Missiles mounted on a carrier sail by a giant portrait of Allama Iqbal in the March 23 parade in the federal capital of Islamabad. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Tanveer Shahzad
Missiles mounted on a carrier sail by a giant portrait of Allama Iqbal in the March 23 parade in the federal capital of Islamabad. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Tanveer Shahzad

SINCE Pakistan’s independence, the disagreement with India over the territory of Kashmir has adversely affected relations between the two countries, leading to military conflicts more than once.

Pakistan’s army was formed on the day of the country’s independence, with a strength of some 140,000 as against India’s 260,000. Given the locations of major military installations, such as logistics depots and training establishments, which were based on colonial requirements, the Indian army benefitted much more from the split than Pakistan’s, which took several years to attain balance.

Ever since Maharajah Hari Singh signed an instrument of accession on October 26, 1947, to accede his overwhelmingly Muslim state to India, the military posture of both countries has, to varying degrees, depended on national policies regarding the dangerous deadlock.

One recent development spurring distrust and animosity was the 2019 repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which, as the BBC noted, had, “allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy — its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws … As a result, Jammu and Kashmir could make their own rules relating to permanent residency, ownership of property and fundamental rights.”

The Pakistan Army has historically exercised a disproportionate influence on the country’s internal politics as well as foreign policy. While it has withdrawn from directly wielding political power, Brian Cloughley believes it continues to desire a say in important matters.

It is no surprise that the first test of the Pakistan army involved low-scale limited combat with Indian troops in Kashmir. That first conflict, in 1947-48, ended with a ceasefire, as it became evident that victory by either side was not possible.

The United Nations followed its Charter in furthering the “peaceful settlement of disputes” through Security Council Resolution 47 of March 1948, recommending withdrawal of Pakistani tribesmen from Kashmir, reduction of Indian forces to the minimum consistent with internal security, and, most significantly, holding that, “The Government of India should undertake that there will be established in Jammu and Kashmir a Plebiscite Administration to hold a plebiscite as soon as possible on the question of the accession of the State to India or Pakistan”.

The Pakistan army then concentrated on achieving balance, but experienced great difficulties until Gen Ayub Khan took over as commander on January 17, 1951. He was an effective chief, and the next few years saw substantial growth in strength and improvement in all aspects of military organisation — especially in terms of command and control. However, these advances were not matched by the national government, which experienced grave difficulties following the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister, on October 16, 1951.

Although Pakistan did not contribute militarily to American efforts in the Korean war of 1950-53, its generally pro-United States policy and supportive stance in condemning North Korea encouraged Washington to propose a mutual defence assistance agreement, which took force in May 1954. The army benefitted greatly, but one consequence of closer association with the US and membership of the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento) and South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato) was Soviet negation of any moves in the Security Council towards a Kashmir solution that would have been contrary to Indian objectives.

The military in politics

Army Chief General Ayub Khan, along with General Musa, General Yahya and Air Force Chief Air Marshal Nur Khan (not visible behind Ayub Khan), witness military exercises leading to the 1965 war. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archives/ Tahir Ayub)
Army Chief General Ayub Khan, along with General Musa, General Yahya and Air Force Chief Air Marshal Nur Khan (not visible behind Ayub Khan), witness military exercises leading to the 1965 war. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archives/ Tahir Ayub)

In 1956, following the belated adoption of the first Constitution, governor-general Iskander Ali Mirza was selected by the Electoral College to be the president. In 1958, he dismissed the government of prime minister Feroze Khan Noon, who, although regrettably incompetent, had been elected by parliament, and declared martial law on October 7.

The spiral of military influence in the governance of the country had begun, encouraged by Washington, which took advantage of good relations to mount aerial spying missions over the Soviet Union from an air base near Peshawar.

Ayub Khan tried his best. His 1960 agreement with Nehru concerning the allocation of Indus waters was commendable, but the overall tenor of his leadership was negative. His worst blunder was the army’s Operation Gibraltar in August 1965, when several thousand Pakistani soldiers intruded into Indian-administered Kashmir with the aim of triggering and subsequently assisting insurgency by the local population.

It was badly planned, and the Indian reaction was robust, resulting in Pakistan’s Operation Grand Slam – an assault on what was wrongly considered to be India’s logistical supply ‘jugular’ in Jammu District abutting India proper. Indian reaction was again forceful, and although the result was essentially a standoff, Ayub’s aim of provoking an uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir failed dismally.

