july issue 2011
The Pakistan Army and its Threat Board
In June 2005, the Friendship Bridge spanning the Line of Control (LoC) near Chakothi in Azad Kashmir was decorated with flags and buntings as people massed on both sides of the LoC to celebrate the foot-crossing of the bridge by leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). The mood was festive. Bands played and politicians gathered to welcome the APHC leaders. Conspicuous by their absence were the men in khaki. But they weren’t really absent. They had been told to stay out of sight of television cameras.
“Today we are supposed to be friends,” a young Pakistan Army captain told me. “For months on end, we have our guns trained on them and they have their guns trained on us. Right now, [since] the politicians are here, we are told to disappear. Tomorrow we will be watching each other with guns again.”
Since its inception, the Pakistan Army has been trained to fight a single enemy — India. Today, not much has changed in that mindset. But a new and more insidious enemy lurks within, and Pakistan’s armed forces are scrambling to keep up with the constantly changing threat. Audaciously, terrorists have stormed the very bastions of military power, launching an attack on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 and, in May this year, on a Pakistan Navy base in Karachi. Millions of television viewers watched in disbelief as terrorists blew up the Navy’s surveillance P-3C Orion aircraft as a running battle unfolded. And the military’s prestige — already under siege after the May 2 debacle where US commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad — plummeted overnight.
But the Pakistan Army today is not the Pakistan Army of the past. Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the DG ISI, General Shuja Pasha, appeared before an in-camera session of parliament and defended the armed forces in front of aggressive legislators. In an unprecedented move, both men also spoke at length to journalists about the events of May 2, seeking to explain what went wrong that day. The Pakistan Army has learned about the power of the media and how to work it.
But that was before the kidnapping and murder of Saleem Shahzad, an intrepid journalist, who many believe was presumably killed by the agencies. While a judicial inquiry is underway to ascertain the circumstances surrounding his death, some military officers claim the military had no reason to kill Shahzad, maintaining that Pakistan’s “enemies” are trying to frame the ISI for his murder.
And in another unprecedented move, the Pakistan Navy and Air Force high command testified before the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Defence that the terrorists who attacked PNS Mehran in Karachi had inside help. That was exactly what Saleem Shahzad had reported earlier.
The army is increasingly sensitive to public opinion but believes that criticism is coming from a small elitist minority. “We are being patient but are angry about what is happening. It has gone beyond criticism. We accept we have made mistakes but they (the critics) are going for overkill. They are toeing the line of outsiders and it’s an artificial bubble. We are aware of the media hype but it’s not reflective of what the people think. Look at the recent polls. They show the people have confidence in the army,” says one senior military official.
“The criticism is largely misplaced,” says Dr Riffat Hussain, a well-known defence and security analyst. “Most of the criticism revolves around the US raid in Abbottabad and on how the Americans got away with it. And the army has acknowledged this and tried to explain how they were caught off guard.”
“While the army has opened up to a large extent and is trying to engage with civil society, there is no clear sense of what the game plan is,” adds Dr Hussain. “For example, if we are not going to go into North Waziristan, the real reason has not been articulated.”
There is no civil-military split, argues (retd) Air Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry. “It’s the media that has issues with the military and they tend to represent a certain segment of society,” he says, arguing that civil society elite is larger than it was earlier but still represents a minority opinion. He denies the existence of the infamous “bloody civilians” attitude among the armed forces. “That simply doesn’t exist. In the armed forces, you are wrapped up in your work and don’t have time even for your children. We find it strange how people don’t understand how the military works. Knowledge of the military is limited in the intellectual milieu.”
Pakistan has a large standing army of around 500,000 of which roughly 22,000-23,000 are officers. Another 45,000 serve in the Air Force and about 70,000 in the Navy. “When a nation tasks its armed forces, the threat is analysed and defence is configured accordingly in terms of personnel and equipment. And since 1947, the conventional threat has been India,” says a senior military officer.
For the past few years, an asymmetric war has developed particularly in the tribal areas, as well as in Swat and Malakand. Militants made it as far as Buner, which rang alarm bells at every echelon of power and the army moved into action in different operations in the tribal areas as well. But the military mindset remains fixated on India as the main threat to Pakistan’s security, and General Kayani makes no secret of his India-centric views, arguing that most of India’s defence apparatus is Pakistan-specific.
“The main threat is still India and refuses to go away,” says a high-ranking military officer. “As long as there are unresolved issues like Kashmir, Siachen and many others, we cannot change the threat board.”
He argues that terrorism poses a clear, present and immediate danger but the threat posed by India remains equally potent. India’s response after the Mumbai attacks is an incentive to non-state actors and Pakistan needs to be ready to respond, he explains, adding that those who think India can be a friend, need to look at how New Delhi blocked Pakistan’s one-year special access to EU markets, a concession that had been mooted to help Pakistan in its post-flood recovery efforts.
Civilian analysts and other retired military personnel agree that the threat from India has not receded but is not as immediate a threat to the country as militancy. “If someone says India is not a threat, how can we trust that someone completely,” questions AVM Chaudhry. “Every nation should have the ability to defend itself from all threats.”
