Pragmatic | The agitated minds of Pakistani army officers

The significance of General Kayani’s town-hall meeting with his officers.

It is extremely unusual for an army chief — especially of a semi-colonial Pakistan army, which draws its traditions from a pre-1947 British army — to conduct a town-hall meeting with his officers, followed by a question-and-answer session. But this is precisely what Pakistan army chief, General Kayani did earlier this week with officers at Rawalpindi, Kharian and Sialkot garrisons (see ISPR Press Release). The last sentence of that release did attract this blogger’s attention: “At the end, COAS held a very frank Question/Answer session with the participants.” Very frank is a rather interesting turn of phrase for a gathering being addressed by the army chief, and is open to various interpretations.

This town-hall meeting was organised in the wake of the unilateral American military raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. In routine course, an army chief would go and address a gathering of officers, either on ceremonial occasions in a formal manner or on momentous occasions, such as before going to war. As it was not a ceremonial event, the bin Laden killing, with its attendant after-effects, is thus an extremely significant incident for the army chief to warrant such an extraordinary step.

How could this have possibly played out? General Kayani, in all probability, would have been informed by his corps commanders or his GHQ staff that there is a huge amount of discontentment, bordering on outrage, among the middle- and junior-ranking officers. The Corps Commanders could have spoken to the officers but they perhaps feared that would not pacify the officers and it would be better if the army chief himself stepped in to calm the troubled waters. The Dawn report hints the same: Gen Kayani is reported to have engaged with the officers to address the questions that, a source said, “could have been agitating their minds”.

The explanation for the outrage among the junior- and middle-ranking officers is rather straight-forward. The current day Pakistan army draws its officer cadre from the middle and lower middle classes of Pakistani society. The changes in Pakistani society in the last 35 years have shaped the world-view, largely anti-US, of this lot of officers. As the Dawn reports, “The opinions shared with the army chief by his well-mannered officers, the source said, were quite frank and reflected the concerns among the masses.” It is to be noted that the opinions of the officers reflected the concerns among the masses.

The increasing radicalisation of the society and the emphasis on Pakistan army being an Islamic army during General Zia’s dictatorial reign has affected the officer class. Retired officers of the army have joined jehadi tanzeems, and undertaken terror strikes in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. In the Mumbai terror strike case of 2008, serving officers of the Pakistan army have been named as accused in the chargesheet in the Chicago court.

Moreover, Pakistan army and its officers thrive on a extreme sense of pride — some would say vanity — as the sole functional institution of a dysfunctional Pakistani state. Having been fed this diet of radical Islam and an anti-US world view — with the pride of being part of the spine holding Pakistan together — it would be extremely insulting for these officers to hear of the US daring to conduct an unilateral aid inside Pakistan and kill bin Laden. The dent in their public image, with all the jokes being circulated via the sms in the country, would have added to the feeling of humiliation.

Furthermore, the junior and middle ranks of the Pakistan army are also under strain due to the counterinsurgency operations being conducted by it against the bad Taliban. More than any other organisation, the senior leadership is under a harsher spotlight in the military. The thought captured in that immortal line by Paul Yingling — “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war” — would also be at the back of the mind of these officers after no action has been taken against any senior officer for the purported laxity, which led to a loss of Pakistani sovereignty.

What does all this mean? It clearly means one thing. For all the professionalism and discipline that the Pakistan army boasts off, its generals will find it extremely difficult to take the officer cadre along if they made any major concessions to Pakistan’s enemies — India (and even the US). There are a lot of Indian media personalities and analysts who suggest that India, like the US, should start dealing directly with General Kayani. The good General would then be able to turn his army around and make peace with India. This incident demonstratively negates that premise.

If one were to draw a larger lesson, it is about the nature of the Pakistan army. The real threat is not the fear of the jehadis defeating the Pakistan army. The graver danger comes from the radicalisation of the subordinate ranks and officers of the army.

Yes, Pakistan army will remain in control of its nuclear arsenal. But what kind of Pakistan army would that be — the army of a fundamentalist pan-Islamic state?

The signs are indeed ominous. They can be ignored by the comity of nations at its own peril.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.