Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Pakistani Army confronts its declining moral mandate

As I am sure you have all heard already, a group of retired Pakistani military general officers have apologised to the Pakistani nation for past misdeeds.

This move comes close on the heels of an other suggestion that this group offered to General Pervez Musharraf to resign from his post as President and restore civilian leadership.

As I am sure you recall, the Pakistani Army had lost its standing with the Deobandi ulema of Pakistan after the Lal Masjid incident and without a single religious cleric to back their political maneuverings, the Pakistan Army gradually lost its position of dominance on Pakistani affairs. Already in the NWFP, a number of Islamist radical groups have gained an upper hand, and an increasingly hemmed in Pakistan Army is now fighting a losing COIN battle there. In Sindh and Punjab, the PPP and PML cadre are openly questioning the Army's authority.

In my opinion these are attempts by sections of the Pakistan Army top brass to regain the Pakistan Army's moral mandate. Due to the very nature of these efforts - a simulated distance has to emerge between Musharraf and the people making these efforts.

It is important to reflect on why that is so.

The Pakistan Army at the end of the day - relies on its ability to murder people at will to project its leadership of Pakistan. To some extent the legitimacy conferred by the religious elite on this license-to-kill is benificial but not essential. This apparent independence carries with it a flip side - when one uses violence with such a limitless sense - an adamantine chain of consequence links one to the consequences of the specific acts of violence.

Any attempt by the Pakistan Army to seem penitent for these acts will be seen as an admission of guilt by the people who were at the recieving end. This implication of guilt will serve as just cause for them to seek vengeance on the Pakistan Army itself. Any open apology from the army will carry with it the guarentee of a righteous retaliation.

And so the apology must be made in a veiled fashion - as coverty and as deniably as possible.

That - in my opinion - is what is going on right now.

Will the people of Pakistan - specifically the religious elite - find this apology credible? I do not think so. I fear that yet again the Pakistan Army is seriously underestimating of the extent of polarisation within the population.


At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


I feel there is an undercurrent in the recent happenings in Pakistan that has received lesser attention in commentariat that it deserves.

Not only is the Army, but also quite a few of the traditional Deobandi islamists like Fazl-ur-Rehman who are loosing their moral authority and mandate in Pakistan. I think the bipolar stress induced in the mass psyche from the disparity between the professed Islamic ideals and goals of these two and the reality of their actions post 9/11 has finally reached a tipping point triggered by the Army's wholesale and indiscriminate killing of civilians in the Pashtun areas.

What I see coming out of the Pashtun areas under the garb of Pashtun nationalism is an accutely puritanical Islamist ideology that is uncompromisingly clear about its goals and the stridently violent means needed to achieve them. And I think neither the Army nor the traditional Deobandis have any appreciable measure of control or influence over it. It is independent in that sense.

The emergence of these neo-Islamists is compounded by the demographic profile and economic realities of Pakistan. There are few if any meaningful avenues of gainful employment for most of the burgeoning population of young people in Pakistan. Combine this with a steady diet of soft islamist indoctrination since childhood and these young people are ripe for the picking by the neo-Islamists with their unapologetic, unqualified and clear cut sense of morality. The loss of moral authority by the Army and the traditional Deobandis is the final cherry on the cake.

The Americans have a term for this sort of a thing: a perfect storm, and that is precisely what I think is coming down the road in Pakistan as the neo-Islamists battle to fill in the moral vaccuum that exists in Pakistan today. Pakistan is heading towards, if not already in the middle of, extremely violent convulsions as this battle plays out. If the upcoming elections are perceived to be rigged, then this is guaranteed as the political class too joins this battle.

I think I finally get what Vikram Sood means when he says that Pakistan is facing its biggest crisis since the one that led to Bangladesh.

Incidently, in the past year I had a somewhat long chat with an influential south asia type in which I tried to warn him of the coming Islamist storm in Pakistan. He is not a part of the USG but nonetheless carries weight there and more or less reflects its views. His casual complacency about it was revealing to say the least. It seems to me that the Americans are operating upon outdated models of Pakistan that are creating and compounding their policy failures there with ramifications in Afghanistan as well.

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


One thing I forgot to mention in that last post:

Of all the commentators that I have read, only Afsir Karim in his ORF article and Vikram Sood in his latest oped seem to hint at the demographic angle that I mentioned before.

Vikram Sood's "unemployable jihadis" phrase is eminently quotable.

At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


One more unrelated thing that completely slipped my mind:

Did you happen to catch Kidwai's little press conference? I wonder what smoked him out into the open.

At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Faizi said...

