Book Review - Islamabad’s Military Myopia
C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 368pp. $34.95.
Beset by violent ethnic and sectarian tensions (including a radical Islamist rebellion), increasing environmental degradation, and severe economic crises, nuclear-armed Pakistan is nothing short of an international security nightmare. Yet, despite this plethora of difficulties, the real authority in the state, the Pakistani Army, does little to ameliorate these challenges and instead focuses its efforts on an all-consuming, Sisyphean strategic rivalry with its far more powerful neighbor India.
Concerned about Pakistan’s future, the United States and its allies have sought to induce the Pakistani military to re-focus its effort by offering assistance with the country’s legitimate security needs. But, in her thorough and compelling study of the Pakistani army’s strategic culture, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, C. Christine Fair explains that such efforts are ultimately fruitless because Pakistan is what George Washington University professor Charles Glaser calls a “greedy state” that is “fundamentally dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Fair, a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a seasoned observer of South Asian politics, divines Pakistan’s strategic culture, the “lens through which the Pakistani army understands its security environment and its role,” by studying the nation’s defense literature, supplemented by the memoirs of top officers, as well as her own extensive fieldwork in Pakistan. In the process, she deflates a number of myths about Pakistani history—myths which Pakistan itself has propagated to advance its cause.
The central question surrounding Pakistan’s strategic culture is why its military continues to make security decisions that result in failures. Since the state’s founding in 1947-48, Pakistan has initiated a series of wars against India, all of which have left it in a weaker position than before the start of hostilities. It has also engaged in other policies, such as supporting jihadist groups against India that have, in many cases, ended up rebounding to its detriment. The siphoning of the nation’s wealth for a fruitless arms race with India, meanwhile, has impoverished the Pakistani people and left the state with inadequate institutions or infrastructure. Pakistan’s nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups has also engendered considerable blowback, bringing sanctions down on the state—a dangerous situation for a nation so dependent on foreign aid and IMF bailouts.
Finally, there is little prospect for any improvement in Pakistan’s strategic situation. India, which is far larger than Pakistan, has also outpaced Pakistan economically, enabling extensive qualitative military improvements to a military that already possesses a significant quantitative advantage. At the same time, India’s rise as a market and global power allows it to forge important new alliances, particularly with the United States and Israel, that give it greater access to military hardware and training, economic opportunities, and an improved diplomatic position internationally.
Rationally, Pakistan should reach an accommodation with India before its situation deteriorates further, in order to refocus resources on the difficult task of repairing its decrepit physical and social infrastructure. But, as Fair shows, Pakistan simply cannot take this path because opposing India’s rise—as opposed to defending Pakistan—is at the core of Pakistan’s strategic culture. The loss of the ability to act against India is tantamount to surrender.
Pakistan’s fixation with India is inextricably tied to the founding of the nation itself. When the British Raj was partitioned into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan (a process that was accompanied by communal violence that took hundreds of thousands of lives and created over 10 million refugees), Pakistan felt it was cheated of Muslim-majority territories such as Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Muslim-ruled princely states such as Hyderabad. Pakistan initially consisted of two parts, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, which were separated from each other by India, leaving the new state, in the words of its founder and first president Mohammed Ali Jinnah, “moth-eaten and truncated.” Critically, Pakistan did not receive its share of military stores and assets, placing it at a fundamental disadvantage and giving rise to the notion that Hindu India wanted Muslim Pakistan to fail.
Pakistan, established as the nation for India’s Muslims, embraced Islam as an ideology to unify its multiple ethnicities. Generally, Pakistan’s turn toward Islamism is blamed on General Zia, who served as the country’s military dictator during the 1980s. But Fair points out that the first Pakistani armed forces chief (and later President) General Ayub, while personally secular, exploited Islam to unite the nation and motivate the army. So the situation remains; believing that without a commitment to this ideology the state will fail, Pakistan’s army has been the major engine in the nation’s embrace of Islamism. The commitment to an Islamic ideology dovetails neatly with the widespread belief that India continues to seek Pakistan’s demise.
