Canberra, 26 August 2014

There is a sense of deja-vu in the on-going protest in Pakistan led by the erstwhile cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and supported by a rabble-rousing cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. The protesters have besieged Islamabad and their fundamental demand is the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Imran Khan’s demand that a democratically elected Prime Minister resign because of corruption and ineptness at governance smacks of a certain naivety. That is not how democracy works, or perhaps Khan is unaware of the workings of a democracy since his country has only recently entered into the realm of elections and parliamentary rule. The fact that in a democracy people will have to vote the incumbents out of power if they are not satisfied with the way the country is being governed seems to have been lost on the populist leader. His actions so far have not done anything to reaffirm the nation’s fledgling steps towards democracy and perhaps it is time for the protesters to accept a mediated peace and go home.

Even if the Imran Khan rebellion turns out to be a storm in a tea cup, which it will most probably be, Pakistan is once again in the doldrums. The deteriorating situation in Pakistan is perhaps not particularly noticeable because of the even more turbulent and inordinately violent events taking place in the heart of the Muslim world in the Middle East. It is perhaps an understatement to say that the entire Muslim world is in a turmoil and Pakistan is not an exception. In fact extremism has struck very deep roots in Pakistan and the by now infamous Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) must be given the full, if dubious, credit for this achievement.

ISI and Terrorist Organisations

The Taliban movement is more than two decades old in Pakistan. Its growth was directly facilitated by the ISI. The seed for the rise of the ISI was sown when Afghan families started to flee the war between the military forces of the Soviet Union and the mujahidin groups and found settlement in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The mujahidin were being supported financially and supplied materiel by Saudi Arabia and the United States through conduits established by Pakistan. Pakistan was at that time under the rule of its third military dictator, Zia ul Haq, who insisted that all assistance to the mujahidin always flow through the ISI. This gave the ISI enormous power and influence as well as a great deal of unaccounted funds, a combination of which it used to become an all-encompassing entity wedded only to its own agenda. While the anti-Soviet struggle was going on, the displaced Afghans set up dozens of seminaries in their makeshift border camps and religious seminaries within them. These eventually became the primary source for the recruitment of the lower level foot soldiers in the groups that started to perpetuate fundamentalism through indiscriminate terrorist activities.

The Soviets left Afghanistan in ignominy, but the groups that had fought them could not find common ground to govern the country, thereby creating a power vacuum. The ISI, by now an established master at clandestine manipulation, assisted a new fundamentalist group—the Taliban—to overpower the mujahidin groups and establish a primitive religious state called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The ISI considered this a signal success and turned its attention and considerable expertise in orchestrating terrorism to Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan. They used similar tactics to the one used in Afghanistan and supported the Lashkar-e-Taiba, (LeT) a Punjab based extremist group to infiltrate and create an insurgency in the Indian state of Kashmir. By this time the ISI had become a maverick group within the military forces and also started to become Islamised in a fundamental manner. The ISI is now riddled with sympathisers of extremist groups and the regular army itself does not seem to have full control over its activities.  

In the meantime ISI’s two creations—the Taliban and the LeT—started to strike out on their own without heeding their masters’ commands. The Taliban, with a sort of headquarters in the ungoverned tribal belt near the Afghan border now turned against Pakistan itself, becoming aligned with the philosophy of al Qaeda. Their objective is to make Pakistan the nucleus of a new Islamic Caliphate and take control of its nuclear weapons. The LeT started to shift its attention to creating a terrorist organisation that could target India as a whole rather than being confined to Kashmir. One of the outcomes of this ambitious shift in their agenda was the attack on Mumbai that seriously ruptured Indo-Pak relations. The ISI had created not one, but two Frankensteins!

The Army

It is no secret that the Pakistan military establishment, led by the omnipotent Army has no love lost for the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and by default the government that he leads. On his part Nawaz Sharif has not been able to forget the unceremonious manner in which he was removed from office and into exile the last time when he was the democratically elected Prime Minister of the country. It is therefore not surprising that in his second tenure as the Prime Minister he has studiously gone against all military decisions and also proceeded with the trial of the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. The fact that the initial gusto of taking these actions have been greatly dampened in the past few months only demonstrates the power of the Army in Pakistan’s internal politics. It is a fact that ever since independence in 1947, Pakistan has been directly or indirectly ruled by the Army. When a General has not declared himself the President and crushed any semblance of democratic rule, the civilian government has been stymied repeatedly by the Army from ensuring that democratic traditions take root. The Army has always called the shots in Pakistan as far as the foreign and security policies are concerned.

