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Hatred And Subterfuge: Pakistan’s Proxy War On India
Snapshot

The Pakistan Army continues to follow the principles of irrationality and deniability as essential aspects of its military doctrine.

Through my years as a senior commander in the Indian Army, there was an annual feature which never escaped my attention. The yearly war game of my formation would invariably begin with a presentation by a new team each time on the psyche and mindset of the Pakistan Army. I considered it mandatory for all to know as much about the mind as about the weaponry or the tactics of our western adversary.

The Pakistan Army has invariably taken the initiative and risked escalation to attain what it may perceive as the national interest of Pakistan. However, its claims of advancing that interest are more than dubious in the eyes of most of the world. There is, however, much difference in the translation of what most of the world believes and what it officially puts out as its belief.

This has been the Pakistan Army’s major achievement brought about by a deep strategy of denial, subterfuge and management of perception. It has mastered all these and been helped to a great extent by the importance of the geostrategic real estate that Pakistan occupies. This real estate is in effect the confluence of five civilisations with competing interests of each of them. These civilisations are the Indian, Chinese, Central Asian, Persian and Arab.

The Pakistani strategic leadership, consciously or unconsciously, ascribes far greater significance to this aspect and attempts to wrest advantage due to it.

Any attempt to examine the mindset of the Pakistan Army and its deep set psyche has to take into account a few specifics. The partition of the subcontinent, the wars—1947-48, 1965 and 1971, the polity which allowed unbridled growth of aggressive self-aggrandisement, the dabbling in religion and the perceived sense of insecurity arising from the geographical comparison of the size of India and Pakistan. These are just some of the events and trends which shaped the strange mind of the Pakistan Army but may need examination to arrive at other characteristics which form the Pakistani national mindset too.

Perhaps the one most significant aspect which has contributed to the mindset of the “holier than thou” and “we know it all” attitude is a social one. When feudal practices persist and a social hierarchy prevails, those at the higher rungs become more authoritarian. The making of the plan for intrusion into the Kargil sector, as described by Pakistan’s Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail in his seminal article confirms this assumption.

The temptation in such analyses is to proceed sequentially with historical perspectives and arrive at deductions of what we find useful when related to the current situation. I am consciously reversing the approach by first stating what my observations are on the psyche and mindset of the Pakistan Army and then drawing a historical connect to those aspects which need it.

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Pakistani army soldiers adjust a tank (A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani army soldiers adjust a tank (A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)

In a nation where the Army has contrived to create a legitimacy for its control over major aspects of governance and which is not even answerable to the highest judicial authority, a certain sense of disdain develops for all others. It is tremendously morale-boosting for the uniformed community; decisions can be taken without having to bear the responsibility for them; there cannot be a headier empowerment than that. So the Pakistan Army’s leadership continues to thrive with a dominant mood of antipathy towards India and the Indian Army. It means that all issues concerning defense and foreign affairs are its domain as the political leadership, intelligentsia, academics and diplomats cannot truly understand military threats. This is the old and the currently prevalent mindset which prevents the leadership from deep thinking on implications of its decisions.

Two classic examples need to be quoted. First there was Kargil, where Pervez Musharraf kept the other services and the government of the day outside the ambit of planning and even basic information, as described earlier. His disdain for the Indian civilian leadership made him take an unethical decision of not saluting India’s Prime Minister in 1999 during a visit to Lahore. He followed that by initiating a conflict in the Kargil theatre. However, he had not thought through his strategy which would lead to conflict termination and the contingency planning was terribly weak.

This happened in 1971 and 1965 too. In 1971, Yahya Khan should have anticipated the potential intervention by India if a humanitarian crisis was created in former East Pakistan. Yet he went ahead and acceded to the genocidal elimination of intellectuals and imposing the wrath of the Army on the hapless citizens in the rural areas, forcing them to flee across the border. In 1965, Ayub Khan’s terrible hurry to instigate a conflict before India’s refurbished Army came into shape got the better of Pakistan.