The demographics are what are most ominous and worrying. Coupled with declining resources (water especially), the stage is set for severe and protracted conflict, and it is a worrying thought that India is unlikely to be able to remain immune or detached from this conflict. Also, historically, wars have been most frequent and acute when the demographics favor
young and economically frustrated populations (e.g Europe in the first and second wars).

At 12:35 PM, Blogger maverick said...

Hi Sparsh,

I think you are right - all the old men are losing their authority. It is a variation on the DCH control problem we have in India.

This is what the Late Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi kept telling the ISI handlers that the boys are becoming difficult to control. They kept telling him to keep trying but in the end it all fell apart.

I think a natural fissure is developing between the Deobandi religious leadership and the Army. In some ways they are developing strategies to handle complete opposite ends in the popular consciousness. At the present time the idea may simply to be to feed polarisation in a controlled fashion.

I have begun to doubt this "controlled" aspect of it. In some ways the kind of thing Faizi talks about - the comparison to "economically frustrated" populations in Europe 1900-1945 - this is a byproduct of a "controlled" violence cycle. This does not seem to be where Pakistan is headed. Pakistan has largely exhausted that possibility - there is no one that can adequately communicate with the youth at all.

Pakistan appears very strongly to be headed for uncontrolled violence.

Can you please give me a link to Kidwai's exact statement? I would not like to comment on it until I have read exactly what he has said. Thanks.

The American attitudes mirror the physical distance they can mentally put between themselves and the mess in Pakistan.

However I really do not understand the attitude of the Bhutto style feudals. Where does this stupid sense of entitlement come from? just because I can speak english with the right accent does not make me a suitable candidate for Prime Minister ship of Pakistan!! how does a stupid idea like this gain ground in the first place? Mental inbreeding is one thing - but this simply ridiculous!


Very interesting point as I have noted in earlier in this reply.

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


Re: The Islamists.

I think a natural fissure is developing within the Islamists themselves - that between the traditional islamists and the neo islamists. Actually I find the terms political islamists and jihadi islamists respectively to be more appropriate.

Could you explain this controlled polarization strategy that you think the political islamists and the army might try to implement to bring things under their control?

I don't see any way in which these two can get things under control. On one hand the army and the political islamists have preached and indoctrinated the virtues of jihad for nearly two decades now while on the other hand their actions post 9/11 have betrayed the fact that they do not really intend to carry out their message of jihad. This hypocrisy has become untenable. This hypocrisy is precisely why the old men within the political islamists have lost their moral authority over the young men within the jihadi islamists and I don't see any way short of turning jihadi themselves that they can regain what they have lost.

What we are seeing in Pakistan today is a generation of young men come of age - a generation that has seen no gainful education but only the glorification of jihad and the violent means to carry it out.


Re: Kidwai

I found nothing particularly noteworthy in what I read about what Kidwai said. What I did find noteworthy was that the Pakistanis felt they had to wheel out the head honcho himself in order to calm everybody down in public. That shows how uncomfortable they had become about the loose nukes rhetoric coming out of the US.


Re: The Feudals.

The Bhutto style feudals have correctly figured out that by airing too much of their democracy rhetoric in pursuit of other objectives in the Middle East, the USG has boxed itself into a corner as far as Pakistan is concerned. The USG can not be seen by its own people to be comfortable with a military dictatorship in Pakistan while beating other people with their democracy stick. Hence the need for a civilian "democratic" facade in Pakistan.

The traditional feudals like Bhutto are exploiting this need. They think that by saying the right things with the right accent in the West, the Americans will want them to be that facade and when America wants something, it can somehow make the PA deliver on it. This is a very cozy arrangement for all involved. The Americans get their civilian facade in Pakistan, the PA remains the real centre of power in Pakistan, and the feudals get to perpetuate a system of governance that preserves their feudal privileges.

However, I think this arrangement is increasingly becoming unsustainable. As KG once pointed out, the economic pie in Pakistan is no longer big enough to feed everyone lining up at the trough. In the ensuing dhakka-mukki, I expect the feudals to get pushed out. Violence as a means of political discourse has taken too deep a root in Pakistan and the feudals simply do not have enough guns.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger maverick said...


I admit I am leaving the realm of known facts and entering the uncomfortable gray world of speculation.

A fact which we do know is that there is a large number of young men drifting aimlessly around Pakistan and only a small fraction of these men can be absorbed into the Tanzeems or into the Army/Paramil/Police units.

The remainder of the young men need to be kept disoriented. If for some reason they develop a clear political direction, they may demand economic development.

The Mullahs and the Army have traditionally shared power in Pakistan with their old friend America. A concerted demand for economic development could unseat the Allah-Army-America alliance very rapidly as this alliance relies on keeping the meagre resources of Pakistan under tight control.

