Since last year, Sharif has once again embarked on a diplomatic track to defuse tensions and increase economic ties. But the hardline new Indian government of Narendra Modi hasn’t proved as amenable as that of his predecessor. This has weakened Sharif’s position domestically.

As the victim of an earlier coup, Sharif is acutely aware of the military’s praetorian predilections. While in opposition, he had acted with relative restraint against the inordinately corrupt PPP government of Asif Ali Zardari lest it give the military another opening. The year 2013 marked the first time a civilian government in Pakistan managed to complete its five-year term. The Musharraf era had so blackened the military’s image that the army saw best to withdraw from overt participation in national politics. In his first year, Sharif tried to consolidate the new dispensation—but, like his predecessors, he betrayed his own inclination toward the use of force. On June 14, in Punjab, where his brother Shahbaz rules, security forces fired on the unarmed followers of the Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, killing fourteen. The police failed to file charges against the responsible authorities.

August brought ominous new signs. In a replay of events in Egypt last year, a movement led by Qadri and the former cricketing legend Imran Khan marched on the capital. They were demanding Sharif’s resignation, a probe into voter fraud and justice for Qadri’s slain followers. Both railed against rampant corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Many of their demands resonated with the public. But the situation soon escalated and the government was immobilized; the fear of military intervention grew. Using this fear as leverage, Khan and Qadri increased their demands, and their protesting supporters breached the walls of Parliament. Sharif pre-empted both by reaching out to the military and agreeing to cede control on foreign and security policy in return for the military’s noninterference. Meanwhile, defections within Khan’s own ranks and the misgivings of his followers regarding the march’s aims eventually forced him into retreat. Khan won some concessions, but at an inordinately high price.

Khan had played an important role in galvanizing young people and increasing political participation. He was at the forefront of the movement for the restoration of democracy under Musharraf. He has a personal reputation for incorruptibility. It did not seem unlikely that he would become Pakistan’s next prime minister. But his disregard for national institutions, his calls for the withholding of taxes (in a country where less than 1 percent of the population pays), and his association with a dubious figure like Qadri have left him considerably diminished. The crisis also failed to disabuse those who had suspected Khan of being backed by the ISI. It is a cruel irony, then, that the man who had promised a New Pakistan should help deliver it into its old shackles. n

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