“This leads to a whole set of interlocking questions: How far does the Pakistani high command continue to back certain militant groups? How far does the command of the ISI follow a strategy independent from that of the military? And how far have individual ISI officers escaped from the control of their superiors and supported and planned terrorist actions on their own? And this leads to the even-more-vital question of how far the Pakistani military is penetrated by Islamist extremist elements, and whether there is any possibility of these groups carrying out a successful military coup from below.”
by Anatol Lieven
VOLTAIRE REMARKED of Frederick the Great’s Prussia that “where .some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state!” The same can easily be said of Pakistan. The destruction of the army would mean the destruction of the country. Yet this is something that the Pakistani Taliban and their allies can never achieve. Only the United States is capable of such a feat; if Washington ever takes actions that persuade ordinary Pakistani soldiers that their only honorable course is to fight America, even against the orders of their generals and against dreadful odds, the armed forces would crumble.
There is an understanding in Washington that while short-term calculations demand some kind of success in Afghanistan, in the longer run, Pakistan, with its vastly greater size, huge army, nuclear weapons and large diaspora, is a much more important country, and a much greater threat should it in fact succumb to its inner demons. The collapse of Pakistan would so vastly increase the power of Islamist extremism as to constitute a strategic defeat in the “war on terror.”
The Pakistani military is crucial to preventing such a disaster because it is the only state institution that works as it is officially meant to. This means, however, that it also repeatedly does something that it is not meant to—namely, overthrow what in Pakistan is called “democracy” and seize control of the government. The military has therefore been seen as extremely bad for Pakistan’s progress, at least if that progress is to be defined in standard Western terms.
Yet, it has also always been true that without a strong military, Pakistan would probably have long since disintegrated. That is truer than ever today, as the country faces the powerful insurgency of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies. That threat makes the unity and discipline of the army of paramount importance to Pakistan and the world—all the more so because the deep dislike of U.S. strategy among the vast majority of Pakistanis has made even the limited alliance between the Pakistani military and the United States extremely unpopular in general society and among many soldiers. Those soldiers’ superiors fully understand the importance of this alliance to Pakistan and the disastrous consequences for the country if it were to collapse.
The Pakistani army is a highly disciplined and professional institution, and the soldiers will continue to obey their generals’ orders. Given their basic feelings, however, it would be unwise to push the infantrymen too far. One way of doing this would be to further extend the U.S. drone campaign by expanding it from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Baluchistan. Much more disastrous would be any resumption of U.S. ground raids into Pakistani territory, such as occurred briefly in the summer of 2008.
TO UNDERSTAND this somewhat-counterintuitive (at least to Western audiences) prescription, a close look inside the military is necessary. In essence, the armed forces’ success as an institution and its power over the country come from its immunity to kinship interests and the corruption they bring with them; but the military has only been able to achieve this immunity by turning into a sort of giant kinship group itself, extracting patronage from the state and distributing it to its members.
During my journeys to Pakistan over the years, I have observed how the Pakistani military, even more than most armed forces, sees itself as a breed apart, and devotes great effort to inculcating new recruits with the feeling that they belong to a military family different from (and vastly superior to) civilian society. The mainly middle-class composition of the officer corps increases contempt for the “feudal” political class. The army sees itself as both morally superior to this group and far more modern, progressive and better educated.
Pakistani politics is dominated by wealth and inherited status, whereas the officer corps has become increasingly egalitarian and provides opportunities for social mobility that the Pakistani economy cannot. As such, a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and big farmers across Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This allows the military to pick the very best recruits and increases their sense of belonging to an elite. In the last years of British rule, circa 1947, and the first years of Pakistan, most officers were recruited from the landed gentry and upper-middle classes. These are still represented by figures like former–Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Jehangir Karamat, who, perhaps most tellingly, is the former president of the Pakistan Polo Association; but a much more typical figure is the current COAS, General Ashfaq Kayani, the son of an NCO. This social change partly reflects the withdrawal of the upper-middle classes to more comfortable professions, but also the immense increase in the quantity of officers required in the military as a result of its vast expansion since independence.
A number of officers and members of military families have told me something to the effect that “the officers’ mess is the most democratic institution in Pakistan because its members are superior and junior during the day, but in the evening are comrades. That is something we have inherited from the British.”
This may seem like a ludicrous statement, until one remembers that in Pakistan, saying that something is the most spiritually democratic institution isn’t saying very much at all. Pakistani society is permeated by a culture of deference to superiors.
