The Changing Age of War

The end of the Cold War is remembered as one of the watershed moments in human history. Students of military strategy and history will remember it as a harbinger of a shift in modern warfare. The change in technology, increase in lethality, proliferation of weapons and addition in the nature of stakeholders have altered the entire scenario. Gone are the days of conventional wars where two armies fought against each other, a very different level of respect was shown towards the civilian population and the rules of the game were different as far as the enemy was concerned. Now heads are chopped brutally and there is far greater violence carried out against the enemy civilian. The enemy need not be a geographical adversary but part of your own population as well. Terrified of the new enemy in the shape of non-state actors, the soldier now kills with greater passion and tries to punish more than what the enemy might have deserved. But then your allies, too, can both be states or non-state actors.

Such a shift seems to have altered the perception of both victory and defeat. And thus in Pakistan, the Boys in uniform and their experts might not agree with Myra MacDonald’s analysis in her new book, published by Hurst Publishers, on the more recent decades of war between India and Pakistan – which she believes is lost by the latter. She draws out on several key moments in modern history – the hijacking of IA-184, the Kargil operation, the attack on the Indian Parliament in Delhi, the Mumbai attack and the ongoing nuclear stalemate – to build a case for “How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War.”

There are armies that guard their nation’s borders, there are those that are concerned with protecting their own position in society, and there are those that defend a cause or an idea. The Pakistan Army does all three

Lest the ISPR or other units of the armed forces engaged in upkeep of the organisation’s image reject it outright as a propaganda work, MacDonald’s book is certainly not that. I remember Maj. General (retd) Shaukat Sultan – as the then serving DG ISPR – telling me how they review things and anything critical of the military is then immediately discarded. Surely the rules of the game have changed drastically. Now such literature is read to prepare a list of people whose direction would have to be sorted out in several ways available to the military.

However, referring to the book Defeat is an Orphan many in Pakistan will find it interesting for the heart-wrenching description of the treatment of Kashmiris in the valley by India’s security apparatus. In fact, the author shows how a person like Afzal Guru – who loved his wife and music and was going to train to become a doctor – was pushed into the arms of militancy by the treatment of the Indian state. She talks about shortcomings in Guru’s legal case, yet does not shy away from documenting details of his links with the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM).

The book does not stand in judgment on who is right or wrong between the two large states of South Asia but draws attention towards the fact as to how Pakistan and its society has accumulated and borne a high cost for its historical obsession – that of defeating India and proving that both nations are equal. The problem has always been that of equating parity with equality. It’s not about spending approximately 30 percent of central government expenditure on defense – a large part of which is hidden by booking it under different heads or using embedded analysts to prove that military expenditure is not high – but about bleeding the society by nurturing militants and militancy. Notwithstanding MacDonald’s sympathy with the Pakistani people for having lost thousands of lives in the past decade or more, she would like the GHQ, Rawalpindi, to evaluate its strategy. A popular argument in Pakistan is that breeding militancy is just a reactive policy, to which one would like to point out that there is perhaps no country other than Pakistan which bears the brunt of its own strategy before it is even applied on the adversary. So, according to the author: “Pakistan’s inherent political weakness…[and] its behavior after them [1998 tests] made its standing significantly worse. Economically, diplomatically and politically, it fell too far behind India ever to have any hope of catching up.”

Had MacDonald focused on Stephen P. Cohen’s argument about Pakistan’s military, she might have looked at her case differently: “There are armies that guard their nation’s borders, there are those that are concerned with protecting their own position in society, and there are those that defend a cause or an idea. The Pakistan Army does all three”.

One of the primary issues for Islamabad’s friction with some of its key regional neighbors – India, Afghanistan, Iran – or the historical civil-military conflict is rooted in the military’s self-perception as the guardian of the state, that includes both its geographical frontiers and nationalism. The book talks in detail about a well-guarded ‘open’ secret in Pakistan that even the army men were made to believe in an operation as being a tremendous feat of strategy, when the fact is that it cost Pakistan a lot of men because lines of communication were cut due to India’s use of firepower. The naivety of the generals who planned the mission was obvious – in thinking that Delhi would not push back to that extent and engage the world in building a narrative unsympathetic to Pakistan.

That a former COAS is invited to the World Economic Forum, Davos, indicates Narendra Modi’s efforts to isolate Pakistan have not worked

Moreover, this was a war in which, as Hein G. Kiessling cites Lt. General (retd) Shahid Aziz in his book Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan, that even the primary intelligence agency of the country was not briefed about the operation. But Musharraf went around the cantonments telling his men that the fault was Nawaz Sharif’s to have agreed to withdraw under American pressure!

It is worthwhile looking into the army psyche that has made it believe that the Kargil war was a tactical wonder that could have been saved. It is such thinking and belief that certainly deserves a book-length work – to explore the mind of Pakistan’s military, its institutional memory, who keeps it and guards it, and how it has programmed the behaviour of general after general. This is a defense establishment that cannot be described either as theocratic or secular – it has engaged with both the extreme religious elements and liberals to provide a fillip to its policy perspective at a given time. Even the most lifestyle-liberal generals have engaged with religious zealots and militants to draw tactical dividends. I am reminded of Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani’s interview with Aljazeera English in 2015 in which he subtly owned up to the ISI hiding Osama bin Laden and accosted the audience present there in the Oxford Student Union hall for not appreciating the Taliban.

