February Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 6 years ago

As if 50,000 Pakistani casualties, of which some 16,000 were military losses, since 9/11 were not enough to transform Pakistan. It had to take the senseless slaughter of 132 students and their teachers at the Army Public School in Peshawar to galvanise the government and parts of civil society into action, thrusting the Pakistan army into a leadership role against terrorism yet again.

The political rhetoric was powerful: “A line has been drawn. On one side are the coward terrorists and on the other side stands the whole nation,” stated Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif in his televised speech on Christmas Eve, as he outlined an ambitious 20-point National Action Plan. He promised to “eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism.”

These thoughts were later echoed by the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who has been thrust into the limelight as the undeclared Martial Law Administrator for Pakistan, bringing the Pakistan Army formally into the process of governance at the centre and in all the provinces. The army’s leadership is now a full participant in the apex committees that have effectively supplanted the provincial governments in all matters dealing with the security situation. Though presented as a new idea, an apex committee that included the corps commander has been functioning in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for some time since the Musharraf days. Interestingly, the first meeting of the Punjab Apex Committee took place in the corps headquarters in Lahore not in the Punjab Secretariat. The optics were not lost on the media or the world. Once again, a civilian government seems to have outsourced its constitutional duties to the military, while the judiciary quietly acquiesced in the setting up of nine military courts across Pakistan.

Former army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg, who contributed to the militarisation of Pakistan’s polity in his day, added his own critique:

“The National Action Plan empowers the military, ‘the performing institution,’ whereas the government is characterised by its ineptitude and poor performance. The performance gap, thus would widen, creating a 1976- or 1998-like situation, when of necessity, military courts were established by the elected governments, but were soon struck down by the judiciary, and the same judiciary didn’t hesitate for a moment to apply the ‘law of necessity,’ when the military struck. The military is also being over-burdened with responsibility and the resultant over-stretch may harm the interests of both, the country and the military. The emphasis is on the military courts and the military will deliver, no doubt, but what about the remaining nineteen points?” He added, “The parliament abdicated its right in favour of the APC (All Parties Conference), which drafted the 21st amendment to the Constitution. The parliament approved it without much of a debate,” General (retd.) Mirza Aslam Beg, The Nation, Jan 12, 2015.

Ironically, General Beg forgot his own efforts to garner political cover from the Benazir Bhutto government under Article 245 for Sindh operations while Prime Minister Bhutto wanted to retain her own authority and was ready to invoke Article 147 for the army to act in Sindh.

General Sharif participated in the key Apex committee meetings and rightly told his senior military officers at the Corps Commanders’ meeting on January 1, 2015 that “the entire nation was looking towards the political and military Leadership of the country to take bold and meaningful decisions leading to stern action against terrorists and their sympathisers … The Key lies in all institutions joining hands for an effective and prompt implementation of a comprehensive National Action Plan.” The photos of these and the military’s own meetings with the prime minister tell a different story, showing civil and military officials arrayed across the table or the room from each other, depicting an ‘Egypt on the Indus’ scenario in the making.

It is clear that Pakistan has changed after the Peshawar tragedy. It has been changing for the past decade or so, as successive civilian governments found it easier to pass most of their the action plans on to the military. Parliament hid behind the joint resolutions that first appointed General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as pro-consul for the North Western region, including FATA, and now seems to have given his successor even wider powers. The previous government even indemnified the military ex post for its actions, once it realised that the military had not been given constitutional cover. This has created a potentially dangerous situation for the country, and specifically for the Pakistan army as its sails into the shoals of administrative overreach. Further, once the military is taken away from its core duties and begins to operate autonomously, the polity will weaken and the carefully nurtured pathway to democracy will become a road to autocracy again. Over time, as happened in the past during the Zia and the Musharraf years, the military’s professional attributes will begin to atrophy, as civilian duties impinge on its limited time and resources.

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Consider that the army has been fighting a costly war inside its own borders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and suffering heavy losses and serious damage to its equipment and morale. It also suffered due to lack of time for regular training. Many formations and soldiers have been on repeated deployments to FATA. Formations facing India have been cannibalised repeatedly. The heavy costs of these operations, hitherto supported by reimbursements under the Coalition Support Funds of the United States, will be harder for the US Administration and Congress to justify as the Afghan operations wind down. The frustrations of fighting an invisible and ruthless enemy have been made difficult by the criticisms levelled against the army for its actions, by people inside and outside Pakistan, of indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics that have led to many deaths, imprisonment, and some half a million internally displaced persons. Others doubt the inner will of the military and cynically describe even the Zarb-e-Azb military operation as a temporary smoke-screen, despite the obvious provocations and depredations of the terrorists. The military’s use of media savvy counter-propaganda runs the risk of overkill, especially since there is no clear message being delivered by the politicians.

