Pakistani Military Bleeding Through 'Someone Else's War'

The series of strikes on Pakistan's military battling Al Qaeda fighters and tribesmen aligned to the Taliban and its recurring operational setbacks are a pointer to the forces' declining morale and the overall will to fight.

Nearly 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have died fighting insurgents over the past year. And the army, under pressure from the US and other Western powers, appears increasingly unwilling to engage the well armed, battle hardened and cunning insurgents waging civil war against the state.

The number of military fatalities has climbed after July when last year's peace deal was called off by militants in North Waziristan and the army flushed out armed jehadis besieging Islamabad's Red Mosque July 11. 

An increasing number of retired Pakistani military officers and analysts also question the army's motivation to fight what many Pakistanis believe to be "someone else's war".

"Public resentment against the military as an institution is as high as one can ever recall and growing," declared Adil Najam, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US and founding editor of Pakistaniat.com.

Writing in The News, he declared that not since 1971 - when the Pakistani Army was bested by India's, leading to the formation of Bangladesh - has the country's military been under such internal strain. However, he goes on to say that despite the strain it remains a "professional institution".

But a shocking setback to the army's reputation came Aug 30 when nearly 250 soldiers along with their colonel and nine middle-ranking officers surrendered to militants in South Waziristan without a fight.

They seemingly became willing hostages of the Taliban warlord, Baitullah Mahsud, showing up the Pakistan army's impotence in fighting the insurgency raging in the turbulent Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), comprising the seven tribal agencies strung across the length of the undefined Afghan frontier.

The abject surrender to just a handful of Taliban fighters who blocked their supply convoy on the road to Waziristan's main town of Wana alarmed the country as it clearly revealed a deliberate disregard for orders from a force that prides itself on being a committed and professional fighting force.

In response, the government arrested 100 Mahsud tribesmen but swiftly freed them to assuage the militants.

The army's top brass tried to explain the incident through conflicting and implausible statements, all of which were contradicted either by the militants, local tribal elders or both.

Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad offered a feeble response to the army's poor fighting record with the incredulous explanation that the soldiers were on leave and were Mahsud's guests.

"For all practical purposes, the state has lost its authority and is in full retreat especially in Waziristan and Bajaur," said former Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. He termed the Pakistani soldiers' capitulation an "abject surrender".

Insiders, however, attribute the military's refusal to fight their Muslim brethren to its increasing Islamization resulting in disenchantment in fighting for a "ladeen", or faithless army, led by General Pervez Musharraf and his ilk allied too closely with the US.

The US, which has donated nearly $10 billion to Pakistan, mostly in military hardware and equipment since 9/11, has been insistent in demanding that Musharraf become more pro-active fighting Islamists in the border regions.

Washington enacted a law earlier this year linking US aid to Pakistan's performance in the war on terror.

There is also an urgency in Islamabad to fight the insurgents who are believed to be destroying FATA's tribal society by brutally executing Khans or chieftains, school teachers and anyone purportedly perceived to be 'modern' in their endeavour to render it an "Islamic paradise".

Pakistan's retired Brigadier Shaukat Quadir is of the view that the army's morale is low and the idea of killing its own citizens has become an increasingly difficult burden for it to bear.

"Perhaps they are not convinced to fight against their own people," concurred retired Major General Naseerullah Babar, a former interior minister.

But an even more serious and ominous development was the Sep 13 attack by a suicide bomber on the elite Special Services Group (SSG) base at Tarbela, killing 20 officers and soldiers.

The Tarbela base, 70 km northwest of Islamabad, was set up with US aid to flush out Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in the lawless and rugged tribal regions.

The base housed a Quick Reaction Force of commandos that frequently conducted raids against insurgent camps in North and South Waziristan.

Special care was taken to guard the confidentiality and secrecy of the base, like those of other elite forces. But this time round it appears to have been compromised, on all accounts by an insider.

If so, it is a disturbing indicator of the corrosive effect of Talibanisation within the Pakistan military, their deadly reach inside the military hierarchy and the increasing helplessness of the army's leadership in neutralizing such elements.

The attack on the SSG base follows twin suicide attacks in the garrison city of Rawalpindi adjoining Islamabad earlier this month - on a bus carrying members of Pakistan's omnipotent Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), followed minutes later by another in the nearby Royal Artillery Bazaar.

Security sources said the attacks targeting security and intelligence personnel once again showed that the bombers were able to penetrate the highly protected security sensitive zones.

The Pakistani military campaign in the tribal areas has coincided with political turmoil and uncertainty over the army leadership's future, particularly after Musharraf pledged to abandon his uniform after the Oct 6 presidential election.

It is widely believed that even after he steps down, Musharraf will retain his hand on the army till he nominates a successor and retains loyalists in key areas.

The country's political crisis centring on Musharraf's re-election as president and his standoff with a revitalised judiciary has also impacted adversely on the army's war on terror, plunging its leadership further into confusion.

Besides, Musharraf's strategy of wanting a pro-Taliban Islamic party in Pakistan's future administration following general elections will, doubtlessly, further loosen state control over the jehadi forces, resulting in deeper fissures within the country.

Over 1,200 serving and retired Pakistani military officers - mostly from the army - run a web of banks, transport, road building, communication and construction businesses worth billions of dollars.

The 'fauji', or soldier, foundations also operate a private airline, hundreds of educational institutions, power plants, run steel and cement factories and even produce consumer goods like sugar, electronic items and breakfast cereals.

Analysts concur that professional 'lan, for which the Pakistan Army was known, has disappeared, replaced eight years after Musharraf seized power in a coup by public resentment towards it even in Punjab province that remains its principal support and recruitment base.

Under siege from both within and without, the Pakistan Army will be forced to take a call on its future course of action. Jettisoning Musharraf and going back to the barracks just might help it resurrect its declining image.


More by :  Rahul Bedi

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