What makes the Pakistani Generals the world’s finest conflict initiators and the worst terminators? When you belong to a service which is so dominant and can take credit for success while ascribing failure to others, decision making becomes easier. Yet, it leads to a brasher mindset. To conclude that the Pakistan Army has learnt something from its errant ways would be a mistake. It continues to follow the principles of irrationality and deniability as essential aspects of its military doctrine. The decision to strike at Pathankot air base with sponsored terrorists in order to upset the gains of the initiatives in India-Pakistan relations is reflective of this.

The Pakistan Army’s major force multipliers over the last 30 years or so have been two agencies, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), and India-focused terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Together they form the “deep state”, the diffused leadership which runs Pakistan’s anti-India campaign. The ISI gained its experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s as the lead intelligence agency while simultaneously pursuing a low-key proxy war in India’s Punjab in the 1980s.

In 1989, as conditions presented themselves, the Pakistan Army was confident of making a successful switch from Punjab to Jammu & Kashmir. The risk of escalation was huge and the nuclear parameters of either side were still ill-defined. Yet Pakistan took the risk and its intent was partially achieved; the risk-taking business is part of the Pakistan Army’s “caution be damned” attitude.

While we may brush aside the failure of the Pakistan Army in 1965 and 1971, its ability to conceive a hybrid strategy for retribution against India as a nation and the Indian Army in particular, and then pursue it for close to 40 years is in itself a reason to bring about a mindset.

In all these 40 years, it has never been chided internationally, thus emboldening it even further. The understanding and recognition that the core centre of radical Islam lies in the Af-Pak region has never been denied by the international community, but the Indian intent of having Pakistan declared a rogue state sponsoring transnational terror too, has never been given the seriousness it deserved. This supposed moral victory has given the Pakistan Army the confidence and the perception that the world rarely sees threats in unison. It can, therefore, continue to target India through its hybrid variety of proxy war without fear.

Where did the idea of proxy war come from and how did it take shape?

To understand this, it is necessary to go back to 1972 and the Shimla Agreement. The devious Pakistani mind was on display and so was the trusting Indian attitude. Ninety-three thousand prisoners of war were handed over without an attempt to seek a permanent solution to our border problems. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto guided Pakistan’s destiny for close to six years. It was the period in which the Pakistan Army was licking its wounds. In the interim came India’s Pokhran nuclear test, forcing the decision on Pakistan to also seek the bomb. In 1977, Zia-ul-Haq struck, unseated Bhutto and assumed power.

Zia then conceived his diabolical plan for seeking retribution. The plan was twofold. The first was all about neutralising India’s conventional superiority through acquisition of nuclear weapons capability. This was earnestly and illegally pursued through the 1980s and 1990s. The second was to seek opportunities or create them to exploit India’s apparent fault lines.

The history of the Af-Pak region through the 1980s is all about the experience that Pakistan Army’s senior and middle leadership gained in Afghanistan leading the transnational mujahideen and acting as the US and Saudi Arabia’s frontline state. They also ran a side show in India’s Punjab. It is this that apparently convinced the Pakistan Army leadership that religion/faith were powerful tools of motivation which created fervour and passion and could be exploited for strategic gains.

The 1980s also saw the advent of the Saudi clergy into Pakistan making a beeline for the seminaries set up in the refugee camps; the radical ideology of the Salafis found unresisted advocacy here. It was the beginning of the radicalisation of the Pakistan Army and the use of faith as a strategic weapon, something Pakistan continues to reflect in its larger thinking.

The opportunity did not need to be created. It came faster than anticipated and right where the Pakistani military leadership wanted it; in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. The runaway success in Afghanistan in forcing the Soviet withdrawal came to be associated with the last nail in the coffin of the Cold War. Pakistan became the favoured partner of the US-Saudi combine.

