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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > On the Brink


On the Brink

Sunday 15 February 2009, by BRIAN M. DOWNING

Pakistan might collapse. It faces regional insurgencies, political failures, rising Islamism (in the public and army alike), and reprisals from India over the Mumbai attacks of last November. The trouble in the US’s principal though duplicitous partner in the war on terror is all the more worrisome because it has nuclear weapons. A great deal of Pakistan’s trouble is the fault of its military, which has thwarted political development, encouraged Islamism, and supported terrorism.

From its inception in 1947, Pakistan was predisposed to military rule. The British colonial army of the subcontinent was drawn predominantly from the Punjab, a region that became part of Pakistan upon independence. From that point on, the Pakistani army was more unified and capable of concerted action than were the political parties. Seeing itself as embodying the nation far more than they did, the army would push aside civilian governments and take the reins of power when it saw fit. There’s no edifying morality play here. Pakistan’s political parties are corrupt, oligarchic patronage networks that bear considerable blame as well for the situation today.

The Pakistani army, more so than the political parties, benefited from Cold War dynamics. India, though more powerful than Pakistan and hostile to China, chose a path of nonalignment and so Pakistan (along with Iran) became the US’s partner in the region. Arms and money and advisors flowed in, adding to the army’s hypertrophy. The military used its muscle in politics often and the results were not good. Military governments thwarted the development of stable political partnerships and coalitions, failed to integrate the various provinces of the country (Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province) into a national whole, and also failed to find a political arrangement to limit sectarian clashes.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 greatly strengthened the army (especially a section of it), which at the time was ruling the country after overthrowing and eventually executing Ali Bhutto. The US and Saudi Arabia poured money into Pakistan to aid the various mujahadin groups fighting just to the north, most of whom could readily be considered Islamist. The supply effort was entrusted to a section of the military – the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). In order to inspire new recruits for the war in Afghanistan (and for the struggle over Kashmir and revanchism over the loss of East Pakistan) madrasas were funded. Along the way, the ISI became a state within a state, an army within an army, a praetorian guard within a praetorian guard.

The Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s was a boon for the Pakistani army and the ISI. They emerged from the war with large amounts of US money and equipment and with institutional prestige infused with victory, which reinforced the conviction that they alone knew best how to lead the country. This sense of national mission had theretofore not been weak but it had been based in part on an uncertain foundation: an hysterical reaction to, and the need to deny, the incompetence it had exhibited in wars with India, one of which, in 1971, had led to the loss of East Pakistan and resulted in a national trauma that shapes national thought to this day.

The chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 presented the Pakistani military and ISI with new security concerns. Though victorious, the guardians saw Afghanistan as a dangerous front in the conflict with India, which had attained influence with Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara peoples of central and northern Afghanistan. These northern groups (essentially the future Northern Alliance) were posed against the Pashtun tribes in the south and in the region across the porous frontier in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and its Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.

The ISI looked to counter the Indian-backed tribes and also for stability to allow commerce to flow with the independent states of Central Asia that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The mujahadin had never solidified into a unitary movement, remaining instead an assortment of groups with a common interest in expelling the Soviet Union and its collaborators in Kabul. Following the Soviet Union’s exit in 1989, the groups vied for power cruelly but inconclusively. Warlordism flourished; Pakistan’s security to the north remained in doubt. The ISI found its answer to security and commercial matters in the Taliban, which arose, probably without ISI assistance, in 1994 as a fundamentalist sect that suppressed brigandage preying upon commerce in southern Afghanistan and which, with ISI assistance, spread among the Pashtun tribes, especially those whose structure had been badly damaged by decades of war. The Taliban offered new or restored traditional forms of social integration, authority, and patronage. Most of all, they ended crime and anarchy. By 1996, it had swept across most of Afghanistan, cornering the Northern Alliance. Soon thereafter the Clinton administration negotiated with the Taliban to build oil and gas pipelines to bring the resources of Central Asia to Pakistan, then on to foreign markets. The Pakistani guardians were elated.

