Monday, May 4, 2009

Functional balance: Pakistan's army: as inept as it is corrupt

Pakistan's army: as inept as it is corrupt

The answer to why Pakistan's mighty army seems impotent against Taliban insurgents is that it is more mafia than military
       Mustafa Qadri, Sunday 3 May 2009 17.00 BST
No institution dominates Pakistan like its army. The armed forces account for 20% of Pakistan's national budget, totalling $5bn last year according to official statistics. But the actual figure, already staggering for a country with high levels of illiteracy and malnutrition, is likely to be much higher. The army has been practically unaccountable since the very foundation of the country – last year's figures were the first it has publicly released since 1965.
Those aren't the only imposing figures. It has some 650,000 active soldiers and another half million in reserve, and internal discipline – strict loyalty to the high command among the rank and file – is very high.
Every one of Pakistan's democratically-elected civilian leaders has been forced to abdicate by the army. A general has directly ruled the country for 34 of its 62 years of existence.
With this vice-like grip on power, many are wondering how a rural insurgency armed with basic weapons has managed to overrun so much of the country. The answers have much to do with the Pakistan army itself.
Part of the problem is that the army is equipped for a conventional war against its historical adversary to the east, India, and not the type of insurgency being waged by the Taliban on the frontier to the west. Its operations in the tribal areas have been imprecise, leading to the destruction of many thousands of civilian lives and livelihood. Up to a million are believed to have been displaced by the conflict.
"Collateral damage always strengthens the Taliban, it helps them get more public support," says Abdul Hakim (not his real name), a journalist from Dir, a tribal agency, next to the Swat valley, in which the Taliban are slowly moving.
But there have been only limited, poorly-coordinated attempts to re-engage with communities devastated by armed operations against the Taliban. As a result the Army and government authorities have sheepishly ended up signing peace deals with the Taliban over the past four years. They have all consistently broken down, the Taliban using the lull in hostilities to regroup and rearm.
The most recent peace deal, over the Swat valley, is on the verge of collapse owing to continued Taliban operations in neighbouring areas.
There are lingering doubts about the Army's resolve to combat the Taliban too, as has been suggested when it initially sent up a lightly armed squad of paramilitaries to fight the Taliban in the Buner valley, just below Swat, even though the region is close to the nation's capital.
Another factor is the fact that many of the army's soldiers involved in operations are Pashtun like the Taliban. This has left the high command nervous about tackling the insurgents head-on for fear of causing rifts within the ranks. Although far from a mutiny, many soldiers have refused to fight their fellow tribesman or have surrendered and deserted.
But that has not prevented the army from engaging in operations that have been highly destabilising for tribal Pashtun communities in the affected areas. People fleeing the conflict in Swat and Bajaur, a tribal agency to the west on the border with Afghanistna, told me they felt that the army was, in fact, targeting them and not the Taliban. Some argued this was because the army feared Taliban reprisals. Others insisted they were being targeted because of their support for the Pashtun nationalist Awami National party, which runs the North West Frontier province government.
The truth of rumours such as these, common in Pakistan, are difficult to quantify. But one need not look to rumours to understand why the Pakistan army has failed to defeat the Taliban.
The army has a long history of strategic incompetence stretching back to the very first war the country fought with India in 1948. On that occasion, tribal militants from the regions now in open insurrection against Pakistan flooded into Indian-controlled Kashmir. After overwhelming Indian soldiers there, they promptly went on a binge of rape and looting while the army looked on.
Again at war with India, in 1965, the better-equipped Pakistan army lost more ground, and tanks, than its adversary. But perhaps the army's darkest moment was the 1971 war that lead to the creation of Bangladesh. That conflict saw Pakistan troops involved in widespread acts of extermination against the indigenous Bengali population of what was, at the time, known as East Pakistan.
The Hamoodur Rahman Commission held in Pakistan following that war found large swathes of the high command to be deeply negligent – the commander of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, the report revealed, was involved in sexual misconduct even as his troops were killing, and being killed, on the battlefield.
In 1999, an ambitious Pakistani general by the name of Pervez Musharraf devised the tactically brilliant, but strategically near-suicidal, plan to invade Kargil, an Indian mountain post in Kashmir. That gamble nearly led to nuclear war, and almost certainly led to a military coup later that year.
How does one explain these failures? There can be no one explanation. But if there is an overriding message from these debacles, it is that the army is ill-equipped to defend the state because it has captured much of the bedrock of the state to which it is totally unaccountable.
According to Ayesha Siddiqua, in her seminal study, "Military Inc", the army's private business assets are worth around £10bn and it owns a handsome share of the country's business and land. The generals, as a result, appear to be more interested in leveraging control over businesses, properties and politics.
Yet, the army's power is such that although Pakistan's private media have a commendable record of criticising the country's civilian politicians, criticism of the men in uniform is rare – save during periods of crisis under direct military rule, like the dismissal of the chief justice in 2007.
It would be unfair, however, to criticise the army without acknowledging the pivotal role played by its greatest patrons – the United States, and, to a lesser extent, China. Since the 1950s, both countries have lavished military and political support on the Pakistan army.
"Nobody has occupied the White House who is friendlier to Pakistan than me," is what US President Richard Nixon told Pakistan's then military dictator, Yahya Khan, at a 1970 dinner in Washington, on the eve of the murderous war in East Pakistan. More recently, former President George Bush's praise for Pervez Musharraf has become the stuff of folklore.
The army has been rewarded by its foreign patrons despite its incompetence and unaccountability. In the process, civilian political life has been grotesquely stunted, leading the democratic process to be replaced by a crude kleptocracy where non-military leaders represent personal dynasties and not the people.
Is it any wonder, then, that the army struggles to find a concerted strategy for defeating the Taliban?

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