If Pakistan as a nation is not stable, at the moment its omnipotent Army is also not faring too well. The Army’s counter-insurgency operations in the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), undertaken overruling the protests of the Prime Minister, are not going well and there are reports of attacks on Army establishments aided by sympathetic soldiers from the inside. The morale of the Army is low and the civilian leadership seems bent on questioning the Army’s authority even if they give way to the Army’s wishes in the end. For an Army used to ruling the country even when not in power, this can only leave an irksome after taste.

To understand the real state of affairs in Pakistan it is necessary to be cognisant of the fact that the Army dictates some key policy areas—national security threats and the nation’s response, which in effect means that the national security policy is formulated by the Army; foreign policy,  specifically relations with India must be endorsed by the Army; the nuclear weapons program and related research is fully under Army control, as is nuclear doctrine and strategy, force structure, and command and control of nuclear forces. In addition the Army Chief controls the ISI, at least nominally, and also decides annual defence expenditure. Perhaps most important is the fact that all senior officer appointments are done by the Army Chief and not referred to the Government other than for the customary ‘rubber-stamping’.

No less a person than the previous Prime Minster Yousaf Raza Gilani had called the Pakistan Army a ‘state within a state’. This is in no way an exaggeration. The Army through its surrogate the ISI has been involved in a game of deception for long years. On the one-hand they claim to be a major non-NATO ally of the US in the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, while at the same time they were instrumental in hiding Osama-bin-Laden within the cantonment in Abbottabad for more than five years. While knowledge of his whereabouts were always denied by the Army and the ISI, there is no debating the conclusive proof of their complicity. Whether or not he US, the major benefactor of the Pakistan Army, heeds this warning or they continue to heap benefits on it in return for pittances in terms of assistance in Afghanistan is a moot question. Since the Army has played a double game for so long, one has to say that duplicity has become a natural state of affairs for the Pakistan Army.


The Pakistan Army has to work towards creating a better nation, even though till now it has not displayed any inclination to consider the greater good of the nation as opposed to pushing its own rather skewed agenda. It has to end the biased support for divisive forces operating within the country and assist the civilian leadership in providing a safe environment, devoid of fundamentalist interference, for the development of the nation. Currently Pakistan is once again at the brink of collapse, buffeted by forces from outside while the nation is internally divided on sectarian and religious grounds. The common man in the street does not find the streets of Pakistan safe anymore. Only the Army, a bipartisan one at that, can provide the stability necessary to bring the country back to a minimum level of normalcy. To achieve this it has to accept civilian control, however much it may go against the inborn grain within the Army. Pakistan is currently at a turning point in its history; it is facing a challenge that only the Army can convert into an opportunity of a lifetime, although the window of time to do so is fairly narrow. Whether or not the Army leadership has the courage of conviction to grasp this generational opportunity, to think and act in support of the national good, will determine the future of Pakistan as an entity.           

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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. 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)


  1. Sanu,
    Like you indicated the PA is actually behind the scenes in the Pak turmoil..many think that the ISI is a ” surrogate ” of the PA..but having seen them at close quarters , let me assure you they are one and the same! Regular Army officers are on ERE to the ISI and all military attaches get seconded to it..whilst I was there , the Corps of Service Attaches came under the ISI , protocol wise and we had to take their clearance for all movements within the country.the final outcome of the current imbroglio would be what the Army wants..don’t miss the Army’s displeasure at Nawazs visit to India , not meeting the Hurriyet and the ongoing heavy shelling across the LOC/ IB..India / Afghan/nuke policies are dictated by the PA and no one else in Pak!

  2. Very informative blog, Sanuda.just a question – what were the dynamics behind the Al Qaeda taking over the Taliban?

  3. Very informative blog, Sanuda

  4. Another skirmish with Pakistan will affect Indian economy very badly and worse for Pakistan. Still the hatred is kept alive . about two decades you mentioned the rece stock both India and Pakistan are the same. The tradition say in Tami ” PNAKALI CHANDAI ( siblings fight )
    K S Subramanian

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