The UN Security Council promptly called for a cessation of hostilities, but it was not achieved until UNSC Resolution 211 took effect, requiring that “a ceasefire should take effect on September 22, 1965”.

In spite of an intensive public relations campaign in Pakistan aimed at persuading citizens that the war was successful — which included the designation of Sept 6 as the National Defence Day, which continues to be marked by military ceremonies — it is apparent that Pakistan suffered a major economic setback and diminution of its international standing.

The US terminated aid at the outbreak of conflict, but military spending continued to be much higher than prudent, rising from 46.07pc of the total budget in 1964-65 to 55.62pc in 1968-69. The army found it difficult to recover from the war, and much equipment came from China, which supplied many weapons, including Type-59 tanks.

Meanwhile, domestic discontent was eagerly fanned by political parties, and after Ayub’s foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was dismissed for criticising him in public, the latter went on to form the Pakistan People’s Party in 1967.

In January 1968, Ayub handed over the presidency in all but name to his army chief, Gen Yahya Khan. On March 25 the following year, his poor health, exacerbated by difficulties he was unable to solve, including atrocities by dissidents in East Pakistan, which was verging on anarchy, prompted Ayub to resign in favour of Yahya, who proclaimed martial law and dissolved the national and provincial assemblies. Yahya assumed the presidency on March 31 the same year.

The crisis in East Pakistan was caused by economic and social inequality favouring West Pakistan, exacerbated by the arrogant attitude of the latter’s political elite. This came to a head in December 1970, when Yahya and Bhutto refused to hand over power to East Pakistan’s Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that had won the national elections.

There was immense discontent in the East, and a resistance movement headed by the Mukti Bahini began a campaign aimed at establishing equality and Bengali self-respect. In March 1971, the army began Operation Searchlight, aimed at suppressing unrest, and subsequent actions by the West Pakistan military — to this day either denied or ignored by Pakistan — were criminally brutal. There is compelling evidence that there was genocide, and one of the few redeeming features of the period was the honourable resignation of Gen Yaqub Khan, who refused to use military force against Awami League protesters.

The internal conflict led to war with India, which had supported Bengali independence movements and had itself prepared for war at an early stage of the crisis. It was formally begun, however, by Pakistan, which, on December 3, 1971, launched Operation Chengiz Khan — an ill-conceived and counter-productive series of airstrikes on airfields in north-western India. No country could disregard such attacks, and general war broke out in the east and spread to the west.

The Pakistan army was resoundingly defeated, and the Hamoodur Rehman Commission analysed the debacle in detail. Its 1974 report was suppressed and remains highly classified, but some of its contents were revealed in an unclassified version released by the government and were later published (Vanguard Press; 2001).

According to the report, “it is a sad commentary on the efficiency of our army leadership, which appears to have landed us in a major war with a powerful neighbour without any psychological preparation or coordinated planning. This was a war in which everything went wrong for the Pakistan armed forces. They were not only outnumbered but also out-weaponed and out-generalled. Our planning was unrealistic, strategy unsuitable, decisions untimely, and execution faulty. The ignominy of surrender lay in the lack of leadership from the higher command.”

The Bhutto-Zia era

Bhutto took over from Yahya as president and chief martial law administrator on December 20, 1971, and soon put the army in its place by appointing Lt-Gen Gul Hasan as the chief of army staff. Of even more importance, he moved Pakistan to the nuclear league by authorising the development of a nuclear weapons programme. He became prime minister on August 14, 1973, and continued to hold the portfolio of defence minister, with a minister of state performing routine tasks.

Read: System’s widening cracks

Bhutto largely succeeded in divorcing the army from enforcing civil law, or the version of it applicable at the time. Military re-equipment and training programmes went ahead, although not without interruption. Floods and earthquakes in 1973-5 required support to the stricken populations of Punjab, Sindh, and the since renamed NWFP, and the worst calamity was an earthquake in Swat and Hazara in December 1974, which left over 5,000 dead. The army provided aid and undertook projects of reconstructing roads, dams and other major infrastructure. Gradually, the army regained the trust of the people.

It can be argued that Bhutto had the best interests of his country at heart when he introduced his many economic reforms. However, his intention to retain and extend political power overrode any other imperative. Political chaos soon enveloped the country, and civil disorder gave rise to a military coup on July 5, 1977, led by army chief Gen Ziaul Haq in what was called Operation Fair Play.