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Pakistani army soldiers in a search operation at the Bacha Khan university (A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani army soldiers in a search operation at the Bacha Khan university (A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)

It was heady, and the taste of success with the hybrid form of warfare in Afghanistan gave the generals the confidence to try the same against the Indian Army, then stuck in the quagmire of Sri Lanka. It’s a measure of the confidence of the Pakistani military leadership that it did not flinch when the opportunity was sensed in spite of the fact that Zia-ul-Haq, the chief advocate and strategist, died at the threshold in August 1988. Weaker leaderships may have succumbed, but General Mirza Afzal Beg, a mohajir cavalry officer along with Lt Gen Hamid Gul, a Punjabi, again from the cavalry, and experienced in conduct of covert operations as Director General, ISI, took the required decisions.

Institutionally, both ISI and ISPR have been the Pakistan Army’s mainstay in the execution of its strategy against India. The ISI has done the dirty work of getting the jihadi elements on board, as well as recruiting, financing and launching them, while the ISPR has managed the perception, information and strategic communication game. The leadership continues to believe in the infallibility of its strategy despite the Kargil setback and the near-war situations which emerged in 2001-02 and later in 2008.

On both occasions, the threshold of India’s tolerance for proxy war was crossed, but it did not progress into a full showdown. India’s advocacy of seeking all options is likely to have given the Pakistan Army a mistaken perception that it (India) was far too obsessed with its economic progress for it to risk a confrontation which would probably set it back by many percentage points in the economy charts.

In many ways, the ISPR, the lesser known of the two sword arms of the Pakistan Army, has been far more effective in its ventures and contributed greatly to the Pakistani strategy. Denial is its responsibility, besides the whole gamut of psychological operations. But it has been the joint effort of the two in bringing the struggle in Kashmir to the streets. Retrieving a tactical or operational situation involving terrorists, intrusions, infiltration or incidents of the Hazratbal and Charar-e-Sharif variety, is never a major challenge for the Indian Army as has been proven many times. However, the Pakistan Army has done its research well on the effects of an Intifada movement, the like of which was seen in 2008-10 and is continuing even now in 2016 after it was triggered by the death of Burhan Wani.

Recovery from such a situation needs a transformational change as was attempted in 2011. In a private discussion with the Indian defence attaché in 2011, Shuja Pasha, the high-profile ISI chief is believed to have referred to the 2011 initiatives of the Indian Army. He reportedly admitted that the Pakistan establishment watched with wonderment how the Indian Army deftly switched the situation around with a change of strategy in the approach to the people.

The Pakistanis know it and have read our weaknesses too. They are aware of the civil-military divide, the media obsession, the inability to focus on the Kashmiri alienation and the woeful quality of the information game. Can it all be defeated this time? Perhaps, the Indian government’s ownership of the surgical strikes may have surprised them. If anything, some pragmatism about the limits of Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir and elsewhere in India may have dawned on the Pakistan Army.

That India can choose to execute non-escalatory actions and be brazen enough to not even produce evidence to the world is a noticeable departure from the past. Having tasted success and got the passionate support of the public behind it, the Indian government’s actions could be also perceived by the Pakistan Army as no longer predictable and may therefore impose some caution.

However, it is also entirely believable that irrationality continues to rule the Pakistan Army’s mindset. A self-belief that tactical nuclear weapons are the guarantee against India’s proactive strategy may continue to prevail and that could be the reason for brazenness.

The Pakistan Army’s belief in the strength of its relationship with China is also a major factor in promoting its errant ways. The coming of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has enhanced the mutuality of that relationship. As the US-India strategic partnership emerges, the China-Pakistan equation will only strengthen, adding further weight to the mindset that the Pakistan Army can get away with some irrational acts to keep the pot boiling in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

Finally, has anything changed due to the surgical strikes? It would be unfair to deduce that these have had no effect. At the same time, to state that they have changed the mindset of the Pakistani military leadership and forced it to retract from its avowed policy of interference in Jammu & Kashmir would also be incorrect. What they have definitely achieved is the conveyance of a strategic message that India’s political leadership can and will take decisions and take them early enough; and that it is quite capable of playing a diplomatic game to isolate Pakistan. The combining of options is a lesson being slowly realised. However, India would do well to take precautions against a possible unpredictable and irrational act which will cause much dismay, emotive public response and pressure, and leave it with even lesser options than what it had after Uri.