To this keep disorientation at a high level, I feel the Mullahs and the Army are in a rather badly scripted but nonetheless choreographed confrontation inside Pakistan.

The Mullahs have spawned a revisionist sub-group - the Islamists to act out their end of the confrontation and the Army has created its own brand of Anti-Islamists to do battle. The battle is bloody and painful and mostly killing non-combatants.

The Lal Masjid fiasco represents (in my opinion) what happens if the actors in this farce go off script. The Mullahs blame the Army for precipitating the "off-script" behaviour of the actors at Lal Masjid. That is where in my opinion the Army is losing its moral mandate and a very real and unscripted struggle is developing.

I worry (perhaps needlessly) that the manner in which things regularly go off-script represents the footfall of an unforgiving political reality.

I fear (perhaps unnecessarily) that neither the Mullahs nor the Army will be able to effect a strategy that brings the problem under control or even keeps it confined to Pakistan itself.

What God does not permit - man will try.

On the Kidwai front, I sense that the Pakistanis realised that this could very easily become a houbara hunt for Pakistan's crown jewels. I think that may be why Kidwai came forth.

With regards to the feudals, your hypothesis seems correct to me. The feudals are simply interested in freeing up more money to spend in the West either from their own funds locked up inside western banks or from USG channels than doing anything for Pakistan itself.

At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


What if the remainder of those young men develop a clear political direction and instead of demanding economic development they demand Islam?

I think we might be looking at the beginings of this in Pakistan and I suspect the choreographed confrontation that you speculate about is acting as a catalyst for this. These young men have been exposed to Islamist indoctrination to some degree or the other since childhood. What they perceive as happening in this confrontation is the Army killing fellow muslims for a few extra dollars of baksheesh from the Americans. This will not leave them disoriented. This will make them pick sides. That fact that these young men have seen no gainful education but only the glorification of jihadi violence will leave them all the more predisposed to demand Islam rather than economic development in the presence of such a confrontation.

Given the Islamic pretensions behind the rationale of the Pakistani state, it is incredibly easy for the jihadi islamists to paint the Army's actions in this confrontation as being downright anti-islamic and automatically secure the moral high ground among the young men. If things are indeed choreographed, this I suspect is why they regularly go off script. There is simply no way to keep the resulting anger among the young men under control. I can not imagine why the Army agreed to play a part in which it could be painted as anti-islamic given that a large portion of its moral standing in the popular perception comes from its image as the ultimate protector of the qila of Islam.

Come to think of it, there is one possibility. This "deal" that you speculate about could have been struck between the Army and political islamists who had promised to repair whatever damage the Army's islamic credentials might take in the confrontation. I don't think either one of them imagined the possibility that the political islamists themselves would considerably damage their own islamic credentials. This is not surprising in a country where demonstrating your patriotism comes down to showing that your own musharaff is more Islamic than than the next one.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Hi Sparsh,

The current thinking in Pakistan appears to be that it is unlike that public opinion will swing to an extreme either towards Roshan Khayali or towards radical Islam for an appreciable period of time. This view is supported by the bulk of history in Islamic states - radicalism only appears during periods of political instability when moral contracts are being rewritten at the highest levels of the state.

There are two very obvious problems with this model. Firstly, it relies on the accuracy of historical documentation - something I find notoriously unreliable. And secondly, there are significant differences between Islamic populations of old and today's Pakistan. Most importantly, information flows are more rapid today and secondly Pakistan's population far exceeds that of any Islamic state with a documeted history of radicalism.

It is unclear to me if the cult of violence carefully nurtured by the Pakistani Army and the Mullahs will remain controllable under such circumstances.

***In my opinion*** (and not that of anyone I may or maynot know) very strictly speaking one is entering uncharted seas here and a very diverse range of hitherto unseen phenomena could appear here. I am not sure if either the Pakistan Army or the Mullahs or the Americans have given this much thought. I for one am completely unsure as to how they have convinced themselves that this entire maneuver is not prone to runaway instabilities.

The Lal Masjid fiasco represents what will happen if the instability breeds to a point beyond control. There is no way a mullah or an army officer can control the specific actions of people and there is a fairly wide margin of error in such actions. I am not at all clear how one makes absolutely sure that the errors do not accumulate to push the entire process of polarisation beyond a locus of control.

This all falls in the category of the unknowable and unfathomable right now. I do not think the Pakistanis have the faintest idea about what to do in such a situation.

I find voicing such opinions in public tends to cause doors to shut in the West and evokes a most terrible silence among those that know the real deal in India.

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