Islamabad’s dynastically ruled “democratic” political parties exemplify this subservience in the face of inheritance and wealth; while in the army, as an officer told me:
You rise on merit—well, mostly—not by inheritance, and you salute the military rank and not the sardar [tribal chieftain and great landowner] or pir [hereditary religious figure] who has inherited his position from his father, or the businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the sons of havildars [NCOs]. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they are generals.
Meanwhile, the political parties continue to be dominated by “feudal” landowners and wealthy urban bosses, many of them not just corrupt but barely educated. This increases the sense of superiority in the officer corps has toward the politicians—something I have heard from many officers (and which was very marked in General Pervez Musharraf’s personal contempt for the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband, the current president).
This same disdain for the country’s civilian political leadership is widely present in Pakistani society as a whole, and has become dominant at regular intervals, leading to mass popular support for military coups. Indeed, it is sadly true that whatever the feelings of the population later, when each military coup initially occurred, it was popular with most Pakistanis—including the media—and was subsequently legitimized by the judiciary.
It is possible that developments since 2001 have changed this pattern, above all because of the new importance of the independent judiciary and media, and the way that the military’s role in both government and the unpopular war with the Pakistani Taliban has tarnished its image with many Pakistanis. However, it is not yet clear that such a sea change has definitively taken place. Whether or not it eventually does depends in large part on how Pakistani civilian governments perform in the future.
By the summer of 2009—only a year after the resignation of then-President Musharraf, who had seized power from the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999—many Pakistanis of my acquaintance, especially in the business classes, were once again calling for the military to step in and oust the civilian administration of President Asif Ali Zardari; not necessarily to take over themselves, but to purge the most corrupt politicians and create a government of national unity (or, at the very least, a caretaker administration of technocrats).
AS THE military has become more egalitarian, the less-secular have filled its ranks. This social change in the officer corps over the decades has caused many in the West to fear that the army is becoming “Islamized,” leading to the danger that the institution as a whole might support Islamist revolution, particularly as the civilian government falters. More dangerously, there might be a mutiny by Islamist junior officers against the high command. These dangers do exist, but in my view, the absolutely key point is that only a direct attack on Pakistan by the United States could bring them to fruition.
Westerners must realize that commitment to the army, and to martial unity and discipline, is drilled into every officer and soldier from the first hour of their joining the military. Together with the material rewards of loyal service, it constitutes a very powerful obstacle to any thought of a coup from below, which would by definition split the army and very likely destroy it altogether. Every military coup in Pakistan has therefore been carried out by the chief of army staff, backed by a consensus of the corps commanders and the rest of the high command. Islamist conspiracies by junior officers against their superiors (of which there have been two over the past generation) have been penetrated and smashed by Military Intelligence.
It is obviously true that as the officer corps becomes lower-middle class, so its members become less Westernized and more religious—after all, the vast majority of Pakistan’s population is conservative Muslim. However, it is made up of many different kinds of orthodox Muslim, and this is also true of the officer corps.
In the 1980s, then–President of Pakistan and Chief of Army Staff General Zia ul-Haq did undertake measures to make the army more Islamic, and subsequently, a good many officers who wanted a promotion adopted an Islamic facade. Zia also encouraged Islamic preaching within the army, notably by the Tablighi Jamaat, a nonviolent, nonpartisan but fundamentalist group dedicated to Islamic proselytizing and charity work. But, as the career of the notoriously secular General Musharraf indicates, this did not lead to known secular generals being blocked from promotion; and in the 1990s, especially under Musharraf, most of Zia’s measures were rolled back. In recent years, preaching by the Tablighi has been strongly discouraged, not so much because of political fears (the Tablighi is determinedly apolitical) as because of instinctive opposition to any groups that might encourage factions among officers and loyalties to anything other than the army.
Of course, the Pakistani military has always gone into battle with the cry of Allahu Akbar (God is Great)—just as the imperial-era German army inscribed Gott mit Uns (God with Us) on its helmets and standards; but according to Colonel Abdul Qayyum, a retired, moderate-Islamist officer:
You shouldn’t use bits of Islam to raise military discipline, morale and so on. I’m sorry to say that this is the way it has always been used in the Pakistani army. It is our equivalent of rum—the generals use it to get their men to launch suicidal attacks. But there is no such thing as a powerful jihadi group within the army. Of course, there are many devoutly Muslim officers and jawans [enlisted troops], but at heart the vast majority of the army are nationalists, and take whatever is useful from Islam to serve what they see as Pakistan’s interests. The Pakistani army has been a nationalist army with an Islamic look.
