Musharraf Contends with the Pashtun Element in the Pakistani Army

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 42

The recently concluded peace deal between the Pakistani army and pro-Taliban tribal elements in North Waziristan has led analysts to question why Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has backed down from military confrontation (Terrorism Monitor, October 5). The reason that the government made this decision is that keeping the Pashtuns of Afghanistan involved in the government process will keep Pakistani Pashtuns from revolting. It will be interesting to analyze whether Pashtun influence within the Pakistani army is a measurable factor, and if Pashtun power and opinion in the army have roles in these recent developments.

The Pakistani army stands today as the most organized, powerful and influential institution in the country. It has a cohesive and task-oriented profile with a strong esprit de corps. The composition and ethnic make-up of the Pakistani army have a long history—a brief reference to which is pertinent here. Before the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, imperial British rulers defined the recruitment policies and orientation of the British Indian forces for a little under a century. They were convinced that certain classes of Indians described as martial races were more suitable for army service and would make better soldiers. In the area that is today Pakistan, the British-preferred recruitment hubs were the Punjab, which includes the districts of Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Attock and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes the districts of Kohat, Mardan and Peshawar. After partition, Pakistan continued this unwritten policy at least until the late 1970s. From then onwards, it officially discarded this concept and tried to expand its recruitment base. The results today, however, are not any different from earlier times.

There are approximately 520,000 personnel on active duty in the army, which makes it one of the world’s largest, according to There are no official figures disseminated about the ethnic background of the officers as well as the ranks. Yet the estimation of two leading experts on the Pakistani army, namely Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution and Professor Hasan Askari Rizvi of Pakistan, indicates roughly that the Pashtun representation in the army is between 15-22% among officers and between 20-25% among the regular rank-and-file. However, Pashtuns from the NWFP, the third largest province out of four, and tribal areas together comprise only 16% of the country’s overall population. Still, these figures are lower than the ratio of personnel from the largest province, the Punjab, which represents 56% of the country’s population. Punjabi representation in the army is about 65% among officers and 70% among ranks. The remaining two provinces of the country, Balochistan and Sindh, consequently make up an even lower percentage of the army. The Pakistani army is often disdainfully dubbed as a Punjabi army by minority provinces. Among the well-informed though, the Pakistani army is considered a reserve of Punjabis and Pashtuns.

A more insightful fact is that out of the 11 chiefs of the army, four have been Pashtuns (Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Gul Hasan Khan and Waheed Kakar), leading the institution for a total of 18 years (Dawn, October 13). Two of them imposed martial law and remained presidents of Pakistan. Ayub Khan, the first Pakistani commander-in-chief of the army, remained at the helm of affairs for eight years as army chief (1951-58) and an additional 11 years as head of the country (1958-69) (Dawn, October 13). Ayub Khan also promoted himself to field marshal in 1965 and is credited with developing the army into one of the most resourceful and powerful institutions in the country. If it is any indicator of his legacy, his hand-painted portrait can often be seen on the back of the trucks driving from one side of the country to the other—as the transport business overwhelming is in the hands of the Pashtuns.

Within the ranks, Pashtuns are known for their marksmanship, courage and loyalty. Although there are no all-Pashtun regiments, and only one corps of the nine total is headquartered in NWFP, many important training centers for soldiers (Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan) and the only military training academy for officers (Kakul) are located in the NWFP.

Hence, Pashtuns are very well placed within the Pakistani army’s infrastructure. Although there is no such thing as a Pashtun grouping, their opinion certainly matters. After all, when they go on leave, they interact with the people of their area and are influenced by local opinions. What happens in the NWFP and the tribal areas directly affects their views to which the military hierarchy is not oblivious. According to the renowned analyst Ahmed Rashid, “The Waziristan deal was to prevent dissention within the Pakistan Army—border guards dying, defecting. The deal was to satisfy the Army” (Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, Kabul, October 4). There were reports even in 2004 when the military operation began in the area maintaining that there were desertions from the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force led by serving army officers but whose ranks are mostly Pashtun; Pashtuns refused to fight Pashtuns, creating serious unrest. Consequently, at least one Pashtun major-general from the Orakzai tribe has prematurely retired, while more than a dozen colonels have had to be posted elsewhere. Recently, a well known senior police officer hailing from Waziristan has also put in his papers in protest.

A well-researched media report from The Globe and Mail released on September 20, 2001 that profiled Musharraf in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks insightfully remarked that, “Musharraf has earned particular praise for bridging differences between the Punjabi and Pashtun officers who dominate Pakistan’s 520,000-strong army,” indicating that Pashtun officers’ opinions are taken seriously by him. He cannot be blamed for inconsistency, as far as this policy goes. His primary aim here clearly is to keep his constituency happy and united.