This belief has by now become canon. Pakistan’s military literature extolling Islam is accompanied by extensive descriptions of Indian Hindus as cowardly and scheming. The classic Pakistani Army text entitled India: A Study in Profile discusses the “Hindu psyche” and, according to Fair, is replete with “patently Orientalist, if not outright racist, concepts.” A continuing theme in Pakistani military literature is that Hindus are weak and unmotivated to fight, as opposed to Pakistani soldiers who, infused with Islamic instruction, can prevail even against India’s numerical superiority. At the same time, Hindu India is striving to become the regional hegemon and a global power, and only Pakistan can prevent its ascension.
Pakistani military literature likewise blames Pakistan’s endemic internal violence on Hindu conspiracies. There is an irony to this particular accusation, as Pakistan has long sponsored terrorism and proxy violence in India. The traditional narrative holds that Pakistan first began using Islamist proxies in collaboration with the U.S. against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But in fact, after reviewing decades of Pakistani military literature, Fair finds tremendous interest in guerrilla war, infiltration and the use of non-state actors from the very foundation of the Pakistani state. Indeed, the 1947 war with India was sparked when Pakistan sent Pashtun tribal militias into Jammu and Kashmir to seize control of those territories. In much the same way, Pakistan used tribal militia proxies in Afghanistan in the 1950s, and the 1965 war with India started when Pakistan sent mujahideen into Jammu and Kashmir.
Nuclear weapons have allowed Pakistan to continue and expand its risky strategies to counter India, certain that India will limit its retaliation to avoid a potential nuclear crisis. This was highlighted in the 2002 standoff, when, after Pakistani terrorists attacked India’s parliament, India mobilized its forces but ultimately found itself with limited options, knowing the conflict could become nuclear. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons also guarantee international attention, as foreign powers will intervene and attempt to resolve a crisis rather than allow war to break out and potentially become nuclear. Fair conducts a quantitative study and determines that, under its nuclear umbrella, Pakistan has been far more likely to engage in risky behavior such as provoking crises with India. In the face of Pakistan’s deteriorating position, nuclear weapons, perhaps more than any other factor, have allowed Pakistan to continue its regional rivalry.
In her penultimate chapter, Fair examines possibilities for change in Pakistan’s strategic culture. Her conclusions are not encouraging. The military is an unlikely source for reform, especially because its ideological commitment to countering India gives the military priority in claims on the state’s resources. Fair touches on this important point, and other analysts—such as Ayesha Siddiqa in her book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy—have shown how military officers have materially benefited from their de facto (and sometimes de jure) control of the state.
Other sources, both within and without Pakistan, are equally unlikely to foster needed change. While democratic governance has expanded since General Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president in 2008, the army has successfully transmitted its strategic culture to Pakistani civil society. A strong Pakistani civilian government may be willing to seek better relations with India, but vast and influential segments of Pakistani society (if not an outright majority of it) today embrace the military’s worldview. Conspiracy theories involving India, the United States, and Israel are regular features in Pakistan’s media. Fair notes that Pakistani civil society includes many illiberal elements. For example, the lawyers’ movement, which led the national protests that brought down Musharraf, is closely linked to a number of radical Islamist parties and supported Pakistan’s monstrous blasphemy laws.
The international community has limited tools to change Pakistan’s strategic culture. If the 1971 defeat by India (in which Pakistan lost half of the country) was insufficient to persuade Pakistan’s generals to pursue a different course, it is difficult to imagine a military defeat that could. The United States attempted to invest in Pakistani institutions with the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman congressional aid package, but this effort has been resisted at every point by the Pakistani military.
In her final chapter, Fair concludes that Pakistan is a pure “greedy state” seeking fundamental change to the international order. Past policies toward Pakistan have been attempts to address the country’s legitimate security needs. But, Fair writes, “If Pakistan is a purely greedy state, driven by ideological motives, then appeasement is in fact the more dangerous course of policy prescription.” Fair calls for “sober realism” and argues that “the United States and its partners should seriously consider what it means to contain the threats that emanate from Pakistan…”
This is the only element missing from an impressive work. Having proposed a containment strategy of Pakistan, a discussion of policy options would be welcome. To be sure, such an approach will not be easy. The available tools have consequences. Financial sanctions will harm the already impoverished Pakistani masses. Military options against a nuclear-armed state are limited. As a prominent Muslim nation, isolating Pakistan diplomatically may prove difficult. Unfortunately, Fair has convincingly demonstrated that the Pakistani military has chosen a course that leaves the United States and its allies no other options.
Dr. Aaron Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics and co-author of two books on South Asian terrorism.