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The army today

October 12, 2009


THE Pakistani Army's war against the Taliban continues to make headlines. But there are several other reasons for the global interest in that institution. The army is one of the world's largest and it has access to nuclear weapons.

It has fought three major wars with India and a few minor ones. Courtesy of four coups, it has ruled the country for more than half its history. And it maintains a sizeable presence in the economy.

Brian Cloughley's History of the Pakistan Army has just gone into its third edition and that makes him eminently qualified to rate the army's combat effectiveness. He is a Briton who served as a colonel in the Australian army.

In Brian's view, “The army is combat-effective, with the caveat that there is always room for improvement. One problem is that large-scale exercises are extremely expensive. Given the fuel consumption of armoured units, for example, the bill for a division-sized exercise becomes astronomical, and Pakistan can't afford it. So, although the army is very good, it is suffering from lack of large-scale training.”

Of course, this lack of training could hide major weaknesses such as the ones the army has manifested in prior wars. For example, poor coordination of armour and infantry units blunted Pakistan's counter-attack in the Kasur-Khem Karan sector in 1965 forcing Pakistan to the ceasefire table faster than anyone would have expected. But Brian felt such blunders were unlikely to be repeated.

I asked him whether the army had improved in the past decade. Brian said the army had been improving since Gen Beg's tenure as army chief. He “encouraged wider thinking about tactics”. In particular, a much better logistics chain was established and “contributed immensely to the army's warfighting capabilities”.

I asked him whether the army had learned much from the 1971 war. Given the one-sided nature of that war, Brian said the war yielded “little of tactical importance”. But a strategic lesson was learned, that “there is no point in going to war unless you are absolutely certain you have the capability to win”.

I asked him if there was a spirit of critical inquiry in today's army. He said there were some very critical minds in the army and that some of the corps commanders' meetings had been very argumentative. He pointed out those generals could speak up without risking their careers since only one or two were going to get the fourth star.

He said that training at the two-star level and above was “very good” but added that there was no way of knowing how today's generals would perform in future wars. He also expressed a concern about “the standard of junior officers themselves. They are promoted too quickly and don't serve with soldiers for long enough as lieutenants”.

I asked him about the army's equipment. He said, “You will never get a soldier admitting that there are no equipment problems — probably because there are always some sort of problems, but from boots to tanks, things work, and that's what matters.”

He added that in the past a major problem was that most of the critical, high-powered equipment was imported. Now, about a third of the tanks were produced indigenously and the US M-113 armoured personnel carriers had been modified and were being built from scratch. The army is almost self-sufficient in ammunition and aerial bombs. But all of the artillery continues to be imported.

I asked what threats preoccupy the army. He said terrorism and anarchy in the tribal areas “The army had to retrain almost from scratch to meet the new challenge and it has done remarkably well in completely altering the training priority and emphasis in such a short period.”

Of course, the army contends that it continues to face a major threat along the Indian border and finding a “balance between commitment to NWFP/Fata and maintaining a credible deterrent in the east is difficult”. India continues to voice threats that any act of terror that originates from Pakistan will be followed by a short intense war. However, Brian is convinced that “nobody could say that such a war would be short. It would almost certainly go nuclear very quickly”. To me, that raises the issue of why Pakistan needs to have such a large army now that it has gone overtly nuclear.

I asked if the army had concluded that national governance was not in its best interest since it detracted from its primary function. He said yes but qualified it by saying that if the army senses that the country is faced with a total breakdown, it may step in.

The problem, in my opinion, is that it has always used this excuse to seize power in the past. One can only hope that if the army steps in for a fifth time, it will break from past practice and only stay in power long enough to hold elections and transfer power to the elected representatives.

I asked Brian if the army was able to carry out joint operations with the air force and the navy. He said jointness continued to be an area that needed improvement even though PAF-army cooperation had improved markedly in the recent war against the Taliban.

Brian added that true jointness would only arise when Pakistan appointed a chief of defence force (as is the case in the UK and the UK) but conceded that he did not see that happening any time soon. When asked to compare the Pakistani and Indian armies, he said the two were very similar with Pakistan having “an edge in quality of armour. This might appear strange, but is caused by India's obsession with the 'indigenous' (foreign-engined) tank, the Arjun, which is a disaster”. He added, in so far as training and general professionalism were concerned, “I would be happy to serve in either army. You can't get a greater compliment than that.”

Finally, I asked him to name the main weakness of the army. He said, “The army suffers from a shortage of junior officers, and especially from a dearth of high-quality junior officers. This is going to have a debilitating effect as time goes on. The obvious answer is to make the career more attractive — that is, better pay. But it is impossible for the public sector to pay comparable salaries to those offered to graduates by commercial enterprises.”

Over all, the army got really good marks from Brian. Perhaps it has learned its lessons.