Waiting to explode
Never since the 1971 war debacle has the image of the Pakistani army reached such a nadir. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad turned the spotlight on Pakistan’s amazing duplicity (or astounding incompetence). Initially, the Pakistani army was in a painful cleft about which facet to plead guilty to. Both were equally damning. For 36 hours after the raid, there was a stunned official silence in Islamabad. A spate of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks followed in the country, which culminated in the Taliban raid on the naval base at Mehran.
The high-strung Taliban reaction against the Pakistani armed forces sprang from a sense of outrage and betrayal. They had put bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other top Taliban leaders in the safekeeping of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The killing of bin Laden was, for the Taliban, a monstrous sell out. The fact that the army itself was shell-shocked by the American raid meant nothing to the Taliban. The Pakistani rank and file, in turn, is deeply offended that the Americans could pull off such a raid deep inside their country. It has opened them to a spate of ridicule from the civilians, which has wounded the army’s amour propre for being the only functional institution in an otherwise dysfunctional Pakistan.
The level of discontent has now reached serious proportions. Apparently, enraged enlisted men have demanded that General Ashfaq Kayani and General Ahmad Shuja Pasha must step down. Today, Kayani faces intense discontent over his allegedly cosy relationship with the US. The anger intensified when he (with apparent US backing) got himself an extension for three years. This torpedoed the promotional prospects of 27 lieutenant generals of the army and added to their sense of outrage.
After Abbottabad, at a conference of the Collegium of the XI Corps Commanders, Kayani was informed about the outrage and apparently asked that he talk to the men himself before the situation went out of hand. Accordingly, a panic-stricken Kayani started a tour of the military cantonments to meet the officers in town hall-type meetings. By now, Kayani has addressed over a dozen such military gatherings where, in some cases, the ‘question rounds’ slated for an hour extended up to three hours. The military press briefs described them as “very frank”. This is an unprecedented situation in a disciplined army where the chief feels compelled to explain his conduct to his men.
An alarmed Kayani has, in response to this unnerving feedback, hardened his stand on America too. Around 140 US trainers have been sent back and, apparently, food and water supplies to the US drone base in Pakistan have been cut. The five Pakistanis who gave information to the CIA about bin Laden have been arrested. So much for the war on terror. There is speculation that the gory details of the anger within the army have been put in the Pakistani media to put pressure on America to not insist on carrying out operations in North Waziristan or target top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan.
These are the long overdue consequences of the schizophrenic policy that Pakistan has been following since 9/11. It is noteworthy that General Zia-ul-Haq had not only thoroughly radicalised the Pakistani army and the ISI but he had also equally radicalised the school curriculum to extol jihad. Having systematically been fed on a diet of radical Islam and virulently anti-American worldviews, the population of Pakistan is now among the most radicalised in the world. Pakistan’s 45,000 madrasas have become a jihad factory, turning out fanatical recruits and suicide bombers for the global jihad. Bin Laden and his men have become icons for the Pakistani youth. The Zia Bharti (officers who joined the army in Zia’s time) have reached the rank of major generals and some of them have even become lieutenant generals. They rose because of their Islamic credentials and radicalised outlook.
Will there be a colonels’ coup in Pakistan? It’s unlikely. It is the Collegium of Corps Commanders that usually ushers in non-linear changes (usually in the form of institutional coups). But the creeping radicalisation of the Pakistani rank and file is now cause for acute concern. Post-Mehran, there are serious question marks on the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Above all, this radicalisation via deep infiltration could presage the emergence of a jihadi State. Bruce Reidel, in his book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad, describes this as the worst nightmare for America. He writes, “A jihadist Pakistan would be the most serious threat the US has faced since the end of the Cold War.” Aligned with al-Qaeda and armed with nuclear weapons, it would be a global security nightmare. It would be prudent for India to ‘war game’ possible collapse scenarios. Peace talks with such a rapidly failing State, which is fast getting radicalised, unfortunately, make little sense at this stage.
GD Bakshi is a retired Major General of the Indian Army. The views expressed by the author are personal.