The Zia years were notable for the fact that he enjoyed Washington’s backing, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the army benefitted in many respects with a flood of equipment and assistance in training.

He furthered the nuclear programme and introduced the Islamic Penal Code of 1979, which served only to polarise the nation. Higher education was set back by the introduction of ‘Urdu-medium’ schools that emphasised religious instruction. He died in an as yet unexplained plane crash on August 17, 1988, and left a mixed legacy from what was the longest of the three military regimes to rule Pakistan.

The election following Zia’s death was won by Benazir Bhutto, who alternated with Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in the years 1988 to 1999, in which period the army seemed efficient and loyal, as observed personally by this scribe from 1988 to 1995, and concentrated on training and equipping in order to resist what it saw as a growing threat. This threat was manifested by India’s Exercise Brasstacks of 1986-87 that lasted three months and in which over half-a-million troops carried out massive manoeuvres in Rajasthan, close to the Pakistan border.

The Musharraf era

Gen Pervez Musharraf attended the UK’s Royal College of Defence Studies in 1990-91 and did quite well, with the commandant observing that “his country is fortunate to have the services of his undeniable quality”. It could not be foreseen, however, that Musharraf’s academic ability in military studies would not necessarily translate to balanced practicality in the higher direction of war — or to the governance of the country.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif appointed him army chief in October 1998, and in 1999 Musharraf authorised a clandestine war against Indian troops in the Kargil sector of the Line of Control with India.

In shades of the futile Operation Gibraltar in 1965, the Kargil War, known in India as Operation Vijay, was a resounding failure for Pakistan, and Islamabad’s attempts to depict the conflict as a popular uprising were absurd.

Following the fiasco, the premier understandably attempted to remove Musharraf as army chief, but his efforts were unsuccessful. This resulted in yet another army coup, with Musharraf on October 12 declaring a state of emergency, suspending the Constitution and taking power as ‘chief executive’. He became president in 2002, through a referendum whose legitimacy was widely questioned.

The army benefitted from Musharraf’s presidency, especially in training and equipment, and his energetic support of the Bush ‘War on Terror’ had positive effects on the subcontinent.

Post-Musharraf years

Musharraf surrounded himself with sycophants and persuaded himself that only he could be the saviour of his country, which was suffering both economically and from a rise in Islamic militancy.

In 2007, he attempted to remove chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry because he feared the Supreme Court would negate his re-election as president, and the country began to unravel to the extent that in the face of impeachment, he resigned on August 18, 2008.

The following years saw government by politicians, notably Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, and Nawaz Sharif, who was convicted of corruption in 2017. Although some members of the two governments attempted to tackle the endemic problems of poverty and illiteracy, there was little progress.

Domestic corruption and terrorism continued to be major challenges, and though several long-term economic agreements with China came into force in May 2013, there was little immediate effect on ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, the armed forces of Pakistan benefitted both in acquisition of material as well as through involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Just as the country was gearing up to celebrate 75 years of its independence, the government of Imran Khan, in office since July 2018, was removed through a parliamentary no-confidence motion in April 2022, and Shehbaz, the younger Sharif family, found himself in the prime minister’s office.

Countering terrorism

During the last 14 years of democracy, the army in Pakistan considered it a major responsibility to counter the menace of terrorism. According to published data, there were over 12,000 terrorist incidents in the period, resulting in the deaths of some 15,000 civilians and 5,200 members of the security forces. While there is little doubt that the army, with the approval of some sections of various governments, had a working relationship with the Afghan Taliban, its internal security duties exacted a massive toll and, to an extent, altered operational focus.

There is, however, continuing concentration on planning for counter-India operations and what some analysts regard as a misguided emphasis on the development of tactical nuclear weapons, for which the employment doctrine is unclear.

It appears that the army now intends to stay out of direct governance as such, but continues to desire a say in matters affecting domestic and international security to a greater degree than is common in democracies.

This need not necessarily be detrimental to the national interest, but it is to be hoped that there will never be a repeat of such operations as Gibraltar, Chengiz Khan, Fair Play and others. The nuclear world is too dangerous for such adventures, and Pakistan’s democracy, although faltering, deserves support from all its citizens.

The writer is a commentator on politics and military affairs, specialising in South Asia.



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