Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternative History
By Tariq Rahman
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834440
540pp.

Since its inception, Pakistan has been engaged in what seems to be an endless series of wars, mostly with India. In recent years, it has been at war with terrorists and also at odds with the United States.

Kashmir was the trigger for Pakistan’s first official war, fought with India within months of Independence. Pakistan was unable to wrest much of Kashmir and the region’s summer capital Srinagar remains in Indian hands.

A second skirmish happened in 1965. It failed to move the ceasefire line, which had been instituted by the United Nations in January 1948 and escalated into all-out war along India’s western border. Both sides ran out of the will to fight in just over two weeks and a peace accord was signed under Soviet auspices in Tashkent in January 1966.

The third war began in 1971 as a civil conflict by West Pakistan against East Pakistan and ended disastrously with the eastern wing’s secession, the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

In a thoroughly researched and well-written new book that deserves to be widely read, Dr Tariq Rahman puts the spotlight on the mindset of the Pakistani military

More minor conflicts with India followed, the last one being at Kargil in the spring of 1999. That conflict caused me to reflect on Pakistan’s military history and I wrote an article titled ‘Failure in Command: Lessons from Pakistan’s Indian Wars’ in April 2001 for the British journal Defense Analysis.

In Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternative History — a thoroughly researched and well-written new book that deserves to be widely read — Professor Tariq Rahman puts the spotlight on the mindset of the Pakistani military. It is implicit in his narrative that Pakistan’s military regards Indians as incompetent and timid fighters. Even though this assumption has been proven wrong every time, it continues to persist.

Similarly implied — and also based on my own research — is that the attack on Kargil was carried out in the belief that India would be too intimidated to counter because Pakistan had exploded six nuclear bombs in the spring of 1998, in response to India’s five.

Rahman writes that all of Pakistan’s wars had been initiated by the army without consulting either the air force or navy. To maintain secrecy, many senior officers within the army itself were not briefed, either. The consequences have been disastrous.

This reinforces a point made by others: Pakistan’s military history is replete with instances in which the decision to plunge the country into battle is taken by just a few zealots, who — displaying a gambler’s mindset — risk Pakistan’s future without thinking through the unintended consequences.

For example, in the first two wars, the decision-makers of the time assumed that Kashmiris would rise in revolt against India. They didn’t. In 1947-48, military chiefs did not realise that the guerrillas they were sending into Kashmir would unleash havoc on the local population. In 1965, they did not realise their guerrillas would be handed over to the Indian authorities by the locals themselves, and spill the beans on All India Radio. Similarly, in 1999, they did not realise that the world community would respond negatively to Pakistan’s incursion in Kargil.

Rahman’s book also sheds new light on the human cost these wars imposed on the Pakistanis who fought in them, and on their families. The data for this comes from the author’s interviews with, and reading the memoirs of, people who were either active participants in the wars, or were affected by them.

On Dec 4, 1971, the submarine PNS Ghazi was sunk by the Indian navy in the Bay of Bengal, killing all its crew. Rahman interviewed the captain’s widow via email and quotes from her last message: “War is a senseless game played by egoistic pig-headed men.” Another military wife, widowed in 1965, says, “[My husband] was betrayed by the high-ups of the army.” A mother of a Kargil martyr rages against Gen Pervez Musharraf, who “had her son killed and did not even own him.” Many more mothers simply “went mad.”

Pakistan’s approach to East Pakistan from the beginning was coloured with an attitude of racial superiority. The west-based government failed to understand the depth of resentment that the Bengali population felt toward it. Alienation had set in long before war broke out and was acknowledged in then president Gen Ayub Khan’s diaries — published posthumously — in which he wrote that it was just a question of time before the East went its separate way.

Rahman’s narrative of 1971 is replete with harrowing accounts of the suffering that befell Bengali and Bihari citizens of East Pakistan. Presenting both the ‘Pakistani Experience’ and the ‘Bangladeshi Experience’, he makes no bones about the bloodcurdling physical, emotional and sexual violence meted out by one side to the other.

There are also several other interesting findings. For example, Rahman informs that Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar joined a phone call that then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was having with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, about the adverse effect of the Kargil invasion on India’s Muslims.

Reportedly, Dilip Kumar said, “Mian Sahib, we did not expect this from you … Let me tell you as an Indian Muslim that, in case of tension between Pakistan and India, the position of Indian Muslims becomes very insecure and they find it difficult to even leave their homes.”

Of course, Sharif had no influence over the army and nothing changed.

According to Rahman, the Pakistan Army has always had an exaggerated opinion of itself. In its vocabulary, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) does not exist. Pakistan’s soldiers are either victors or martyrs and PTSD applies only to American veterans seeking to get additional medical benefits.

The book also quotes some caustic observations that Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi — who surrendered East Pakistan — made about his predecessor, Lt Gen Tikka Khan: “[He] let loose everything at his disposal, as if raiding an enemy, not dealing with his own misguided and misled people. The military action was a display of stark cruelty, more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Changez Khan and Halaku Khan, or at Jallianwala by the British General Dyer.”

Rahman discusses how Pakistan’s decision to participate in the “holy war” in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the introduction of a Kalashnikov culture in Pakistan, imbued with Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan helped create the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, but did not anticipate the consequences. It has ended up taking a dual-faced attitude toward them, seeking in vain to distinguish the ‘good’ Taliban from the ‘bad’ Taliban.

When the US enlisted Pakistan in the so-called ‘war against terror’, the blowback triggered by US drone attacks caused many Pakistani officers to feel that their main enemy was no longer India or domestic terrorists, but the US. Rahman states that the Taliban are regarded as martyrs not just by the common people, but also by many in the army, and senior Taliban leaders — with a price of $200,000 on their heads — routinely attended dinners in Quetta with Pakistan’s senior civil servants.

The author then discusses potential solutions to the Kashmir imbroglio, but is not optimistic that any solution mutually acceptable to India and Pakistan will be found. He does not discuss whether anything analogous to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt will ever come to pass for Pakistan, nor does he discuss why the US has taken a hands-off attitude to the conflict, or why the world community has not intervened.

Three main conclusions run through Rahman’s book. First, wars impose a terrible cost. Sadly, that’s true of all wars in human history. Second, the decision to wage war is made by only a few individuals. That’s also not unique to Pakistan. And, third, the enemy’s responses are not anticipated correctly. Again, this is not unique to Pakistan — Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke noted in the 19th century that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

The fact of the matter is that, to quote American army general William Sherman, all wars are hell and the decision to initiate war is always a terrible decision.

The reviewer is the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan: The Price of Strategic Myopia. He tweets @ahmadfaruqui

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2022

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