Best Defense

Why the Pakistani army is bolstering opposition to its most important alliance?

By Steve Inskeep Best Defense guest columnist A few years ago, two friends took me out for a boat ride in the waters off Karachi.  We worked our way around a coastal peninsula, all of which was controlled by a single real estate developer. That developer was the Pakistani army. A row of McMansions lined ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

By Steve Inskeep

Best Defense guest columnist

A few years ago, two friends took me out for a boat ride in the waters off Karachi.  We worked our way around a coastal peninsula, all of which was controlled by a single real estate developer. That developer was the Pakistani army.

A row of McMansions lined the water. Several upscale apartment towers clustered together, near a club that advertised "six-star" facilities, and a golf course equipped with stadium lights so that players could avoid the heat of the day and play in the evening in the ocean breeze. And most of the land was still awaiting development.

This stretch of prime real estate, roughly the size of midtown Manhattan, was just one of many sections of property throughout the city to be developed by the local Defence Housing Authority. It’s so closely linked with the army that the commander of V Corps, which is headquartered in Karachi, is also the president of the housing authority. This would be the rough equivalent of, say, placing the current commander of the U.S. Army troops at Fort Hood, Texas in charge of downtown development in Houston.

That peninsula illustrates the way that Pakistan’s army has taken many of the country’s prime economic opportunities for itself. Military involvement in economic activity started in understandable ways — for example, soldiers had a chance to obtain plots of land upon retirement, following a practice with precedents back to ancient Roman times — but has grown until the military operates factories and construction companies as well as developing real estate in partnership with multinational corporations. When the army, in the face of protests, allowed free elections and surrendered control of the president’s office in 2008, it held onto its economic power, just as it maintained its grip on foreign policy.

The military has, in other words, kept many privileges that it would be unlikely to have in a fully democratic state. And when I try to understand the disturbing news from Pakistan in recent months, the army’s privileges come to mind.

The army, one of the world’s largest with well over half a million troops, maintains its pre-eminence less through violence than through public opinion. It remains the nation’s most trusted institution, and also influences a great deal of the media coverage that Pakistanis consume. But this past spring, after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the army’s prestige was tarnished. The army faced rare public criticism — if not for somehow allowing bin Laden to hide near a military academy, then at least for allowing U.S. Navy Seals to fly in and out undetected. Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was the army’s darling long ago, repeatedly criticized the army and demanded inquiries.  Some of the pressure even came from within the army itself: Najam Sethi, a distinguished Pakistani journalist, spoke of unrest among junior army officers.

This is the backdrop for Pakistan’s harsh responses to one incident after another in recent months. When U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen criticized Pakistan’s links with militant groups, Pakistani generals responded as if war was imminent. A bizarre incident involving an unsigned memo to U.S. officials was blown up into a national scandal. And when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani troops while apparently trying to target the Taliban, Pakistan rejected all explanations, refused to join an investigation, and cut off NATO supply routes. Even analysts who are sympathetic with the army have been baffled by its escalation of tensions.

Pakistan, of course, has many valid reasons to complain about the United States. People were deeply suspicious when Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was accused of killing two Pakistanis in Lahore early this year. The bin Laden raid was a shock and a humiliation. And the tragic killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers demands investigation. It’s important to know what happened in that cross-border strike in November. But the Pakistani response to that strike fanned the flames. When a Pakistani general publicly said it was "impossible" for the raid to have been a mistake, he engaged in hyperbole. When I have met Pakistani officers, especially at senior levels, I have found them to be smart, tough, and experienced, having lost thousands of troops in recent years. They surely understand the fog of war.

Why respond so harshly? There may be many reasons, not least of which is the competition between the U.S. and Pakistan to shape the future in Afghanistan. But it’s hard to miss the domestic political effects for Pakistan. All of this fall’s emotional incidents have worked to the army’s advantage, marginalizing the army’s critics and creating awkward situations that the U.S.-allied civilian government must help to clean up. (President Asif Ali Zardari is now in a Dubai hospital, but whenever he may return to Pakistan he will he will have to answer questions about the mysterious memo affair). It’s a time-honored process, of course, for a country’s rulers to unify the populace by focusing attention on an external enemy. The only novelty here is that Pakistan’s chosen enemy is also Pakistan’s principal ally.

In domestic politics, at least, the army has little to lose by playing to anti-American sentiment, which has been present in the country for many years. The flip side is also true: the army could lose a great deal if the generals are tagged before their people as lackeys of America.

Of course, both countries still seem to need each other. So this is a delicate game, and maybe a dangerous one. The army is bolstering public opposition to its own most important alliance.

Steve Inskeep is host of NPR’s Morning Edition and author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, the story of the growth and struggles of one of the world’s largest cities.

 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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