Why Pakistan’s Ship Is Sinking

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Why Pakistan’s Ship Is Sinking

Pakistan’s military has had a bad couple of months. Unless it rethinks its priorities, expect tactical gains to lead to strategic disaster.

For the Pakistani military and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, it has been a spring of discontent.

In March, Kayani and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha became the focus of criticism from hardliners inside and outside the military for their decision to release CIA contractor Raymond Davis after he killed two Pakistanis in Lahore.

Things got even worse at the beginning of May, when a US Navy Seals raid showed that Osama bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, deep within the Pakistani heartland. Both inside Pakistan and overseas, the Pakistani military was seen as either complicit – through the hiding of bin Laden, or in the raid that killed him – or incompetent, for failing to realize he was there in the first place. Calls grew for the two to step down.

In the middle of last month, the trial of Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, began in Chicago. In the court of international public opinion, the ISI was effectively Rana’s co-defendant.

A week later, it was the military that was back in the spotlight, when terrorists waged a sophisticated assault on a Pakistani naval base in Karachi, destroying two US-supplied naval reconnaissance planes.

Finally, at the end of May, Syed Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani reporter who wrote on the jihadist infiltration of the Pakistani Navy, was killed. Some have alleged it was the ISI’s work.

This series of developments has marked a dramatic reversal of fortune for an army chief who had previously earned praise since taking office in 2007 for managing the army’s strategic withdrawal from politics, managing to strengthen ties with both the United States and anti-American Pakistani nationalists, and restoring public respect for an institution that had seen its name sullied by his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. 

Last October, Kayani led the Pakistani delegation at strategic dialogue talks in Washington, where he met with US President Barack Obama. Indeed, his star had risen so high that even some Indian commentators were promoting the idea of opening up a direct channel with the Pakistani military. 

How things have changed.

A weakened Kayani last month told Pakistani journalists that he had come to realize the ‘limits of (Pakistan’s) own reach’ vis-à-vis the United States. And while Kayani’s ability to push back against the United States has been reduced on the one hand, he remains under serious pressure from hardliners in the lower and middle ranks of the military – and from an increasingly hostile public – on the other.

For Kayani, and the Pakistan Army more broadly, internal cohesion and public support remain of primary importance. With this in mind, Kayani reportedly called this month for US military aid to be diverted to the civilian government for economic development; he also announced a significant reduction in US military trainers. This is in all likelihood an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the military’s image as some kind of mercenary army for the United States, as well as part of an effort to soften the impact of Washington’s stick by refusing some of its carrots.

The fact is that the army faces only a marginal short-term threat from the political class. It is on good terms with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that leads the governing coalition, and the two have drawn up a neat division of labour in running the country (although neither is doing particularly well in their respective role).

Still, Kayani and the army remain targets of criticism from civil society and the media.  The question is, how will the army respond? The signs so far aren’t encouraging. The Army’s natural instinct is to bite back, and it very much holds a ‘with us or against us’ mentality. As a result, Pakistan is likely to see an uptick in intimidation of journalists by the military and intelligence services. The murder of Shahzad is perhaps a sign of things to come.

Either way, Kayani’s downward slide might be irreversible, and he could end up a lame duck, without strong domestic support, which would leave him a hostage to more intransigent forces.

long, rambling press statement by the military released after Thursday’s corps commanders meeting suggests that the Army is at a loss as to how to navigate through this storm.For now, it has chosen to distance itself from the United States and pass the buck onto the politicians, by disingenuously asking them to form a national security strategy. And these tactics might indeed ease some of the pressure facing the military in the short term. In the long term, though, such short-sightedness could prove to be the biggest danger facing the country.

Of course, the president could succeed in containing the opposition, and Kayani could resist US pressure over support for support jihadists in Afghanistan. But then what next?  In the end, the United States may well withdraw completely from Afghanistan, or even the region. But Pakistanis will still be left with managing Pakistan – a country that can’t pay its bills, secure its own borders or citizens, or teach its children to read and write, let alone become a player in the global economy.

It’s clear, then, that Pakistan’s leaders must address some core questions – what kind of country should Pakistan be? What is the real potential of this nation of 170 million given its human capital, natural resources, and geostrategic location? How can it achieve this potential?

Answering such questions will require imagination, vision, and a grand strategy borne of consensus between the civilian leadership and the military. But it also requires a change in mind-set. Pakistan’s ruling classes must grow beyond their parochial political and national security concerns and view governance through the prism of human security. 

An estimated 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorists, insurgents, Pakistani security forces, and the United States since the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of Pakistanis live below the poverty line. At the same time, most of Pakistan’s federal budget goes toward defence spending and servicing debt, while less than two percent of the population pays income tax.

Boxed into a corner, Kayani and the Pakistan Army can punch their way out and survive, or even win, this round. But Pakistan itself will remain in a fight for its life as deep structural problems leave the state unable to provide the basics for its population.

If Kayani and the Army want to secure a lasting victory, they would do better to work with the civilian elite to save Pakistan’s sinking ship.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at The Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).