ANALYSIS: Pakistan army must transcend its narrow institutional interests — Sonali Ranade
The summit in Chicago did not go well. The almost daily drone strikes, the standoff over Dr Afridi, and the general noises emanating from both Washington and Islamabad make it clear that even a limited agreement over the situation in Afghanistan eluded both sides. Pakistan used its trump card of NATO logistics in an attempt to coerce the US into conceding its demands but found Washington unwilling to pay the asking price. When you play your trump card, and find it does not work, you have no option but to climb down to continue in the game. Chicago was an opportunity to manage that climbdown without loss of face or lasting damage to Pakistan’s ultimate goal.
Instead, petty petulance, unnecessary posturing and false prestige were allowed to derail a vitally needed agreement, even if limited in scope. Where does Pakistan go from here?
If you are a hammer, every problem is a nail. Every issue in Pakistan, rightly or wrongly, is a nail to the Pakistan army’s hammer. Pakistan is overly dependent on its army in formulating its top-level grand strategy, simply because it has no institutional capacity anywhere else in the system that can do the job. It is not surprising that the army as an institution looks at every problem through the prism of national security. That is as it should be. But nations have a higher purpose than just simplifying the job of defending themselves. They are also free to choose whom to be friends with and whom to annoy. Every choice they make is not simply embedded in their geopolitical location. The security-specific institutional focus of the army distorts the true nature of choices available to Pakistan, and since the army is the only functioning institution available, its view prevails by default.
General Kayani is on record as saying he considers India an existential threat to Pakistan. Therefore, he is unabashedly India-centric in his approach to Pakistan’s problems. Whether that is true or not, what is clear is that Pakistan’s strategy has centred on treating India as an existential threat. As a smaller neighbour, so goes the strategy, Pakistan must be aggressive in order to keep the slower moving Indian elephant on the defensive. The 1971 fiasco in Bangladesh, largely of Pakistan’s own making because of poisoned politics and unstated ethnic tensions, confirmed the Pakistani establishment in its belief that India is an existential threat. The question should have been revisited in the context of Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and its growing security and trade relationship with China. However, such a review has never happened, at least not in the public domain.
Why would India wish to undo Pakistan? Leaving the lunatic fringe aside, nobody in India would wish to add 200 million radicalised Muslims to her burgeoning 1.1 billion population. The very idea is ridiculous. Given Pakistan’s nukes, the question of India acquiring military means to mount such an offensive against Pakistan is farfetched. India’s growing relations with the US, more hype than reality, is unlikely to change this geopolitical reality. However, there is no institutional mechanism within the Pakistani establishment that can challenge the established army security dogma and compel it to reexamine its assumptions in a realistic manner. That is the key challenge before policy makers in Pakistan.
Pakistan is an existential threat to itself. This is one aspect of the national security dilemma in Pakistan that is exercising some political and intellectual minds but has not been really articulated and debated. Perhaps a leaf or two out of India’s experience with taming its bureaucracy will help clarify matters.
As in the erstwhile USSR, so in the India of the 1970s and 1980s, the state’s capture by its politicians in tandem with the civil service was near absolute. Taxes on the rich had maxed at more than 100 percent. Meanwhile its middle class, spearheaded by the bureaucracy, captured just about every welfare programme initiated to help the poor. The rich got poorer, the poor got poorer, and the bureaucracy and the politicians lived in genteel poverty. As in Pakistan so in India, the civil service, seen as the most powerful organ of the state, attracted the best talent. Grooms from the civil service commanded the highest dowry. There were feeble efforts at reform under Rajiv Gandhi but the bureaucracy in tandem with socialist politicians easily scuttled them. It took a decade and a bankruptcy on the balance of payments front to bring the need for reforms to the fore and tame the civil service opposition to them.
The difference between the bureaucracy in India and Pakistan is not that much, except for two things. First, Pakistan’s reigning bureaucracy is uniformed and armed. That makes it very difficult to dislodge by force. Second, it is well beyond political control, having thrown off the bit through a series of coups. With no competing institution that can rival it in terms of prestige and public support, challenging the Pakistan army’s hegemony over all other institutions in the country will be exceedingly difficult.
Change can be both endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous change within a hierarchical, well trained, uniformed bureaucracy like the army is nearly impossible. By definition, groupthink dominates such institutions and those who do not conform are weeded out early in their careers. To expect that the army will reform merely by an internal reform is to indulge in a pipe dream. The exogenous route is the only one through which change can come about.
One of the unintended consequences of the army’s domination of Pakistani institutions is its preemption of resources to meet its requirements, both in terms of equipment, salaries and perks for its personnel. That process has gone too far, leaving little to throw at other crises facing the polity. These include multiple crises at multiple levels such as gas for cooking and power, electricity, water for agriculture, jobs for the young, education and training for workers and social services for the poor. Of these, any one, or a combination of them, could implode at any time in the next few years. The more Pakistan puts off dealing with these multiple crises by its preoccupation with geopolitics, the tougher it will get to resolve any one of these crises. Most nations that have come to grief in recent years have done so by internal failure rather than external aggression. In fact, if a nation is internally secure, economically and politically, the scope for external interference reduces correspondingly. Pakistan would have been compelled to face these issues of development much earlier but for the lease of life it received by way of military and developmental aid from the US in return for services rendered. That era may now be drawing to a close.
Pakistani generals have often precipitated the very outcome they seek to forestall by trying to punch far above their weight. Playing within your game, letting the opposition make mistakes to capitalise on, learning to wait patiently for an opportunity, are all elements of strategy that are alien to Pakistan’s aggressive style. Over and above all this, learning which game to play and which to decline, requires wisdom far beyond military strategy. Pakistan may be draining itself playing the wrong game. The Pakistani assumption that it is too big a nuclear power to fail, and therefore, the world can be persuaded to offer it a living, is both untried and untested. It is best left that way.
The writer is a trader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @SonaliRanade on Twitter