Within the past decade, the army changed its training regimen from solely conventional to unconventional warfare. The Infantry School in Quetta is now a mandatory stop for officers from all arms, not just from the infantry, and focuses largely on what the British called “Indian frontier warfare.” And the Pakistan Military Academy, especially under its commandant then — Major General Raheel Sharif — transformed its curriculum from being largely conventional and India-centric to fighting insurgents. The army has tried to improve what it can do: fight the enemy within with heavy weapons, improved tactics, and psychological warfare. This war is by definition a long one and can only be won by a detailed civilian battle plan within which nests the military operation. Counter-terrorism encompasses various civilian entities: the police, the educational system, civil society, and religious entities. The army must resist the temptation of overselling itself to the public as a counter-terrorism organisation. It must recognise its limited ability to eradicate terrorism nationwide since it cannot control the non-military aspects of the battle plan.

The army believes fervently that it will win this war. But the war encompasses much more than use of weapons or occupation of space. Even the Prime Minister recognised the need to change the mindset of the terrorists. If the landscape that spawns and sustains terrorism and militancy is to be changed it will require more than what the military can do on its own.

The army faces a number of challenges. It must not consume the prevailing rhetoric that military actions or rapid-fire military justice alone can change the degraded and predatory political and social systems thriving in Pakistan for decades. Can the politicos who helped set up a rentier system be expected to knock it down voluntarily? Both civilian and military regimes have fomented militancy as a weapon of choice at home and abroad. Pakistani society has become weaponised beyond belief. Religion has been used to woo support and to prepare for the battle against internal and external foes. Alliances between political parties and militant groups (many of whom are religion-based) are well established and documented. Even the military, to improve its representation across the country, is recruiting soldiers from areas that also spawn sectarian and militant forces, especially in the Punjab. The army will need to accept that its operations can only deal with the symptoms of the diseases not its causes, which are economic, social, religious and therefore political.

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Almost a month after the Peshawar tragedy, few specific actions seem to have been taken or shared with the public. A recently retired general explained to me: “It is about a radicalised society; how do you integrate a civilian populace that celebrates the murder of their governor or moans the hanging of murderers or then finds reasonable cause in the killing of schoolchildren? How can one integrate a society where every institution has its own militant arm to give some ‘flavour’ to its office and authority to its mandate? My recommendation is to forget about the militancy for now and save society, the environment is coercive, repressive, and highly lopsided in favour of religious bigots. If this is not corrected, the Zawahiris [and other militants] of this world will always have the space to play in.” His frustration may well find an echo among others in Pakistan today.

The intelligence services need to be tasked to penetrate militant networks and also to ferret out the foreign terrorists groups such as Al Qaeda and now Daesh aka ISIS that use Pakistani territory to hide and spread their message of hate worldwide. It was not enough to admit failure to prevent the events leading up to and including the American raid on Abbottabad that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Has the remit of Inter Services Intelligence become too wide over time and has it produced compartmentalisation of the kind that inhibits the efficiency of similar agencies worldwide? Would it be better to concentrate its functions on critical external threats and leave to the civilian intelligence agencies the monitoring and counter-intelligence work that demands grass-roots operations in the mohallas and villages of Pakistan? Why not task them to produce joint and coordinated operations and hold both accountable to the civilian leadership?

If the overly ambitious National Action Plan is to succeed, clear and publicly transparent delineation of responsibility and benchmarks need to be set up for both the military and the civilian teams and the related ministries at the centre and in the provinces. They need to identify short-, medium- and long-term elements of the plan and affix responsibility for each element on specific institutions and individuals. But the overall responsibility must rest with the prime minister and his team. Otherwise, the current plan will meet the same sorry fate as the houses of cards crafted by earlier governments held together by rhetoric more than reality. And a frustrated public could well turn once again to the military to stem the rot. Pakistan cannot afford to re-run that movie again and again.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within and Learning by Doing: the Pakistan Army’s Experience with Counterinsurgency. He recently retired as the founding director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, where he is now a Distinguished Fellow.