The South Asia Channel

How the Pakistani Military Mindset Evolved

As the security establishment in Pakistan explored the new dimensions of technology and economics in the 21st century, they understood the loss they had incurred over the decades for being the late entrant. It wasn’t World War II anymore: War had shifted from the battleground to the cyberworld. Economic warfare, cyberterrorism, and psychological warfare became ...


As the security establishment in Pakistan explored the new dimensions of technology and economics in the 21st century, they understood the loss they had incurred over the decades for being the late entrant. It wasn’t World War II anymore: War had shifted from the battleground to the cyberworld. Economic warfare, cyberterrorism, and psychological warfare became the new realities that Pakistan’s security establishment wasn’t prepared for, despite its multibillion-dollar budget and research and development. The security establishment, perhaps entangled in their pursuit to run the government and play petty politics, drifted away from appreciating the changing nature of war in the 21st century. "It was a fourth generation of warfare, and we realized it a little too late," one of the serving generals in the Pakistan Army described to this author during a formal discussion.

The wars weren’t about the border or geographical location anymore. The conventional threat perception and indicators became obsolete. A new framework, a new mentality was needed, for which external experts and consultations were called in. It was the product of these consultations within the top echelon of the security establishment that brought about a drastic change in the policies and mindset of the security establishment on domestic politics, foreign alliances, threat perceptions, and tools of warfare.

Over the past two decades there were four noticeable changes that occurred in the military mindset, while one notion that continued to be ingrained in the system.

The first change in the military is this belief that democracy might be a necessary evil in Pakistan. "We look at the Indian military and how it is following our footsteps in exerting domestic power in India, and we wish them luck on taking this path of destruction," remarked a newly appointed major general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In the current military brass, acceptance of a democratic government and continuation of the electoral process is well understood and underscored.

The realization that it’s not the military’s job to intervene in running the government has come out of a decade of military rule that has not only ruined the country, but the structure of the military itself by demoralizing the soldiers, delaying promotions, and overcentralizing the command.

Interviews with numerous senior military officials, both serving and retired, on the subject make clear that none have sympathy for General Musharraf or for those who partook in the coup. But because of the structure of the military, one won’t find rebellion when the military topples over the government.

Part of the reason why the military has come to terms with democracy is because a military government is no longer acceptable among the international community. The trouble of running the government down to the district level is enormous, and the political parties that partner with the military are discredited in the public eye, eventually squaring the blame on the military.

Another reason for such a mindset to develop is that the military has become sympathetic to the civilian perspective. Gone are those days when the military lived in seclusion from the rest of the country in separate garrisons, their children attending separate schools, their families being treated in separate hospitals. Today, comingling has occurred: civilians have penetrated the Defense Housing Authority (DHA), and military men with better salaries send their children to private schools and hospitals. More importantly, the same media channels playing in every house have brought about an ideological uniformity of sorts. Every soldier now is also a civilian after work hours, something that has ushered in an understanding within the military of why the institution must stay out of the business of politics.

It would, however, be an exaggeration to state that the military is now completely convinced of the idea of democracy in its entirety. Until and unless three or four successive democratic government transitions take place, it’s hard to say with conviction that the military really believes in the system of democracy.

Second, a very important change in the military mindset and policy is the idea that there will be no more meddling in Afghanistan or India, putting an end to the idea of "strategic depth" as we know it.

Afghanistan, more than for the United States, has been a graveyard for Pakistan. Pakistani soldiers are exhausted with the war and tired of killing their own Pashtun brothers. The cost Pakistan bore of the first Afghan war, then later in helping the Taliban stabilize Afghanistan, and again in the post-9/11 decade of war in Afghanistan, nearly destroyed its economy and industry. Further, an entire generation of Pakistan has grown up with war; the psychological damage can’t be quantified.

Given Pakistan’s past and lessons learned, the author has a sense that the security establishment is convinced that Afghanistan needs a regional solution. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces later this year, Afghanistan will not be a matter of urgent attention in Washington circles; the country needs attention from powers that have regional clout: China and India. While China has always been a close ally of Pakistan, the security establishment of Pakistan had to change its attitude toward the growing involvement of India in Afghanistan. The idea is to let China and India handle the task of development of Afghanistan, while Pakistan will involve itself in the political affairs, something that will help Pakistan achieve its goal of a stable and friendly Afghanistan. As serious a security threat as it is to accept Indian involvement in Afghanistan, not having India in Afghanistan and letting the country go to rot is even a bigger threat. For that reason, Pakistan’s strategic depth policy is now redundant. It might still be relevant for propaganda purposes, but the mindset of the establishment has changed on the subject.

Third, there has been a rapid change in the mindset of the security establishment regarding the role of the media. In the early days of Gen. Musharraf’s dictatorship, the military understood the importance of having a robust media that would not only legitimize Musharraf’s government domestically, but also internationally. And for that, without any regulations or rules of business, media was commercialized. The same media channels a couple of years later became so powerful that the general had to shut down one of them (Geo TV), which eventually led to the fall of the general in the years to come.

With Gen. Musharraf’s case in front of the military establishment, it was quick to realize the shift in the balance of power and how the media could play an anti-status quo role. Suddenly, journalists who once used to travel on bikes became loaded with money and power — on equal terms with senior military officials. "We created two monsters that destroyed our own existence: one is the Taliban, and the second is media," a senior retired military official from the Musharraf era complained to me.

Fourth, the final noticeable shift in the security establishment’s paradigm is its stress on the economy as a way forward for enhanced stability and security. In almost all the meetings this author had with the security establishment, from top to bottom, the single largest concern is the economic meltdown of the country. And it has been rightly said by one of the brigadiers: "Without money, there will be no country to protect." This is a very powerful statement from someone who is actively involved in strategic policy-making for the military. At the end of the day, it all boils down to pure economics and numbers. The military has realized that the fourth generation of warfare is about economic prosperity and defeating the enemy through economic means — something that Pakistan has been a victim of in the past decades — the awareness of which is still not fully understood at all levels of the society. The newfound belief in democracy within the security establishment also stems from the same reason that the economy needs to be put on track for Pakistan to flex its muscles politically.

One thing, however, that has not changed and has actually gained traction within the military and security establishment’s mindset is its insecurity from international forces. Despite all the shifts in the military mindset, there is a very strong belief that has been reinforced by the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria: that Third World developing countries will always be a lab where superpowers can test their proxies and new weapons. To save Pakistan from falling into the same league, a strong military is a necessity — something that the military has also conveyed to the government in its attempt to increase the defense budget in the current annual budget, a potential cause of concern for any civilian government.

The changes in the mindset of the security establishment of Pakistan have been felt across all channels of political parties and power brokers, allowing them the space to position themselves in this new power structure where there is internal confrontation, but at the same time strong unity on mutual areas of interest. In that light, Pakistan has entered a new phase of civil-military relations where the boundaries have been marked and a workable relation is being tested.

Hussain Nadim is currently serving as the special assistant to Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Planning, Development & Reform. Previously, he was a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @HNadim87.

Hussain Nadim is the Project Director of Peace and Development Unit at Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms, Government of Pakistan where he initially served as Special Assistant to Federal Minister. Previously, he was a Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Adjunct Fellow at International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King's College London.