Review in The Economist

The Pakistani Army

Pointed Guns

A review in The Economist of 19th June 2008

FOR more than half the 60 years it has been independent, Pakistan has been ruled by its soldiers. The army has mostly stepped in when inept civilian governments were on the brink of collapse. In February, however, the reverse occurred. An elected government took over and a new army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, declared that his troops would take their orders from the country’s civilian leaders.

This shift was given a wary welcome abroad. America, long a benefactor of the Pakistani armed forces, remains perplexed about how to encourage the army to become an effective counter-insurgency force against the emboldened Islamic militants who shelter al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of the north.

Shuja Nawaz, the brother of a former chief of the Pakistani army who died in suspicious circumstances in 1993, drops some clues in this study on why the army developed into such an important national institution when it is so inept at dealing with this internal enemy, yet he draws no firm conclusions.

Mr Nawaz was the director of the International Monetary Fund’s publications division, still lives in Washington, DC, and writes a blog about Pakistan, India and America for the Huffington Post. He shows little animus about his brother’s death, is on good terms with senior Pakistani officers and has been allowed to use the military archives. He describes the army’s internal squabbles but avoids open criticism.

Mr Nawaz devotes considerable space to the air crash in which Pakistan’s most famous military leader, General Zia ul Haq was killed in 1988. General Zia’s insistence that Pakistan’s soldiers should adhere strictly to the tenets of Islam still persists. On the day of the crash, General Zia had been attending a demonstration of American-made M1A1 main battle tanks near Bahawalpur in the Punjabi desert. The performance was a shambles. “The most pathetic sight was of the tank trying to climb up a dirt ramp built at the site, getting stuck, and then sliding sideways off the ramp like a drunken sailor,” Mr Nawaz writes, implying that America was planning to deliver inferior equipment that was unsuited to the terrain.

General Zia’s plane nosedived as it was returning to the capital, Islamabad, and exploded on impact. Although he was flying aboard an American-made C-130 military aircraft with the American ambassador, Arnold Raphel, also on board, the American authorities refused to allow the FBI to investigate the crash. Mr Nawaz does not overtly accuse America of sabotaging the plane. But he points out that some 250 pages of American government documents remain sealed 20 years after the crash. General Zia’s violent death is also the subject of a recent novel by Mohammed Hanif, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”, though neither book reveals much that is new about the incident.

In the 1990s relations between Pakistan’s politicians and the army became increasingly mired in personal intrigue, petty politics and corruption. Concern about its traditional enemy India also grew. In a tit-for-tat race between the two, Pakistan began testing nuclear weapons in 1998, ignoring protests from America. After the attacks on the twin towers President Bush stepped up America’s military assistance to the Pakistani army in the hope that it would be encouraged to attack the Taliban’s rear base in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But President Pervez Musharraf, who until last November was also chief of the armed forces, preferred to focus on developing conventional warfare, training and equipment to use against India.

It was not until 2003 that Pakistani soldiers were at last deployed, at America’s insistence, against the militants. The Pakistani army, most of which is drawn from flat, agricultural Punjab, lacks the skills to fight in the mountainous tribal areas. Having sustained heavy losses, it retreated to barracks, its morale battered. America, still sending cheques, has been left wringing its hands about what to do next. Unable to adapt, Pakistan’s most powerful institution may not be so strong after all.