On the whole, by far the most important aspect of a Pakistani officer’s identity is that he (or sometimes she) is an officer. The Pakistani military is a profoundly shaping influence as far as its members are concerned. This can be seen, among other places, in the social origins and personal habits of its chiefs of staff and Pakistan’s military rulers over the years. It would be hard to find a more different set of men than generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf, Mirza Aslam Beg, Jehangir Karamat and Ashfaq Kayani in terms of their social origins, personal characters and attitudes toward religion; some were rich others poor, some secular others religious and some conspiratorial others loyal. Yet all have been first and foremost military men.
This means in turn that their ideology is largely one of nationalism. The military is tied to Pakistan, not to the universal Muslim ummah of the radical Islamists’ dreams; tied not only by sentiment and ideology but also by the reality of what supports the army. If it is true, as so many officers have told me, that “no army, no Pakistan,” it is equally true that “no Pakistan, no army.”
AMERICAN OPERATIONS in South Asia, however, are threatening to upset this fragile balance between Islam and nationalism in the Pakistani military. The army’s members can hardly avoid sharing the broader population’s bitter hostility to U.S. policy. To judge by retired and serving officers, this includes the genuine conviction that either the Bush administration or Israel was responsible for 9/11. Inevitably therefore, there was deep opposition throughout the army after 2001 to American pressure to crack down on the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani sympathizers. “We are being ordered to launch a Pakistani civil war for the sake of America,” an officer told me in 2002. “Why on earth should we? Why should we commit suicide for you?”
Between 2004 and 2007, there were a number of instances of mass desertion and refusal to serve in units deployed to fight militants, though mostly in the Pashtun-recruited Frontier Corps rather than in the regular army. These failures were caused above all by the feeling that these forces were compelled to turn against their own. We must realize in these morally and psychologically testing circumstances, anything that helps maintain Pakistani military discipline cannot be altogether bad—given the immense scale of the stakes concerned, and the consequences if that discipline were to fail.
For in 2007–2008, the battle was beginning to cause serious problems of morale. The most dangerous single thing I heard during my visits to Pakistan in those years was that soldiers’ families in villages in the NWFP and the Potwar region of the Punjab were finding it increasingly difficult to find high-status brides for their sons serving in the military because of the growing popular feeling that “the army is the slave of the Americans” and “the soldiers are killing fellow Muslims on America’s orders.”
By late 2009, the sheer number of soldiers killed by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, and still more importantly, the increasingly murderous and indiscriminate Pakistani Taliban attacks on civilians, seem to have produced a change of mood in the areas of military recruitment. Nonetheless, if the Pakistani Taliban are increasingly unpopular, that does not make the United States any more well liked; and if Washington ever put Pakistani soldiers in a position where they felt that honor and patriotism required them to fight America, many would be willing to do so.
And we have seen this willingness before. In August and September 2008, U.S. forces entered Pakistan’s tribal areas on two occasions in order to raid suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda bases. During the second incursion, Pakistani soldiers fired in the air to turn the Americans back. On September 19, 2008, General Kayani flew to meet U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, and, in the words of a senior Pakistani general, “gave him the toughest possible warning about what would happen if this were repeated.”
Pakistani officers from captain to lieutenant general have told me that the entry of U.S. ground forces into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is an incredibly dangerous scenario, as it would put both Pakistan-U.S. relations and the unity of the army at risk. As one retired general explained, drone attacks on Pakistani territory, though humiliating for the ordinary officers and soldiers, are not the critical issue. What would create a military overthrow takes more:
U.S. ground forces inside Pakistan are a different matter, because the soldiers can do something about them. They can fight. And if they don’t fight, they will feel utterly humiliated, before their wives, mothers, children. It would be a matter of honor, which as you know is a tremendous thing in our society. These men have sworn an oath to defend Pakistani soil. So they would fight. And if the generals told them not to fight, many of them would mutiny, starting with the Frontier Corps.
At this point, not just Islamist radicals, but every malcontent in the country would join the mutineers, and the disintegration of Pakistan would become imminent.
THERE IS a further complication. Of course, the Pakistani military has played a part in encouraging Islamist insurgents. The army maintains links with military and jihadi groups focused on fighting India (its perennial obsession). Contrary to what many believe, the military’s support of these actors has not been based on ideology. The bulk of the high command (including General Musharraf, who is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination an Islamist) has used these groups in a purely instrumental way against New Delhi with Pakistani Muslim nationalism as the driver. But this doesn’t mean balancing these relationships with U.S. demands will be easy.
Since 2002, the military has acted to rein in these groups, while at the same time keeping some of them (notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks against Mumbai) on the shelf for possible future use against India should hostilities between the two countries resume. Undoubtedly, however, some lower-level officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), responsible for “handling” these groups, have developed close affinities for them and have contributed to their recent operations. The ISI’s long association with the militants, first in Afghanistan and then in Kashmir, had led some ISI officers to have a close personal identification with the forces that they were supposed to be controlling.
