Mar 19, 2008

Friend to Foe: Switch-Hit Pak

Last week, as Lt Gen Mushtaq Baig, chief of army medical services, was blown to bits by a teenaged suicide bomber in the heart of the Rawalpindi cantonment, Pakistan’s worst fears were confirmed once again: the militants were determined to attack the core of the Pakistani army.

And the Army is not ready for this deadly game with the people it has patronised, nurtured and guided in the past. Though it has been involved in a high-voltage battle of nerves with militants in the NWFP, it has gained little ground against them.

The militants are elusive and deeply motivated, and there have even been incidents of some army units willingly surrendering to the heavily armed militia rather than fight them.

The reason for this debacle is quite simple. Trained to fight conventional war with the Indian army in the mountains of Kashmir, the plains of Punjab and the desert of Rajasthan, the Pakistani army struggles and fumbles as it takes on battle-hardened guerrillas in the treacherous terrain of the Pashtun belt.

There’s another reason: Since 1947, generations of Pakistani army have been trained, motivated and indoctrinated to fight India. Just like in jingoistic Bollywood flicks, the word enemy always had only one meaning in the barracks of the Pakistani army. Explaining the Pakistani establishment’s perception of India in a recent interview, Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy , said: "India is an enemy, it is about to eat us up. We have to challenge it."

It’s probably this mindset that explains the ‘misuse’ of more than $5 billion given by the US to the Pakistani military to fight the Al-Qaida and Taliban in its restive border areas with Afghanistan. In a report published last year, US military officials said they believed that much of the American money had been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India.

The American accusation led to a war of words between Islamabad and Washington, with the Pakistanis accusing the Americans of ingratitude and the Americans in turn charging them with not doing enough to counter the Al-Qaida "which was expanding its influence from the remote border regions into the more populated parts of Pakistan".

"The Pakistanis are damn good fighters," says a retired Indian Army officer who saw action on the western front in 1971. "But unlike us, counter-insurgency is not their strength. It’s a different ballgame altogether. They have to shift their focus from India if they want to defeat the militants in the mountains."

This is precisely what the Americans have been telling Islamabad. In recent weeks as the country voted in the general elections and President Pervez Musharraf stood defeated and isolated, some top US officials - CIA director Michael Hayden, deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen - flew down to Islamabad, offering to train Pakistan’s Frontier Corps in anti-guerrilla operations and trying to persuade army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani to switch from training in conventional warfare to counter-insurgency operations. The general reportedly agreed with the Americans’ viewpoint.

But even if Gen Kayani manages to shift the focus of his army’s training, it’s not going to be easy to win this battle, for an entirely different reason. Because of the heavy dose of religion during training and the army’s symbiotic relationship with religious extremists in the past, the soldier on the front is not convinced he is fighting the right battle. Trained to fight the ‘big enemy’, the soldiers are getting a bit confused as they take on the people who once fought alongside them.

"Even before the Taliban, we engaged with non-state actors and militants," says Siddiqa. "Who fought the war in 1947-48? We got those tribal warriors from Waziristan primarily to fight. In 1965 again, we used jihadis." In addition, the army also used religious extremists to defeat its political opponents. Now they are in a Catch-22 situation. Though Pakistan joined the US war on terror after the threat of being "bombed back to the Stone Age", its army is not ready - militarily and mentally - to fight the enemy’s enemy which has turned its guns on its former patron.
-Excerpts from The Times Of India


Anonymous said...

Plus you have the added issue of the Army composed of a lot of Pashtun who would be fighting in areas heavy in Pashtun. For many it is their home territory or close to it.

Meatball One said...

Excellent point - thanks!