article

05.07.11

Pakistan's Army Is Impotent

Pakistan authorities couldn’t find Osama bin Laden and they couldn’t respond to the American assault on his compound. M.J. Akbar on why the military’s independence is self-destructive.

The death of two birds with one stone is generally greeted with generous applause, notwithstanding the fact that the second casualty was an accident. What is useful in sport might be less fortuitous in other circumstances.

The four American helicopters which went for the final kill in the long hunt for Osama bin Laden achieved their primary purpose. The world is now busy sifting through the ruins of their second hit. For in the process they also crippled the credibility of Pakistan’s most powerful institution, its Army, often described by its apologists as critical to national stability and even cohesion. All pretence and pretension is over; a fudge that the killing of Osama was some sort of “joint operation” was thin camouflage that has been torn apart by minimal public scrutiny. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan admitted in Parliament that American choppers had evaded detection by use of “map of the earth” flying techniques. If the Pak military did learn what was happening during the 40-odd minutes that ground operations took, there was too much uncertainty and confusion in its chain of command to fashion an adequate, or any, response. Stark fact: the Pakistan Army is impotent before America.

Only the impotent resort to bluster. The Pakistan military rather pompously “threatened” America with “dire consequences” if it dared to violate Pak sovereignty again. America sniffed, not in sorrow but disdain, and sent drones on Friday to hit targets in the Datta Khel area, killing 12 people, described naturally as “militants.” Washington did not seek Islamabad’s permission for renewed military action.

Less evident fact, but fact nevertheless: Pakistan’s generals, who have controlled defence policy from the moment Ayub Khan became defence minister, whether through their own dictators or civilian politicians who took their dictation [except for the six Zulfiqar Bhutto years], have turned a national army into a mercenary force. Those who pay the piper determine the tune. Since Pakistan’s generals have Urdu as their first language, they will not need an interpreter to understand Sahir Ludhianvi’s evocative couplet: “ Kaise bazaar ka dustoor tumhein samjhaaon, Bik gaya jo woh kharidaar nahin ho sakta [How shall I explain the logic of the bazaar? He who has been sold cannot become a buyer]”.

The ISI must maintain distance and deniability when it nurtures assets it needs to use when its requirements are askance of American interests.

This is a variation, not particularly subtle, of the neo-colonial syndrome. Neo-colonization was honed and shaped by the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent through the princely states, so we have sufficient evidence from history. In essence, neo-colonization is the grant of independence on condition you do not exercise it. It is an exchange of security systems, where the superior power ensures the survival of an ally, while the ally protects the interests of the superpower in its region.

When, therefore, the Pakistan army feels the need for an alternative policy line which might be unacceptable to Washington, it is forced into double-talk and deception. The ISI must maintain distance and deniability when it nurtures assets it needs to use when its requirements are askance of American interests. This explains its relationship with outfits it has either spawned or fattened. That old codger Pervez Musharraf, whose most effective arsenal has always been stored within his vocal chords, has been trotted out to explain how Osama was living in luxury within smelling distance of the military. This is logical, since Osama made his home in Abbottabad when Musharraf was president. As attorney for the Army, however, Musharraf is hopeless; he thinks raising his voice, combined with a convenient memory, improves an argument. One story is too priceless to be ignored. Former Afghanistan intelligence chief A. Saleh recalls that when, four years ago, he told Musharraf that Osama was hiding in or around Abbottabad, Musharraf exploded, “Am I president of the Republic of Banana?”

The question is rhetorical. Dictators like Musharraf have turned Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan into a banana republic.

I wonder sometimes if Pak generals get more irritated by an Indian general’s barb or an Afghan’s taunt. Last Wednesday, General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for Kabul’s defence ministry, publicly wondered: “If the Pakistani intelligence agency does not know about a home located 10 metres or 100 metres away from its national academy, where for the last six years the biggest terrorist is living, how can this country take care of its strategic weapons?” The whole of Pakistan, not just Kabul, is waiting for an adequate response.

The deterioration of the Pakistan army is not a consequence of financial corruption. That is a small part of the story. It is self-destructive because there is complete absence of accountability. No one, either a wing of government or Parliament, can question its will to do what it wants. In the name of patriotism, it has declared virtual independence from the rest of Pakistan. The consequences are there for all to see. Instead of being an impenetrable wall on the frontier, the Pak Army has become a porous bale of cotton.

You can only sleep comfortably wrapped in cotton; a nation’s guardians need to keep their eyes open.

Well known Indian journalist M.J. Akbar is the Editor, The Sunday Guardian and Editor, India on Sunday in Britain, editor of Covert, a fortnightly magazine of current affairs, a blogger and the author of many books, most recently Blood Brothers.