The ISI had secured its northern front for the time being and established itself as the hub of a wide-ranging network of militant and terrorist organizations to fight India over Kashmir and to one day restore lost honor over East Pakistan. The Taliban handled the north; various groups such as Markaz Dawa-Wal-Irshad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others staged guerrilla attacks in and near Kashmir. (Lashkar-e-Taiba likely executed the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.) Both fronts benefited from mujahadin veterans, some of whom became al Qaeda. The soldiers of the Punjab had once been mainstays of British imperial might and ambition; the generals of the Punjab were now players in the newest round of the Great Game.

The 2001 attacks on New York and Washington by a group at least on the fringe of the ISI’s network, and ensuing events, revealed how poorly the Pakistani military and intelligence played the region’s famous geopolitical game. In late 2001 the Northern Alliance, aided by US air power, rolled up Taliban and al Qaeda positions and seized Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, and Kandahar. The ISI’s clients were trapped in distant redoubts and on the verge of annihilation. The ISI claimed to support the US but rescued the Taliban and al Qaeda forces, and airlifted them into Pakistan – Operation Evil Airlift, as an aghast but helpless US special forces witness called it.

Pakistan’s duplicity continued for years but has now become apparent to all. The US has cooled toward Pakistan and the ISI’s Islamist clients are turning on it. Overt support for the US has caused Islamist clients to turn on the government (military or civilian) and develop into serious insurgent groups. The Taliban reconstituted in Pakistani sanctuaries, allied with a kindred Pakistani movement (Tehrik-e-Taliban), and is now seizing control of swaths of the North-West Frontier Province. To the west, the Taliban, in concert with Baloch insurgents, are asserting control over the northern part of Balochistan Province. Losing control of these areas means losing US/NATO supply routes but attempts to fight the insurgents makes the military seem even more obeisant to the US, which of course strengthens the insurgencies. US leaders are turning to supply routes across Central Asia; and Russia, concerned about an Islamist empire forming to its south, has recently announced greater logistical support for US/NATO forces, which it otherwise vehemently opposes in Eastern Europe.

Pakistan is of diminishing usefulness to US/NATO efforts in Afghanistan, but of increasing alarm to the region and to much of the world. Its army and ISI are no longer able to govern the country or even hold it together – and neither can the newly installed civilian government, whose capabilities the military has stunted and some of whose leaders it has murdered. A reasonable interpretation of recent events is that the military helped assassinate Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 in order to prevent the accession of a popular civilian government, and that it increased guerrilla operations in Kashmir last summer and aided in the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 in order to rally Islamist militants to the nationalist, anti-Indian cause. Disintegration continues.

The Pakistani army is a highly centralized bureaucracy that is organized for conventional war, praetorian meddling, and authoritarian rule. It lacks the flexibility and willingness to delegate authority necessary for counterinsurgency operations and indeed it has allocated guerrilla expertise to the groups it is now fighting. Other politically engaged armies have come to see political involvement as destructive, withdrawn from politics, and focused on building professional, nonpolitical forces. The French army, after agonizing colonial wars and absurd coup attempts, is a case in point. Late in the Franco regime the Spanish army came into contact with the apolitical officers of NATO and saw their professionalism and mastery of technique as more desirable than political involvement. And numerous South American armies have realized that they are unable to govern and opted to go back to the barracks.

But this might not be possible for the Pakistani army and the ISI. Their encouragement of Islamism brought the militant faithful into the officer corps, as they were thought more dedicated to confronting India than those with more moderate religiosity. Islamist militants are all but dominant in the officer corps now, even in the ranks of those who will control the general staff in a few years. The generals have brought Pakistan to the edge of the abyss. The protégées they took in, nurtured, and promoted may be the ones to push the country in, making the Pakistani generals the most recent losers in the Great Game, which has never had a long-term winner.

Brian M. Downing is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: