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Understanding Pakistan Army

by Ejaz Haider
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Abdul Majeed—AFP

The most important aspect of Shuja Nawaz’ book is the discussion of higher defense reorganization

When the counterterrorism military operations began in Pakistan’s tribal areas in early 2002, the Army and paramilitary troops deployed there and in the neighboring North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) were ill-trained and ill-equipped for the coming war. They sustained losses, were confused about the enemy, the fight they were to fight, and demoralized.

The planners were no less unprepared. While the deployment strength began to go up gradually—by the end of 2002, the frequency of targeted military and intelligence operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda had gone up exponentially—Operation Al-Meezan, the umbrella codename for the activity, still lacked integrated planning, pre-induction training of troops, a clearer understanding of the nature of the new war and its multiple variables. There was no blueprint for how to keep the areas clear of elements fighting the state, hold it, and effectively control it.

It would take many more years for the Pakistani military to figure out how to plan and execute operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The cost, direct and indirect, was high. The understanding that this war will be fought not just by the military but the nation as a whole was slow in coming. Clerics, notably Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, were issuing fatwas (religious edicts) condemning the war and the troops fighting it.

There were desertions too. Worse, as happened as late as 2007, a large part of a battalion, including its commanding officer and eight other officers, were captured by the Pakistani Taliban. The state, in exchange, had to release fighters and suicide bombers that had been netted in various intelligence operations.

Between early 2002 and 2009, hundreds of small and large-scale operations were conducted and the strength of the Peshawar Corps more than doubled. And yet, while many of those operations were tactically successful, killing and capturing Al Qaeda leaders, Pakistani Taliban and also Afghan Taliban, the broader strategic picture had clearly gone in favor of the Pakistani militants, now banded together as the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan. The TTP was also affiliated with other groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, and sundry Chechen and Arab fighters.

By 2007, east of FATA and further inland, barely four hours from capital Islamabad, Malakand Division had mostly fallen to what became known as the Swat Taliban.

It wasn’t until 2008, when the new Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani pulled the military back from the political entanglements of General Pervez Musharraf’s 9-year rule, that the General Headquarters began taking stock of the situation from a broader operational-strategic perspective. Training, doctrine, plans and other aspects were rethought. But one of the most important salients of the policy, among others, was the idea of public buy-in, i.e., does the military have support of the people of Pakistan in this conflict.

This was important because, in addition to the religious-political parties, two mainstream political parties—Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf—remained skeptical, analyzing jus ad bellum (the reason or right to war) and jus in bello (the conduct of war) in simplistic terms.

Imran Khan, the PTI chairman, called it America’s war, presented the tribal areas before the conflict as bucolic and the tribesmen as herders of sheep living in an idyll before the Army was deployed to FATA.

This was, and remains, irresponsible faux-history, and ignored the facts about Pakistani military’s presence and operations in the area. As I wrote elsewhere:

The Pakistani state has not deployed troops to the area for the first time. The present XI Corps was raised in 1975. Before that, Peshawar used to have one division (7 Division) which, since the British times, was part of the Northern Command based in Rawalpindi. The Northern Command HQ, after Independence, became the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army. Until the raising of XI Corps, 7 Div was responsible for the defense of the area right up to the Afghan border in the tribal agencies of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Parachinar and North and South Waziristan, just like during the British period. When the corps was raised, another division (9 Div), based in Kohat, was added. This division’s elements were given responsibility for the southern tribal agencies and Frontier Regions (FRs).

During the Soviet invasion, the corps’ fighting elements were maintaining and manning Forward Defended Localities along the border. The fighting formations regularly trained and exercised in the tribal agencies. The Pakistan Air Force had also beefed up its presence and flew regular sorties in FATA.”

But, as Shuja Nawaz mentions in the second, updated edition of his book, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within, “successive governments in Pakistan allowed the unruly situation in FATA to develop over its more than 60 years of existence by retaining the anachronistic system of autonomous tribal government for the tribal areas rather than amalgamating them into the rest of the countermand developing the region economically and politically.”

Nawaz identifies the reasons for what has led to the current situation, how the mullahs got empowered and how for years, Pakistan, “policing… on behalf of the United States” and the U.S. itself failed to discuss ‘economic and social development schemes’ that could have helped them, especially Pakistan, approach the problem holistically. The deep irony is that Musharraf, who Nawaz refers to as ‘the liberal autocrat,’ despite his ‘enlightened moderation’ and the new war, served to strengthen the religio-political parties by hobbling the two mainstream parties, the PMLN and the Pakistan Peoples Party.

The book gives us the historical background and the evolution of the Pakistani military alongside the political events. While not presenting a theoretical model of civil-military relations, it details the tensions and their consequences. The picture that emerges is that of a military that believes the politicians are venal and untrustworthy. But it also shows a military that assumes, without much deep thought, that it has the panacea for the polity’s ills, an assumption that might just have cost Pakistan more dearly than through the capers of its politicians.

The story and the historical trajectory are fascinating but Nawaz isn’t just chronicling. He is also looking astutely into the problem of civil-military relations and its impact not just on politics but also Pakistan’s security. Additionally, and this is one of the most important insights, he delves into the changing nature of the officer corps and the imperative of higher defense reorganization as vital not only for professional reasons but also for balanced civil-military relations.