Therefore, the claim regarding Kargil being a victory may be seen as an extension of the military’s evaluation of war and peace, victory and defeat. The fact that India could not manage to get Pakistan declared as a terrorist state, or that Delhi could not administer a decisive blow during the past wars despite its quantitative advantage is seen as victory. The reality that a former army general, who brought the verbal hawkishness towards India back to center stage, is invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos is an indicator that Narendra Modi’s efforts to isolate Pakistan have not worked. It is the same sense as you would have wagging your tongue at your playmate after depriving him of sweets or things he may cherish. In the evaluation of Pakistani generals, the fact that they could reorganise the militancy machine in time to join the China-Russia partnership against the India-US alignment means that the game continues to be played.

The war in South Asia is war from over. One could even argue that Pakistan’s generals have been lucky for the main adversary India having gotten into the age of a divisive leadership, which makes Rawalpindi’s job fairly easy. However, it is the centrality of India in the GHQ’s strategic thinking, compounded by a desire to extend its power – just like New Delhi, but as an Islamic state – that keeps the defense establishment engaged with religious militants. Not to forget that it is a long relationship that the military, especially its intelligence agency the ISI, has kept for years. At least, this is one of the facts that we learn from Hein G. Kiessling’s recently published book Faith, Unity, Discipline The ISI of Pakistan. Having spent almost a decade in Pakistan as head of a German foundation, the author had the benefit of contacts and friendship with numerous generals and other senior military and civil bureaucrats to have written this book, which cannot at all be considered a study that condemns the ISI as ‘evil’. In fact, the ordinary Pakistanis must read the book to understand at least some aspect of an organisation that tends to give many sleepless nights.

True to the military’s tradition of only briefing western foreigners about its organisation, the book brings with it clarity regarding many issues, certainly the fact that breeding militancy is an old game that was started by the organisation in the early 1960s. At that time the task was to support local militant groups in India’s North-East and then in the 1970s to help insurgency in Indian Punjab. Approximately 5,000 militants were trained during the 1970s by the agency during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rule, who had instructed the spy organisation to become more proactive in South Asia, for deployment in Afghanistan. The American war in Afghanistan – in which the spy agency was totally responsible for training, interacting and networking with Afghan mujahideen – developed its strength extensively and to a point where it began to operate independently.

Even when asked by the CIA to extract itself from the Afghan war and instructed by Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo to delink itself from anything on the other side of Amu Darya, the ISI chief Lt. General Hameed Gul continued his activities. The operation in Jalalabad and the raising of Taliban was a capacity that had been initially built by Lt. General Akhtar Abdul Rehman, who, like the former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, believed that Afghanistan would turn into the Soviet Union’s graveyard. It was this confidence that at some point even made General Zia sufficiently uncomfortable with Akhtar Abdul Rehman to have replaced him with Hameed Gul.

Indeed the Afghan war will be remembered for giving a boost to the ISI, an organisation that had faltered for a long time and competed with other organisations like the Military Intelligence or the civilian Intelligence Bureau. The ISI is older than its counterpart RA&W and was established in 1948. An Australian officer Maj. General Joseph Cawthorne designed the organisation on the pattern of Iran’s SAVAK, with which it cooperated during the 1970s to attain the joint objective of fighting the Baluch resistance. Cawthorne’s exit and the indigenisation of the officer cadre changed direction of the organisation as both General Ayub Khan and Iskandar Mirza, who were friends, used the agency to spy on the Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon. In fact, the author contradicts General (retd) Aslam Beg’s testimony in the Supreme Court regarding Bhutto beginning the political role in the agency. His claim is that it was started by General Ayub Khan but later consolidated by Bhutto. In fact, the discussion of every individual ISI chief provides an immediate comparison of different times. This includes an examination of of Benazir Bhutto’s DG ISI Shamsur Rahman Kallu and Nawaz Sharif’s ISI chief Khwaja Zia-ud-din who were left in the cold by their own organisation due to their affiliation with their respective prime ministers.

As organisations, the ISI and the army have indeed grown to become more secretive and powerful. The suggestion by General Yahya Khan to place an ISI office in every district was shot down then but seems to have been gradually picked up and implemented. It remains a highly elusive organization that constantly keeps an eye on its own men, the civil society, the political class and external enemies. One tends to get a flavour of its idea of war and victory through the thinking of many of those embedded with it. But a lot is left to the imagination.

There is a gap that is partly filled with the two new books – Kiessling’s and Owen L. Sirrs’s Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Sirr’s book, published by Routledge a little before the Hurst publication on the ISI, presents a view from a foreign (American) perspective. Sirrs, in fact, has used primary and secondary material from the US to examine the spy organisation. Both the authors have viewed the ISI from the lens of its capacity to fight external battles. The fronts that are opened inside the country or how it operates outside in other states hiring experts, academicians, and authors; financing programs in foreign think tanks and universities; flying experts to visit Pakistan or getting some to write books; penetrating Pakistani diaspora in other countries or morphing the national discourse and becoming a societal actor in the process are some of the many areas that remain dark.

It would certainly be a miracle to find out where this organisation is leading Pakistan and whether it is on an autopilot as far as the vision of the nation is concerned. But these are questions that may not get answered even in a future book.

Note: This article originally published here.