The Unravelling of Pakistan


On 28 April 2009, the Pakistani army launched a military campaign in the Buner district, approximately 120 km north-west from the capital Islamabad, in an effort to regain control of the area from the Taliban. At the face of it this does not seem to be anything particularly important in a nation that has been in the throes of extremist violence in its border regions for a number of years. However, the reality is starkly different and fraught with implications for the future stability of not only Pakistan but also the entire South Asian region. In this particular instance, it is reported that there are between 400 and 500 militants in the Buner region, and the army should not find it difficult to dislodge them if they put their minds to it.

The implications of both the Taliban being there in the first place and the army action—whether successful or not—are far reaching and have grave consequences. This initiative by the army brings into focus the future of the peace deal that the Pakistani Government had signed with the militant Taliban in the Swat region; it is more than likely to unravel the peace deal very rapidly (The peace deal has been described in detail in my earlier blog “Pakistan: On a One-way Street to Failure”, dated 06 March 2009). Even a casual observer of the events taking place in Pakistan will be forced to ask the question, “Is there a way out for Pakistan from this morass of its own making or is it doomed to become a failed state?”

The Problem

The Taliban-Government (peace) deal in Swat, whereby the Sharia Law was to become the law of the land for the Malakand region, was brokered by Maulana Sufi Muhammad. At the outset, this was a deal accepted by a Government whose military forces had suffered very grave reverses in the fight against the militants in the region. Any deal made from a position of inferiority, for which read defeat, will always give impetus for the dominant party to try and make further inroads into the defeated party’s terrain—both physical and virtual. This has been the case in Swat and the Taliban incursion into Buner is the result. After having overrun Buner, the Taliban is reported to have forced local young men to join insurgent military training camps in Swat and other militant controlled areas to increase the future strength of their fighting force.

The deal in Swat displaced around 200,000 people who have fled the area in fear and are reluctant to return, especially after the video showing the Taliban flogging of a 17-year old woman (girl?) was aired. The peace deal and the fear that their rule has generated has emboldened the Taliban to try to expand their writ into more areas of the nation. The Taliban movement is not meeting with any resistance from the larger civilian population because of their tactics of ruthless intimidation—amounting even to the murder of non-cooperative or resistance-oriented citizens—and the fact that even if there was resistance, it would not garner any tangible support from a paralysed government. The Taliban has become an existential threat to the sovereignty of Pakistan.

Even before the army offensive in Buner, there were clear signs of the Swat deal starting to fail. The Maulana himself had defied the government and declared that the Parliament and High Courts of the land were un-Islamic institutions and should be made redundant—a clear message that the ultimate aim of the Taliban-led group was to establish Pakistan as a Taliban state. Further he also declared that rulings of the Sharia court in Swat could not be contested in the Supreme Court of the nation; yet another message that as far as the Taliban was concerned, the Swat was now a separate entity, a distinctly different state.

As if to further reinforce the division that has taken place in Pakistan, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently wondered why it was so difficult for the Pakistani army to ‘retake part of the nation’ in the wake of the Taliban take over of Buner. ‘Retaking’ part of a nation by the state armed forces is only done when a state of civil war exists in the country and it cannot be that Senator Clinton used the term lightly. It is felt that Pakistan is already at the threshold of a civil war. The question raised by the Secretary of State also points to the primary issue that faces Pakistan—the ability, and more so, the inherent will of the army to ‘protect and preserve the unity and sovereignty of the nation’. The military is the only stable institution in Pakistan and its centrality in ensuring the security of the nation from internal disorders cannot be over emphasised.

The world at large is deeply concerned with the events in Pakistan especially because Pakistan possesses at least 100 nuclear warheads that could fall into the hands of the militants if the state fails. This concern is perceivably real, a fact accepted by the leadership of Pakistan that forced them explain the security measures in place to safeguard the nuclear arsenal to selected western nations. While this may have calmed the international concern to a certain extent, it also indicated the precarious state of the nation. Till this particular instance Pakistan has zealously guarded the secrecy of their nuclear arsenal, not allowing even friendly nations to comment on them. This departure from that norm must be seen as yet another sign of the weakened position of the state leadership—both civilian and military. The situation in Pakistan is far worse than what is being accepted by the nation.