In fact, this aspect of the book, contained primarily in the chapter captioned, Today and Tomorrow, is a discussion that’s generally avoided. Not so in Crossed Swords, though this is a topic that needs a full book to itself. Under the subheading, Changing the Command System, Nawaz discusses the current higher defense configuration and argues, correctly, that “Despite the introduction of the Higher Defense Organization and the creation of the JCSC…command and control at the national level is unworkable and problematic since the army dominates all events and proceeds largely on its own…Inter-service coordination is absent in most cases…[and as a result the] JSCS has become more of a redundant burden than the asset.”

This is spot-on and as Nawaz mentions, “The lack of consultation on the Kargil imbroglio…is a case in point”.

[Nota Bene: Nawaz has a fairly detailed discussion on Kargil in the chapter, The Liberal Autocrat, constructing the narrative from the perspectives of different actors involved in that ill-adventure. He calls it, aptly, the Rashomon Effect, referring to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, in which a murder is described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.]

Nawaz lent his pen to this discussion in the first, 2008 edition but the updated edition takes it forward. He gives recommendations on what can possibly be done to reorganize the higher defense echelons for integrated planning and execution of the national military strategy. This is of course a matter of detail and one can accept or reject particular recommendations, but the stress on why it is important for the Pakistani military, especially the army, to be alive to this is a point that cannot be overstressed.

In one of my exchanges with former Army chief General Jehangir Karamat, he wrote: “The JSHQ evolved from the JSC–Joint Services Committee—to the JCS—Joint Services Secretariat. The need for ‘jointness’ was always there but found real traction after the 1971 war. The idea was to have a top-ranking four-star to head the Armed Forces for all functions but Martial Laws and military governments gave the Chief of Army Staff the top position and this led to the CJCSC and JSHQ with [only] some specified functions.” Karamat also said that “The idea of moving towards a Chief of Defense Staff-type arrangement has been tossed around many times and may still be somewhere in the background.”

A former Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Waheed Arshad told me that during Kayani’s time a lot of work was done on integrated planning and operations and many of the concepts were validated through Azm-e Nau, a series of exercises that coordinated ground action with the Pakistan Air Force’s High Mark series of exercises.

However, Nawaz’ objections to the current set-up, a sentiment I fully share, stand. Not only does the military need reorganization to become a lean, effective fighting machine, it needs a major overhaul akin to the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of Oct. 4, 1986, which changed the command and reporting lines of the military to the President of the United States, created a clear distinction between services chiefs and the combatant commanders and improved inter-services interaction, interoperability, procurement et cetera.

Since then there have been other changes—on April 5, 2016, then Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlined reforms in a speech—but the central tenets of the Goldwater-Nichols Act still obtain. In any case, periodic reworking only stresses the requirement of constant improvements as warfare and military’s responsibilities undergo a change.

But this is precisely the litmus test of civil-military relations for a correct determination of where things stand. How difficult it is to yank the military out of its comfort zone—which not only relates to the professional template it uses, but also dictates its position vis-à-vis the civilian principals—can be seen from an episode last year when a PPP Senator, Farhatullah Babar, proposed certain changes to the National Command Authority Act. He had to back off and is on record as having talked about the pressure he was subjected to. There are several other examples of the high-handedness of the military and its intelligence agencies—Nawaz refers to the Taj incident in Islamabad—when critics have been silenced, disappeared, cut loose or leaned on to prevent them from being too snoopy.

Put another way, when Nawaz talks about allowing “the regional commanders greater freedom of action” or that they should “all be four-star generals and appointed by the same authority that currently appoints the COAS and CJCS,” he is pointing to important steps that could possibly create what he calls “A Coup-Proof System.”

But the question is, who will bell the proverbial cat? As things stand, while for various reasons the military’s predominance might have eroded, it remains primus inter pares and by the looks of it will enjoy that position in the near future. Any overhauling will be tactical and operational, not strategic because it will come from within, not without.

There’s also the problem of what the new wave of civ-mil theorists call the second-generation problem—i.e., while the danger of the military to intervene directly into the system and upstage the civilians might have reduced in some states, the civilian enclave lacks the expertise to understand the security sector and, therefore, has to rely on the military to formulate security-sector policies. That reduces external oversight and allows the military, organizationally-speaking, to continue to reify its worldview and ‘satisfice’ rather than optimizing.

Regardless, Nawaz has put the ball in flight and others should carry it to the goalpost. In fact, as noted before, this is an area that needs a full-length book treatment. The higher defense reorganization is not only important in and of itself, but it is also imperative for its downward cascading effect to what I once described in an article for Hilal as “the adaptive NCO.” Such a conversation will also involve other aspects of recruitment, training, equipment procurement, specializations and sub-specializations et cetera.

Today’s wars are multifaceted. Just like not every Test player can be played in an ODI or a T20, not every officer and soldier can be shunted around from one type of operations to a completely different type of operations. So, perhaps, we need specialist armies within the Army.

Nawaz’ book, however, is not technical, even as he discusses technicalities where such discussion is imperative. The language is lucid, though the editors could have done a better job of checking typos. There are anecdotes and events gleaned from documents and interviews. Whether they deal with Kargil or the games that were being played among the troika in the nineties, or how Nawaz Sharif likes to (mis)govern, the information is rich and fascinating. There’s everything in Crossed Swords for different types of readers.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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