By Murad Malik
Pakistan yet again finds itself in an astoundingly difficult and dangerous situation. It had not fully recovered from the surprised Osama Bin Laden (OBL) raid, when the daring attack on one of its prime naval air base in Karachi took place. The presence of OBL in Pakistan and this audacious attack on it naval base further weakened Pakistan’s efforts to portray itself as a secure and responsible nuclear power in front of the world community.
In the midst of all this, one finds Pakistan to be gravely divided on the on-going war against terrorism, on which Pakistani leaders have failed to unite the nation and develop a general consensus on the ownership of war. A close look into the working of the military, the political class and the society, reflects that deep divisions exist on how to carry out this alliance with America.
The military being the key deciding group, to dictate the nature of Pakistan’s alliance with United States, finds itself in a very complex position. It has had close working relations with the Taliban and other groups, which the United States wants it to go after. The military– either by a lack of will or scarce capacity– does not want to takedown most of the militant groups that pose serious threats to American forces and its allies in Afghanistan.
This does not necessarily mean that the Pakistani establishment wants to confront United States. The fact remains that these groups were always considered as strategic assets by the Pakistani military. That is the reason that they were harnessed, and kept as an insurance to support the Army in case of another war with India. These groups have helped to keep a proxy war going against India, specifically in the disputed region of Kashmir.
The Pakistani military and its premier intelligence agency the Inter-Services-Intelligence, (ISI), under the leadership of General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, does not want to bring groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or the Haqqani network, in its theater of engagement with the militants, as doing so it might find itself in a situation beyond its control. Groups like the LeT do have significant value among the militant groups that operate in the region, and as yet it has not declared a war against the Pakistani Army and neither has been blamed for any attacks inside Pakistan. So the Pakistani military naturally does not feel the need to go after LeT on America’s behest.
The Pakistani military has seen most of these groups as their strategic assets and still perceives them to be of great value once some sort of settlement takes place in Afghanistan. Without groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network, or Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s group no peace can be achieved. America and its allies cannot commit their forces to an open-ended war. And the Pakistan Army does not find it prudent to loose support from such groups, as already it is faced by a pro-India and anti-Pakistan Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This is how the strategic compass of the Pakistani military still calculates the situation on the ground. The Pakistani military has already risked enough and alienated most of the Pashtun tribes which perceive the Pakistani Army as doing America’s bidding in the region.
In the past these tribes– like other Pakistanis– have held the Pakistani military in high esteem. Soldiers in Pakistan have enjoyed a breed apart status, because of the respect and authority that they have managed to command over most of the country’s existence. If this image of the army falls and it looses its grip on the psychology of its nation, all bets would be off about the Army’s capability to maintain level of order in the country.
America’s continuous drone attacks may not be seriously challenged by Pakistan, but similar actions such as the OBL operation may provoke the low ranking army officials and common soldiers to retaliate with some force against the Americans. Senior military officials might not find it easy to curtail such anger among their subordinates.
The discontent among the lower ranking officials of the military is reflected in the raid on the Karachi naval base where militants were provided with assistance from officials within the security apparatus. Few navy personnel were arrested recently, and had disclosed that attacks would take place on military installations.
The Pakistan military inherently is India centric, as it sees the threat to its security coming from that side of the border and not to a dangerous extent from Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has never deployed regular troops in the tribal areas before the American war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban started. The tribal areas already enjoy a unique set of governance system which is not implemented in the rest of the country.
This war inside their boundary is regarded nothing but a spillover effect by the presence of international forces in Afghanistan. Groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their sympathizers are the ones the Pakistani military categorizes as threats to their security. These groups are also assumed to be supported by countries hostile to Pakistan, mainly India. To give credit to the Army it has on a number of occasions operated with great success against these groups, but still there is a lot to be done to curtail the situation.
The political spectrum of Pakistan has also not been able to bring any coherent policy towards the management of the war against extremism. The drone attacks by America make the job more difficult for politicians to support America’s war against terror. The common man perceives the Americans as big a threat to them as the militant groups because of the high rate of collateral damage. They may not be with the militants but that does not make them sympathizers to U.S objectives in the region.
Politicians, except for a few parties, find it hard to openly rally people in favor of this war for two reasons. One, they fear the situation is so dangerous that they risk being targeted by such groups, if they were to openly challenge them. The murder of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto stands as a warning for other political leaders. Second, politicians observe the growing discontent among the masses against American handling of this war. Therefore they do not want to alienate the local population and be seen as an entity oblivious to the woes of innocent people killed in unilateral attacks by American forces.
Mian Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister and leader of the largest opposition party, The Pakistan Muslim League, has not extended any sort of assistance to the government or the army in this war. They even have for most of the time opposed military action against militants and have pushed for negotiations. Having popular support among the masses of Pakistan, Sharif and the right wing religious parties are winning in creating an environment which keeps the views of the society in a split on war.
People living in the settled districts of Pakistan are drawing conclusions that they have to face terrorism because of the presence of international forces in Afghanistan, and they would find life back to normal once that is taken care of. The people of the Pashtun Belt from where most of the fighters to these groups are drawn view this as a modern crusade. And the militant groups find it ever easier to recruit and indoctrinate scores of men, who normally may not have aligned with these groups. This is because the domestic environment of Pakistan is in such a amorphous state that religious sentiments are used as a tool by the extremist groups.
Pakistan’s civil society is brewing with propositions as how to go about this war. These propositions may not be on the same page as the American and international forces are. Charismatic leaders in the turbulent political environment of Pakistan, such as Imran Khan, have won completely in convincing people to the conclusion, that “we can get rid of terrorism if we can get out of alliance with the Americans.”
Right wing groups active in Pakistan need not come in the limelight with full force as their objectives are well met by other means. Their role can be compared with that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in Egypt recently.
Overall the current situation will extract a role of Pakistan which may not be of America’s liking. The Pakistani military is losing ground rapidly in front of its own people. The political support that is expected from the civilian government is not forthcoming. CIA Director Leon Panetta probably did not find the environment to be friendly in the backdrop of such developments. The co-operation between the CIA and ISI has found new lows, and they continue to deteriorate further.
The growing influence of the CIA inside Pakistan has become a matter of grave concern for the military. The CIA has been reported operating inside Pakistan without requiring help from ISI, as it has spread its influence to such an extent. The ISI Chief has showed no hesitation by divulging in front of the Parliament after OBL’s death the CIA’s growing intelligence network inside Pakistan. Both agencies have been hurling allegations and at the same time also trying to reconcile, as they still are dependent on each other. What positive results can come out after this visit by the outgoing CIA director, it will mostly depend on how domestic events shape the military and the political government of Pakistan.
The support that America expects cannot be provided by Pakistan. The multifaceted issues that Pakistan has to confront makes it impossible for any government or its military to deliver results as desired by America and other countries. This all would settle in due time, when Pakistan internally can build its capacity on different fronts, be it political and military. Before that it would be a futile attempt to anticipate wonders from Pakistan. Yet abandoning Pakistan cannot be even considered as an option, because if Pakistan completely breaks down it would have serious repercussions on its neighbors and would affect the region and beyond.
Murad Malik, Non-Resident Analyst, INEGMA