Contradictions within the Army

The peace deal in Swat demonstrated the weakness of the military forces, not so much in terms of capabilities but in its ability to overcome the internal contradictions that have seeped into its ethos over a period of time. These contradictions within the army are gradually manifesting in the broader government infrastructure and pushing towards the failure of the state. The militant groups that pose the greatest threat to Pakistan have been nurtured by the army for years as tools to be used against Afghanistan and India. There is an undeniable link between the Inter-Services Agency (ISI) and the militant groups and the rank and file of the organisation still have some sort of paternal protectionist feeling towards them, bringing into question their resolve to fight the terrorists. The ISI has created a Frankenstein that is running amuck in its own backyard.

The events of the previous few weeks have been significant in making the civil society in Pakistan understand the extreme threat that the Taliban and associated terrorist and militant groups pose to their nation. There is also a certain amount of informed debate regarding the role of the army and a belief that the army is not correctly equipped for the threat it faces. There are a number of factors that contribute to the reduced cohesion within the army that seems to be principally responsible for the extreme caution with which it has so far moved to counter the Taliban incursion into the heart of the nation.

First, there is a dichotomy in the perceptions between the higher echelon commanders and the tactical leadership within the army regarding the actions of the militants. The lower ranks still harbour a sense of loyalty to the militant groups—after all just a few years back they were friends—and therefore, do not have the resolve to take the necessary actions to destroy them completely. There is still a lingering belief that the militants will not harm the nation and will focus their activities on India and Afghanistan. The Pakistan army, at least at the grass roots level, is almost fully Islamised and married to Islamic militancy. This link is difficult to severe, especially since the army is predominantly recruited from the rural areas where religion plays an important part in the social fabric.

There is a further fall out from this situation. The lower ranks have started to believe that the fight against the militants is a civil war and therefore are reluctant to fight their own countrymen. They see the fight against the Taliban as the ‘Americans’ fight’ and do not want to be seen as aiding the western powers. The anti-US feeling within Pakistan, carefully nurtured and fanned constantly by religious zealots, also percolates into the Islamised army cadre. This is further exacerbated by the strikes carried out by western Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) inside Pakistan, which are seen as blatant violations of its sovereignty. The problem of loyalty of the lower ranks is a critical dividing factor within the army.

Second, and perhaps connected to the first in an indirect manner, is that the entire nation sees the Pakistani army as being used as cannon fodder in the international fight against the Taliban. This pervasive feeling combined with virulent anti-US propaganda blinds the majority of the nation to the very real threat of the Taliban to their own nation. Turning a blind eye to the fundamentalist threat has its roots in history. The nation was conceived as an Islamic state and in its nascent years looked towards the fundamentalist brand of Islam being then propagated in the Arab nations of the Middle East for sustenance. The nation, and the people, consciously and unquestioningly adopted the Arab version of Islam, completely subsuming what was at the time of its independence a thriving cultural and secular heritage. With time, the religious fervour has only become more fundamentalist and radical because of the politico-economic mismanagement of the nation and the belief that becoming part of the larger ‘Islamic Umma’ or nation of Islam, was the panacea to all the problems of the nation.

It is this belief, which has become common place in a society that does not provide a reasonable chance to the youth of the nation to pursue a worthwhile non-religious, professional career without having to go abroad to a western nation, that has bred an anti-US stance prevalent at the base level of the nation. This is ironic considering that Pakistan has been one of the greatest economic beneficiaries of US largesse, first as a ‘frontier’ state against the spread of Communism and subsequently as a vital partner in the so-called ‘war against terror’. Civilian governments—in the few instances when they have been in power—have always tried to create an image of being independent of US influence in their policy-making and governance in an effort to ensure popular support. This has further tarnished the image of the US within the nation as an interfering and bullying ally. The situation now is that even though the militants have started to impose their draconian view of religion on the general public, there is scantly any opposition being voiced by the civilian population or the government, partly for fear of being branded as US supporters.

