What’s your view on Pakistan’s army? Is it a good army, or a bad army, a great army or an evil army? Is it an invincible army or eminently beatable? Is it a Pakistani nationalist army, or just another Islamic lashkar in uniform with nukes? The answer can depend on which side you happen to be on. As an Indian partisan, I can of course use all or some of the many positive choices given there, but I will then perhaps have to live in exile somewhere. Or we can be like our prime time warriors and simply continue to insist that Pakistani Army is exactly as portrayed in Bollywood “war” movies, our idea of animated commando comics, bumbling, cowardly, easy to roll over and unsoldierly, particularly when faced with a Sunny Deol or even a lesser equivalent like, say Sunil Shetty or Akshay Kumar.
A clinical, professional assessment of the Pakistani Army, its mind, motivations, track record and ongoing thought-processes is, however, the most crucial need for those analysing, debating, and most importantly, guarding the national interest. The essential complication and challenge of dealing with Pakistan is resolving multiple dilemmas: Are Pakistan, the ideological state and its army the same entity, or different? Can you deal with the state (and people) while leaving aside the army, or vice versa? And if you have to deal with both, who do you deal with first, and is it possible to even do so?
My own greatest motivation, as I psyche myself into writing National Interest every Friday afternoon, is a complexity. We are professional writers and can easily do wordsmithy and spin 1,300 stirring words that nobody would have any problem with. But a complexity challenges your mind to search for answers open to arguments. In honesty, for example, I am not able to tick each one of the negative boxes out of the choice of adjectives for Pakistan’s army: bad, evil, eminently beatable, just an Islamic lashkar, and be done with it. That will be enormously fashionable today but not a view professional soldiers in our own army would have of their arch enemies. That’s why they have come out on top in the final analysis in every engagement since 1947.
When in doubt on what is best for your own skin, find an eminent foreigner to make your point. I will, therefore, borrow a line from Prof Stephen P Cohen, globally-respected scholar on India and Pakistan, and their armies. In his seminal book, ‘The Pakistan Army’ (1984, Himalayan Books), he described it as the finest army in the world but one which had never won a war. Zia-ul-Haq banned this book, but would lionize Cohen and call him for a meal any time he was in town. He really loved his book except how could Cohen say Pakistan’s army never won a war and what about 1965? Today it will also believe it won a second war, against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
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This is the real problem with the Pakistani army. It is delusional. It’s tough, efficient, audacious, but its brains sit in the nether, and wrong part of its autonomy instead of the head. It has not only institutionalised the thought that it won 1965, but it has now resumed that self-hypnosis by reviving the 6 September “Defence of Pakistan Day” celebrations and parades to mark that mythical victory. The problem in Pakistan is, at most points of time—and definitely at this one—nobody would dare question it. In India, I can get away with saying, based on the works of many fine soldiers who recorded the history of 1965, that it was a war of mutual incompetence that led to a stalemate within three weeks. But not in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s army has a lot going for it. It is a formidable fighting force and still the only sizeable Islamic army in the world capable of absorbing technology, following orders of its commanders like professionals, and take casualties in real combat. Its problem is, it sees its role as being much wider, greater, ideological, moral and even holier than that of any other professional military. That is where problems arise, for their country, and ours. Pakistan is going through a phase unprecedented in its politico-military history—when the GHQ has not seized power openly, but controls it fully. In a series of manoeuvres since the last elections installed a Nawaz Sharif with a full majority, it has destroyed not just the political, but even the moral authority of his government. People by and large, including a lot of the intelligentsia would have more faith in the army as an institution than the elected government “of lazy thieves”. The chief, General Raheel Sharif, who also hails from a family of Pakistan’s most illustrious war heroes, is now a cult figure and probably the most popular Pakistani general ever.
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At which point we can raise our trick question: does the Pakistani army deserve this kind of awe and respect? Has it done enough to deserve it? For the answers, consider what it promised.
If its central premise behind justifying its pre-eminent was winning Kashmir, it has failed after 70 years of fighting. In fact, today Pakistan has less of Kashmir than it had a 1948 ceasefire, having lost Siachen and territory in Kargil, Turtuk etc. If the proposition was that only it can protect Pakistan’s territorial and ideological frontiers, it vaporizes the moment you mention the word Bangladesh. Pakistan lost a large part of its territory, and a majority of its population, thus knocking its ideological basis of two-nation theory. An independent Bangladesh is now doing much better than Pakistan. If its claim to pre-eminence is that it defeated the Soviets, the fact is it is still fighting the Afghans, including their jihadi offspring within its own territories.
Over these decades, this vaunted army has lost Pakistan territory, ideology, financial and intellectual capital, ruined its institutions, democracy, the respect for its passport and, like it or not, reduced its status to a globally acknowledged university of jihad, Ivy League or not. This comes at the cost of much of the country’s budget. Time to repeat a telling point I have made often: when I first went to Pakistan in 1985, the country looked much richer and modern than ours. It had to, because its per capita income was then 65 per cent higher than India’s. That is about the time it chose (encouraged by Afghanistan), to start using cross-border terror as a weapon against India, hoping India will bleed, decline and die. On the contrary, India has risen, and Pakistan has hit new depths: a 65 per cent lead on per capita incomes is now nearly a 20 per cent deficit, widening at about 5-6 per cent per year, the net of India’s higher economic growth and Pakistan’s population’s. Pakistan’s army has, therefore, lost its captive nation the war, whatever its claims at the many battles it has fought (very well) with ours. It’s joy at orchestrating the deaths of a few Indians once in a while is no more than self-destructive. It’s the finest army in the world that’s destroying its own country first.
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