The high command, moreover, is genuinely concerned that if it attacks some of these groups, it will drive them into joining the Pakistani Taliban—as has already occurred with sections of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, suspected in the attempts to assassinate Musharraf in December 2003 (apparently with low-level help from within the armed forces).
This leads to a whole set of interlocking questions: How far does the Pakistani high command continue to back certain militant groups? How far does the command of the ISI follow a strategy independent from that of the military? And how far have individual ISI officers escaped from the control of their superiors and supported and planned terrorist actions on their own? And this leads to the even-more-vital question of how far the Pakistani military is penetrated by Islamist extremist elements, and whether there is any possibility of these groups carrying out a successful military coup from below.
Since this whole field is obviously kept very secret by the institutions concerned (including Military Intelligence, which monitors the political and ideological allegiances of officers), there are no definitive answers. What follows is informed guesswork based on numerous discussions with experts and off-the-record talks with Pakistani officers, including retired members of the ISI.
Concerning the ISI, the consensus of my informants is as follows: There is considerable resentment of the organization in the rest of the military due to its perceived arrogance and suspected corruption. However, when it comes to overall strategy, the ISI follows the line of the high command. It is, after all, always headed by a senior regular general, not a professional intelligence officer, and a majority of its officers are also seconded regulars. General Kayani was director of the ISI from 2004–2007 and ordered a limited crackdown on jihadi groups that the ISI had previously supported. As to the military’s attitude toward the Afghan Taliban, the army and the ISI are as one, and the evidence is unequivocal: both groups continue to give them shelter, and there is deep unwillingness to take serious action against them on America’s behalf, both because it is feared that this would increase the potential for a Pashtun insurgency in Pakistan and because they are seen as the only assets Pakistan possesses in Afghanistan. The conviction in the Pakistani security establishment is that the West will quit Kabul, leaving civil war behind, and that India will then throw its weight behind the non-Pashtun forces of the former Northern Alliance in order to encircle Pakistan strategically.
This attitude changes, however, when it comes to the Pakistani Taliban and their allies. The military as a whole and the ISI are now committed to the struggle against them, and by the end of 2009, the ISI had lost more than seventy of its officers in this fight—some ten times the number of CIA officers killed since 9/11, just as Pakistani military casualties fighting the Pakistani Taliban have greatly exceeded those of the United States in Afghanistan. Equally, however, in 2007–2008 there were a great many stories of ISI officers intervening to rescue individual Taliban commanders from arrest by the police or the army—too many, and too circumstantial, for these all to have been invented.
It seems clear, therefore, that whether because some ISI officers felt a personal commitment to these men, or because the institution as a whole still regarded them as potentially useful, actions were taking place that were against overall military policy—let alone that of the Pakistani government. As well, some of these Islamist insurgents had at least indirect links to al-Qaeda. This does not mean that the ISI knows where Osama bin Laden (if he is indeed still alive), Ayman al-Zawahri and other al-Qaeda leaders are hiding. But it does suggest that they could probably do a good deal more to find out.
However, for Islamist terrorists who wish to carry out attacks against India, ISI help is not necessary (though it has certainly occurred in the past). The discontent of sections of India’s Muslim minority (increased by ghastly incidents like the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and encouraged by the Hindu nationalist state government) gives ample possibilities for recruitment; the sheer size of India, coupled with the incompetence of the Indian security forces, give ample targets of opportunity; and the desire to provoke an Indian attack on Pakistan gives ample motive. But whether or not the ISI is involved in future attacks, India will certainly blame Pakistan for them.
This creates the real possibility of a range of harsh Indian responses, stretching from economic pressure through blockade to outright war. Such a war would in the short term unite Pakistanis and greatly increase the morale of the army. The long-term consequences for Pakistan’s economic development would, however, be quite disastrous. And if the United States were perceived to back India in such a war, anti-American feelings and extremist recruitment in Pakistan would soar to new heights. All of this gives the United States every reason to push the Pakistani military to suppress some extremist groups and keep others on a very tight rein. But Washington also needs to press New Delhi to seek reconciliation with Islamabad over Kashmir, and to refrain from actions which will create even more fear of India in the Pakistani military.
IN THE end, Washington must walk a very fine line if it wants to keep the military united and at least onboard enough in the fight against extremists. If it pushes the army too far by moving ground troops into Pakistan proper, the consequences will be devastating. The military—and therefore the state of Pakistan—will be no longer.
Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. He is author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004). His next book,Pakistan: A Hard Country, is to be published in 2011.