At Large

Pakistan’s Time of Troubles

What's holding back its army at this critical juncture?

By 5.6.09

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Conventional wisdom places the blame for the Pakistan Army's battlefield hesitancy on its lack of training and equipment to fight an insurgency such as wrought by the Taliban. Perhaps the simplest and clearest explanation was given anonymously by an honest but far too junior Pakistani Army officer: "Dear chap, there are no promotions in battling these religious fanatics."

The young captain could have added that the hundreds of millions of dollars purportedly sought to "properly arm and train" the Pakistan Army by the Zardari government rests heavily on Washington's acceptance of the under-equipped status of the seventh largest military force in the world. This is in spite of the estimated $10 billion already transferred to Islamabad from the United States during the Army-favored Musharraf years.

What is it then that holds back the well-organized Pakistan Army? Is it that it does not like to fight fellow Moslems and is structured to battle only its non-believing Indian neighbors? From a military standpoint this just doesn't hold water. The ancient regiments of Pakistan have lengthy histories of taking on all comers. Since the early 19th century Moslem Pathan hill tribes have been the enemies of these bagpipe-led warriors organized by the British during the days of the Raj.

The tradition of the Pathan (Pushtun) has been to defy the dominance of the Punjab from which six of the nine operational corps of the Pakistan Army are drawn and headquartered. Moslem against Moslem often had been the order of the day for regiments raised from Western India during British colonial days.

In the past several years the elite Special Services Group has been pursuing an accelerated recruitment and training program. There are approximately 3,000 of these troopers trained by the British SAS, U.S. Special Forces and Chinese Special Forces. Formed into six battalions, these soldiers are capable of operating in small cadres, as is the usual case with special operations forces. SSG elements were the lead unit in the assault that retook Bruner from the Taliban last week only sixty-plus miles from the capital city of Islamabad. By all accounts these tough troopers are more than up to the tasks assigned to them.

So what holds back the rest of the Pakistan Army from pushing out the Taliban from their positions in the Swat valley? The initial response from military leaders has been consistent. The politicians in Islamabad, they say at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, believe they can negotiate with Taliban leaders in such a manner as to preserve the political support of Pushtun tribal elements overall.

For its part, the Pakistan Army command has for many years worked closely with Pushtun militants: this was true against India and the Soviets in Afghanistan. These same groups now make up today's Taliban. Parallel to this sense of loyalty to old comrades-in-arms is the thinking that civilian law enforcement, in concert with local paramilitary units, does nothing to follow-up the army's initial victories. Hard won battles are perceived as undercut by civilian ineptitude.

In other words the army blames a lack of local follow-up and yet at the same time is itself hesitant to initiate a crushing blow on its old buddies who are now in the Taliban leadership. Many more explanations are available from General Staff in Rawalpindi, but the bottom line is always the same: "Our real enemy is India and always will be!"

To add to the arguments justifying army hesitancy for a large-scale attack on the Taliban, there is a continuing belief that the U.S. truly wishes to diminish the power of Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such views are rarely uttered to Western official representatives, but the depth of their feeling is often transmitted privately.

One factor acting as an obstacle of unstated but perhaps even greater importance is that American-trained General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, Chief of Army Staff, apparently has no immediate interest in heading a military action to take over once again from Pakistan's ineffectual civilian leadership. Kiyani is quite satisfied with being able to shift potential blame for Islamic militancy and Taliban encroachment onto the civilian government.

The Pakistan Army has been the keystone of its nation's independence for 62 years and strongly believes it knows best how to preserve it. Other than as strategic leverage the Taliban may have little interest militarily in Pakistan's rumored 50-60 nuclear weapons -- but their close friends in al Qaeda definitely do. The hope is that Gen. Kiyani and his officers are right when they say they have the matter under control. Washington certainly doesn't!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.