But Pakistan, the army says, is not ignoring the threat posed by religious extremists, militancy and terrorism. In its new counter-insurgency doctrine, the Pakistan Army has set up several centres where entire battalions are trained in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations before they are deployed in the tribal areas and other regions where militants are known to operate, says a highly placed security source.
The internal threat is critical, says General (retd) Asad Durrani, a former head of the ISI. “But about 15-20% of the job is that of the military. The rest of the work has to be done by the civilian authorities and this is not happening. The militants have a hit-and-run strategy. In some areas, militants actually took over and the military had to fight to retake these territories. Now the political process has to kick in,” he says. And analysts agree this remains a formidable task, given that many militants have escaped to the settled areas of the country and are launching suicide attacks weakening the fabric of society at large.
The Pakistan Army has been facing a two-front war for some time now, says Dr Shireen Mazari, the head of a think tank in Islamabad. She suggests that the army needs to be start changing psychologically and army units have to be restructured to deal with asymmetrical warfare. “While the conventional threat from India has not receded, we need to focus on low-intensity conflict and dealing with counter-insurgency,” she says. “The mindset of the military has expanded but they can’t get over the big barrier — that of conventional formations to counter the enemy.”
Can the Pakistan Army retool itself to defeating militancy? The answer is not simple. “We were trained for conventional warfare,” says General Durrani. “The military mindset does not change as fast as the environment.”
“The armed forces are looking at fourth generation warfare,” says AVM Chaudhry. “The enemy we face is amorphous, striking from shadows and striking when least expected. The key is using time and intelligence to your own advantage.”
One of the key successes of the military was the Swat operation, where Pakistani units used an unconventional approach in clearing the region of militants. Military commandos parachuted onto the ridges surrounding the valley in what military authorities say was a unique operation. One of the advantages the Pakistan Army had in Swat was that the enemy was trying to hold ground. Since the militants tried to fight like a conventional force, they were defeated by a superior military force,” says AVM Chaudhry.
For now, the key to success in the war against terror will hinge on the military’s ability to use terrain, numerical superiority and modern technology to its advantage. But military force alone is not the answer. “We have yet to develop a clear and articulated strategy for dealing with extremist religious groups,” says Dr Hussain. He agrees that the civilian authorities have to strengthen their capacity to hold areas after military operations are completed.
After decades of thinking and operating on a conventional format, the Pakistan Army seems to be trying to reinvent its ability to manoeuvre and face two simultaneous threats. The military is not just fighting militancy within but also has been forced to safeguard the country’s western borders.
Critics argue that the Pakistan Army wields massive influence over the country’s foreign policy, and many believe that the raison d’etre of the Army is predicated on keeping the threat from India in focus at all times.
Former senator Enver Beg points out that in the 1990s the mood was different. When former prime minister Benazir Bhutto tried to open talks with her counterpart Rajiv Gandhi, her government was arbitrarily dismissed. And when former premier Nawaz Sharif engaged in bus diplomacy with his counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee, the military scuttled that effort by launching an attack in Kargil, he says. But today, the Pakistan Army seems to be less inclined to interfere openly in foreign policy matters, he adds.
“Frankly, the role of the military in foreign policy formulation is exaggerated,” says former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. “My experience was that no one told me what to say and what not to say. I acquainted myself with the Pakistan position and took input from everyone in the Foreign Office and security apparatus,” he says. According to Qureshi, when he was preparing for the fifth round of talks with his counterpart in India, he reviewed the previous earlier rounds in preparation. “I was independent in determining the agenda,” he says.
General Kayani publicly insists that the army cannot and will not ignore the India-centric threat board. And the political leadership agrees. Senior PPP leader Qamar Zaman Kaira maintains that the Pakistan army has to address the threat from India as well as from the Afghanistan border. “Our regular forces are needed to deal with external security and we have to keep an eye on regional forces,” he says. The army, he contends, is evolving to face the challenges.
As Pakistan’s relations with the US sink to new lows, the Pakistan Army has been taking a hammering at the hands of the Americans. But even before the events of May 2 that soured relations between the US and Pakistan, Mr Qureshi says he led the talks with the Americans at the Strategic Dialogue. “General Pasha and General Javed Iqbal were present by my side for consultations,” he says. “The same was the case when General Kayani was present at one round of talks.”
Mr Qureshi points out that he suggested the concept of a trilateral dialogue with the US and Afghanistan, an idea he says was received well by the military high command. “I can say with confidence that no one put any obstacles in my way.”
Nearly 10 years of quasi military-civilian rule under former president General Pervez Musharraf may have inadvertently lessened the military’s direct interference in the Foreign Office and contributed to the military’s apparent acquiescence in taking a backseat during the current dispensation. General Musharraf wielded absolute authority in foreign policy matters. Foreign policy regarding India was developed in these crucial years and has stayed in place. The true test of the military would come if any political government tries to chart a new course in policy formulation.
For the moment, the PPP-led coalition seems unwilling to make any radical changes, and given the current security climate, drastic policy changes would be unwise. As such, the military and the political government are likely to continue in this holding pattern, locked in an awkward tango. But the strains and pressures are building up, and in any clash of institutions, the Pakistan Army will do what it has always done — act in its own interests, which it believes are synonymous with the national interest.
This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Caught Off Guard.”