Third, the military is hamstrung by having to act completely alone with no support from any other government agency. It has been recognised the world over that combating terrorism, insurgency or violent religious fundamentalism requires a whole-of-government approach and that both the physical and cognitive domains need to be targeted to achieve lasting solutions. In Pakistan however, even after the military forces have cleared a certain area of insurgents and militants, other elements of the government that ideally should move into take control and administer the area do not enter the fray. Therefore, it remains a purely military action and the militants are able to reassert their control over the area immediately after the troops have been withdrawn. On reoccupying the area the militants have been known to be ruthless in dealing with people who they consider as having cooperated with the army, thereby stemming any further support to the government actions. The militants also have fairly well formulated propaganda strategies that make sure that their actions are seen as righteous as opposed to the government agencies being stamped as US stooges.

Fourth, and as important as the question of loyalty within the ranks, the strategic command of the army still considers India as the primary threat to the nation and has positioned the largest concentration military assets on the eastern border with India. This perception is again rooted in history; the army has fought four wars and has had innumerable skirmishes with the Indian armed forces, it still provides clandestine support for the insurgency in Indian administered Kashmir and views India’s diplomatic activities in the Middle East and assistance in Afghanistan as being solely aimed at isolating Pakistan. More importantly, the psyche of the Pakistani military establishment is still scarred from the 1971 Bangladesh War wherein the eastern part of the nation became an independent sovereign nation as a result of Indian military action. This dismemberment of the nation still rankles the military and it seeks to ‘avenge’ the humiliation and defeat; although the nation collectively and the armed forces in particular does not accept, even today, that they were in any way ‘defeated’ in 1971.

In this somewhat lopsided thinking process the army high command, ensconced in their plush Head Quarters in Rawalpindi close to the capital, refuses to even consider the threat from within as of any consequence to the security of the nation. It seems that the high command does not understand the seriousness of the militancy and the threat of the Taliban to the very existence of the nation as a viable entity. Unless the army realises the deterioration that has taken place in the stability of the nation and starts to deploy their elite troops—now on stand-by for a near-impossible-to-happen war with India—to control, then destroy and expel the Taliban militancy from within the country, they may not have a sovereign country to defend against India.


There is a feeling within Pakistan that because of the deteriorating situation an army take over is inevitable. However, an unbiased analysis clearly indicates that yet another military dictatorship is not the answer to solve what is an extremely vexed problem. This is more so because the army has been almost completely Islamised and will not be effective against Islamic militancy, which it supported just a few years back. Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that the army is the only government organisation that has the capability—however fragile at the moment—to hold the nation together and start the fight back to eliminate the fundamentalist militancy that is spreading across the nation.

The only silver lining in this scenario is the demonstrated nationalism of the military forces and their acknowledged warfighting capabilities. The rank and file of the army, so far disinclined to interfere with the Taliban, is gradually becoming wary of the Afghan elements of the Taliban that does not ‘respect’ the military and the individual soldier. At the moment it is critical for the high command of the army to support the anti-Afghan-Taliban feeling within the army and stoke the nationalist underpinnings that are at present dormant within the forces to bring back its cohesiveness. This should be followed by a concerted attempt to de-Islamise the army and revert it to a national institution of merit, which will unfortunately be a rather long drawn effort, but one that cannot be put off any longer.

Commendably for an army that is used to taking over the nation at will, the Pakistani army has so far let the democratic process run its course. After all, civilian supremacy has to be accepted by the military forces of all democracies; actual or self-professed. The question in Pakistan now is for how long should or will the army stand aside and at what cost? Political expediency, inaction and inexperience in dealing with the militancy—home grown for use in other nations—that now threatens the existence of the nation has brought Pakistan to the edge of chaos.

Whether the army takes over not, a bloody civil war awaits Pakistan. One can only hope, for the sake of the region, that the state emerges victorious. That victory is now hanging on a thread!

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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