Is it time to eat grass in Pakistan? Part I

By Samson Simon SharafIn my study on the nature of conflict in FATA and Afghanistan, I have sifted through numerous research papers and studies of US think tanks like Carnegie, RAND, the Council of Foreign Relations and Heritage. Some names like Ashley Tellis, Richard Haas and Lisa Curtis are familiar and well known. Others, though known but not so familiar, are Daniel Markey, Jayshree Bajoria and Eben Kaplan. I am amused by the inherent contradiction in opinions on the Pakistani Army over the past ten years. I question myself; were these analysts wrong in the past, or are they expressing views to substantiate a certain perception being created about Pakistan and its armed forces?

My mind goes back to the early years of the Cold War and how similar think tanks worked overtime to create funding for the Military Industrial Complex. Whatever the nature of perceptions these studies tend to create, it is clear that Pakistan is heading for some very challenging times. Pakistan has moved from the crossroads of geography to the crosshairs of a gun-sight while US think tanks are working overtime to shape an environment.

Recent studies are unanimous that the Pakistani Army is ill-organised and poorly trained to conduct counterinsurgency operations in FATA. These views also strengthen the growing perception that in order to comprehensively defeat the anti-US militants providing sanctuaries to the Al Qaeeda Strain in FATA, outside military intervention is indispensable. The argument goes that if the Pakistani Army, despite being paid cannot do it, we will.

Notwithstanding the damage this propaganda could cause to US-Pakistan relations, such inflammatory statements remain the currency of the present US presidential debate and the media. Physical US operations inside Pakistan and round-the-clock surveillance with drones have already diminished the international boundary. Now the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan Pakhtun belt is being seen as one war zone. The most dangerous development is the perception that more and more Pakistanis now see the resistance as a war against US aggression.

To explain how and why perceptions have reversed in this short span, it is opportune to mention the Pacific Armies Military Seminar conducted by Pacific Command USA in Singapore in 1999. I happened to represent the Pakistani Army and read a paper on “The Nature of Future War.” This multinational gathering of armed forces of the world was in the backdrop of the Kargil crisis and we went well prepared for a tirade of pointed questions that we responded to. However, rather than deliberate on the nature of future floating threats created by non-state actors, the themes allocated quickly focussed on subjects such as defence diplomacy. My syndicate room was the focus of frequent visits by US high command because it was here that most heated discussions took place. I understood the US intentions and amply demonstrated why.

On my return, I put forth my assessments to the military high command and made recommendations on how to avert a future conflict that appeared imminent in a decade. However, my voice was drowned by the coup of Oct 12, 1999, and the military’s preoccupation with civil affairs.

During the breaks and dinners, officers of the US high command were full of praise for the professionalism of the Pakistani Army. Some had served with the Pakistani contingent in Somalia and singled out the Pakistanis for a very high standard of training, devotion to duty and courage in face of hostile fire. Incidentally, it was my battalion that had played a very important role at a heavy cost of life and equipment in rescuing US troops from the aborted top-secret operation of capturing Farah Aidid. In fact, the Commander of the Pacific Command commented that it would be his honour to fight any future war in company of troops as well trained and brave as Pakistanis. Yet, when I saw the American movie Black Hawk Down I was surprised to see the over-projection of macho US forces in contrast to a very lowly description of the Pakistani troops.

In my many encounters with US and European analysts during seminars, similar opinions were reflected of Pakistani troops not only in Somalia but the world over in UN peace missions. In a presentation that I gave to a UN study group visiting the GHQ on the commitments of Pakistan to peace missions, men such as Chris Smith were full of praise for the Pakistani Army and wanted Pakistan to commit unequivocally to such a noble cause. If this is so, the question that requires explanation is, why this reversal of opinion?

To arrive at tangible conclusions, a reference to history would be in order. In the perspective of Pakistan’s political economy, peace and stability in Afghanistan is crucial to development of the entire region. However, despite repeated attempts, this matrix has been elusive and frustrating. Ever since the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, attempts by Pakistan to achieve this have been scuttled by outside actors mainly the US.

In 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was scheduled to sign an already drafted and agreed agreement with Sardar Daud on the Durand Line. Lamentably, he was overthrown through a military coup, hanged and made a lesson of.

During Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as prime minister, the Taliban had agreed to moderating themselves and converting Afghanistan into a federation with a power-sharing formula. As a betrayal of the worst type, she was unceremoniously removed by President Leghari just a day after the draft agreement had been agreed.

In 2002, when the Taliban had agreed to make a Lockerberie out of Osama bin Laden, the US decided to walk out. In retrospect, the fruits of the mock jihad so fervently pursued on behalf of the US by Pakistan cannot be reaped.

The question is, why, and with such alacrity? There were but three losers in that conflict: the USSR, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Afghanistan was allowed to burn for over two decades, Pakistan is at the brink of it now. The statement is clear. Peace and development in the region can only be secured on US terms. The pyre is set and could burn for a long time to come.

Though Pakistan has been charge-sheeted for nuclear proliferation, terrorism and causing instability in the region for a long time, it also continued to be retained by the US in a hybrid zone of “neither friend nor foe.” Pakistan is seen as a somewhat reliable and pliable dependency that could both be coerced and persuaded for the sake of US Interests. For the US, Pakistan is a useful instrument to pursue selective geostrategic objectives and yet not allow it to grow in national power beyond a fixed point. However, the major imbalance in the US calculus is Pakistan’s nuclear status that has to be, at some point of time, “cut to size.”

This lopsided relationship of “a hare hunting with the hounds” began with the implementation of the Containment Theory and has morphed into the present situation. The first phase of this US-Pakistan love-hate was based on bilateral relations between the Pentagon and the GHQ and the Harvard Bureaucratic Development models. This relationship came under severe strain during the years of sanctions whilst the Pentagon made persistent efforts to keep the matter alive.

Though Pakistan had found a trustworthy ally in China, the Pentagon was always eager to contain this relationship in a manner that Pakistan remains dependent on the US for military hardware. Similarly, the development of the commercial port of Gwadar never went well with the US and Pakistan underwent pointed scrutiny. But all that changed after 9/11. The events of 9/11 provided a time jump to US objectives in the region. It also provided the Pentagon a chance to rebuild its ruptured ties with the Pakistani Army. There was a surge in training exchange programmes, visits and enrolments in US think tanks, but most who returned narrated a very unhappy experience.

The question is, why has the focus of this charge sheet recently shifted from the country to the armed forces of Pakistan?

(To be continued)

The writer is retired brigadier of the Pakistani Army. Email:


The News, Monday, September 15, 2008

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