Will There Always Be a Pakistan?

Fissures within the military could tear not just the army but the entire country apart. It's coming sooner than you think.


As another 30,000 U.S. troops get set to deploy to war, most everyone in the White House and the Pentagon knows that the success of their mission won’t only be determined in Afghanistan. The most important battle is in fact next door in Pakistan, a country that, even more than Afghanistan, risks not just failure but utter collapse. The nuclear neighbor has become a haven for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, and its powerful military has been reluctant to take them on. Even when it has, its clumsy, heavy-handed tactics have displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. All the while, the elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari has only grown weaker.

But here’s the really bad news. Pakistan’s military — the lynchpin keeping the chaotic whole together — isn’t getting stronger. It’s threatening to fracture from within. And today’s fractures may well turn into tomorrow’s chaos.

Back in the mid-19th century, the British set out to create a secular, professional Indian army that would neutralize warring ethnic groups and tribes. Pakistan was part of India then, and its army remained secular after the partition in 1947. Officer clubs served liquor. Religion and ethnicity were not proper subjects of discussion. Muslim society was something that existed outside the military. Pakistan’s generals looked to standardized testing and merit-based promotion, drawing on modernity, not Islam, as a model for their professional army.

When Gen. Muhammed Zia ul-Haq overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, he had other ideas. Zia assumed the presidency in 1978 while still chief of staff of the Army — a position from which he encouraged greater religiosity in Pakistan’s armed forces as part of his broader Islamization of the state. Suddenly, military leaders were keeping tabs on which sects of Islam their soldiers belonged to. Members of radical Deoband and Wahhabi sects infused the military education system. Drinking at military clubs was forbidden, with a predictably chilling effect on camaraderie. Prayers once thought optional were strongly encouraged.

Some of this was merely a product of the times; Zia’s opposition to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, for instance, was largely predicated on the religious fervor of the Afghan resistance. But Zia’s Islamizing policies within the Army were more deliberate. Whether motivated by piety or political calculation, he reopened the fissures within the contemporary Pakistani military that British colonial policy had never wholly succeeded in papering over. Indeed, when Zia died in a 1988 plane crash, the Islamization of the military and its most powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), continued. By the time Pervez Musharraf tried to return the military to its more secular roots as Army chief of staff, the trend was already too strong to reverse.

In 1999, Musharraf removed from power Nawaz Sharif, who had been re-elected to a second term as prime minister. His coup reinforced Pakistan’s history as a military-run state, and 10 years later, the risk of a coup still looms. Meanwhile, the wave of officers who were recruited during Zia’s Islamizing years is moving into the leadership ranks. The youngest of them are now field-grade officers. Signs are emerging that this is far from a unified military, with widening splits between secular and religious officers as well as problems among different Islamic sects. With official encouragement, for example, some Sunni officers have decided to grow out their beards, while Shiite officers are markedly absent from Sunni-led prayers.

In Pakistan, all this means more than just a troubled fighting force. The Army is rightly seen as the country’s strongest institution — the glue that holds the state together. Though not officially in power, the military has a strong hold over the civilian government and retains de facto veto power over much that gets done. If infighting weakens or shatters the military’s cohesion, the implications for the future of the state itself are dire.

First, such events would be great news to Islamists looking to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nukes are even more likely to see action if a military officer seized power and invaded Indian-held Kashmir, the territory that both Islamabad and New Delhi claim as their own. Such aggression might lead to a nuclear exchange with India, the country’s long-time rival and fellow nuclear state. The fallout, both literal and political, would be felt deep into Central Asia; indeed much of the region would be destabilized. India’s economic progress would be set back significantly, perhaps by decades, and the nuclear threshold will have been crossed.

A less apocalyptic (though still very bad) outcome would be for Pakistan’s paranoia about India to reach fever pitch. Islamabad has long suspected that the rise of the Northern Alliance, the mostly Tajik and Uzbek coalition that helped eject the Taliban from Kabul, or another anti-Islamabad political group in Afghanistan could be a boost to New Delhi. (India is playing a nasty game of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ the Pakistani leadership reckons.) Pakistan is already backing a host of violent groups in Afghanistan, and further meddling could destabilize the surrounding Central Asian states.

Or, there is the prospect of ethnic, sectarian, and geographic implosion. Pakistan’s sense of nationhood is tenuous at best. In the military, Punjabis predominate in the enlisted ranks while Pashtuns and Mujahirs fill most officer posts. The few Sindhis and Baluchis who are national leaders (such as President Zardari, a Sindhi) are the exception rather than the rule. The North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the regions along the border with Afghanistan, resemble the worst drug-infested, gang-ridden parts of American cities — except that the Pakistani authorities have largely abandoned any pretense at control. It’s a nebulous group of ungoverned spaces held together by a center that itself is now fragmenting. When that gives way, it could launch the kind of tribal bloodletting and ethnic or religious strife that strategic forecasts and white papers around the world routinely posit.

Meanwhile, the Army itself is under attack. Punjab-based jihadi groups, often referred to as the Punjabi Taliban, recently claimed responsibility for attacking the Army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon. Jihadi groups operating out of Punjab have traditionally focused on Kashmir and sectarian issues, so their willingness to target the center of Pakistan’s political gravity — as well as its most important source of military leadership — is unsettling.

In their coldest light, these attacks show the intensification and turning-inward of the struggle for the very character of the Pakistani state. The divisions pulling Pakistan apart at the seams are the same ones reflected in the military — and neither set shows promising signs of resolution.

Pakistanis understand these dangers. When Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, was assassinated in Rawalpindi two years ago, rioters in Sindh chanted Pakistan na khappay, or "Pakistan no longer exists." Zardari, her husband, tried to quiet the crowd, telling them Pakistan khappay "Pakistan does exist." He was right. For the moment.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and former deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Navy.

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