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Powerful and Insecure

Two books on the Pakistan army explore its primacy at home and revisionism abroad

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
July 19, 2014 12:08:41 am
The Pakistan army is unlikely to be pushed back into barracks. The Pakistan army is unlikely to be pushed back into barracks.

Book: Fighting to the End: Pakistan Army’s Way of War
Author: C. Christine Fair
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 347
Price: 750

Book: The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan
Author: Aqil Shah
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 399
Price: 995

Few armies in the world attract the kind of policy and scholarly attention that the Pakistan army does. Rightly so, for its institutional primacy at home and strategic influence abroad have few parallels. Many armies have run their countries, but most of them had to eventually yield to democratic change and civilian control. The Pakistan army, however, exercises extraordinary power, whether in the barracks or the chancelleries. It controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, manipulates its domestic politics, shapes its internal security and runs the critical accounts of the country’s foreign policy with India, Afghanistan, China, the Gulf and the United States.

Given Pakistan’s enduring geopolitical significance since Partition, the army’s role there has been consequential not just for the international relations of the region, but way beyond. Whether it is the war on terror, the politics of nuclear proliferation, securing the volatile Gulf region, or Great Power rivalries, the Pakistan army pops up as a critical factor in world politics.

For India, the Pakistan army headquartered in Rawalpindi has emerged as the principal stumbling block to the normalisation of relations with its important neighbour to the west. The Pakistan army has never won a conventional war against India, but Rawalpindi has sustained a prolonged low intensity conflict against Delhi by nurturing anti-India terror groups on its soil. It has repeatedly stymied the efforts by civilian leaders in Islamabad to explore even a limited détente with India in pursuit of Pakistan’s enlightened self-interest.

An appreciation of what makes the Pakistan army tick should, therefore, be of a high priority for Delhi’s policy-makers and of great interest to Indian civil society. Christine Fair and Aqil Shah have given us two solid works on the Pakistan army that help enrich the Indian and global understanding of its role in shaping Pakistan’s domestic politics and external policies.

Fair, a well-known American scholar of the subcontinent, offers powerful insights into the sources of the army’s dominance and examines the prospects for a potential change in the coming years. She begins by posing a simple puzzle: why does the Pakistan army look like an irrational actor? Why does it promote terrorism against India and Afghanistan even when the consequences destabilise Pakistan itself? What drives the insecurities of the Pakistan army even after it acquired nuclear weapons and blunted India’s conventional military superiority? Why can’t Rawalpindi accept even a temporary truce with India to secure its more immediate interests at home and beyond.

Fair looks for the answers in the “strategic culture” of the Pakistan army. By poring over its official publications, examining its self-beliefs and tracking its evolution as an institution, Fair comes to some definitive conclusions that compel all those who have business to do with Pakistan to rethink their assumptions. She argues that the Pakistan army’s concerns about India “are not purely or even mostly security driven”. It is about ideology. The army sees itself protecting not merely the territorial borders of Pakistan but its “ideological frontiers”. Rawalpindi sees Pakistan locked in a civilisational conflict with India. Fair concludes that “for the army, resisting India’s rise is a necessary condition for the survival of Islamic Pakistan”.

Fair also offers a very important insight on the army’s rather unconventional views about victory and defeat in its unending struggle against India. She suggests that the Pakistan army does not view its inability to win multiple wars against India as “losing”. For Rawalpindi, sustaining the ability to challenge Delhi, and to challenge India’s rise, is in itself the prize. If accepting the territorial status quo is a defeat for the Pakistan army, it feels duty bound to revise it. In its revisionist quest, Fair suggests, the Pakistan army will continue to take significant risks, rather than do nothing.

If Fair focuses on the implications of the Pakistan army’s doctrine for the region and the world, Shah turns to the equally important role of the army in domestic politics. Like Fair, he too delves deep into the Pakistan army’s mindset and its self-perception as the guardian of the nation. Shah asks the old question, “who guards the guardians”? He examines the reasons for the evolutionary path taken by the Pakistan army after Partition, which diverges from that of its counterpart in India. He tracks the evolution of the army’s views on civil-military relations by focusing on specific historical junctures in Pakistan’s history, the moments of transition from civilian to military rule and vice versa.

Shah and Fair offer valuable analyses on the conditions —  internal and external —  under which the Pakistan army’s strategic culture might change. Despite the two civilian governments that have taken power since General Pervez Musharraf stepped down in 2008, Shah is not hopeful that the Pakistan army can really be pushed back into barracks. He suggests that civilian supremacy could become an “euphemism for the military’s formal and active participation in matters of war and peace” and legitimise the army’s “non-democratic privileges”.

If Shah is cautiously pessimistic, Fair insists that India, the US and others “should abandon their hopes” for a fundamental change in the strategic culture of the Pakistan army. Defining Pakistan as a “greedy state”, Fair suggests any appeasement of the Pakistan army, in the hope of changing its behaviour, would only reinforce its revisionist pursuits. The conclusions of Shah and Fair on the army’s unshakeable stranglehold over Pakistan’s domestic structures and foreign policies raise basic questions about Delhi’s current strategy of engaging Islamabad. If India’s problem is not about finding diplomatic accommodation or stabilising military equilibrium, Delhi might have to figure ways to contest Rawalpindi’s ideological premises.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for The Indian Express

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