Pakistan’s Army and the War on Terrorism in the Post-Musharraf Era

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

The sudden departure of President Musharraf from the helm of affairs in troubled Pakistan has created numerous doubts and uncertainties; most prominent are the stability of the shaky coalition in Islamabad and its expected stance towards support for the U.S.-led War on Terrorism in Afghanistan.

Although Musharraf was facing intense opposition at home because of his pro-U.S. posture, he stood firm in his support for the United States and the West right until his last day in power. This is despite the fact that his popularity plummeted continuously ever since he orchestrated the radical shift in Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban and brought Islamabad in line with U.S. goals, objectives, and ambitions in the region. His failure to motivate the Pakistani populace towards supporting the West in its military endeavors inside Afghanistan manifested in a sharp increase in incidents of wanton terrorism throughout Pakistan and also in the ignominious and embarrassing defeat of his political supporters in the February 2008 general elections.

The newly elected democratic government of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani has been beset with a plethora of problems right from the outset, leading Pakistan to collapse into a state of almost stagnant governance. Confronted with the issues of a shaky coalition in Islamabad, the restoration of the judiciary, rampant inflation, increased terrorist activity, and a crippling energy shortage, the new government has not been able to stabilize after almost six months in power.

Domestic Political Instability

With Nawaz Sharif’s party having decided to leave the coalition and field a candidate for the President’s post in opposition to Asif Ali Zardari, the domestic political scenario in Pakistan is, to say the least, uncertain and unpredictable. Since Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has the second largest presence in the Parliament after Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the latter could now be forced to rely more on smaller and regional (provincial) rather than national-level political entities such as Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Asfandyar Wali Khan’s Awami National Party (ANP), and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), as well as the independent members of the federal legislature (Daily Jang [Karachi], August 24). Bringing so many disparate political groups on board is a difficult job in itself, while holding them together for any appreciable period of time would be even more problematic.

The internal discord that is expected to characterize such a coalition is bound to lead to an unstable and weak federal legislature that would be inhibited from taking major decisions. This might put the central government at odds with the provincial legislatures, especially in the troubled provinces of Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and could also divert its attention from more important issues confronting Pakistan.

Increased Involvement of Pakistan Army

While General Ashfaq Kayani has tended to stay away from getting embroiled in Pakistan’s political quagmire, it must be considered that Musharraf’s presence as President was a major factor in inhibiting greater involvement of the Army in affairs of state. With his departure and the weak nature of the coalition in Islamabad, it is likely that the Pakistan Army could start playing a more assertive role in areas that it previously stayed away from, including matters pertaining to foreign policy. As such, it is possible that Pakistan’s continuing support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan would now be decided at the General Headquarters rather than elsewhere. Needless to say, a more prominent role for the Pakistan Army would also translate into an enhanced involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

If the Pakistan Army does take the dominant decision-making role vis-à-vis Pakistan’s posture towards the war in Afghanistan, the following aspects would influence any decision regarding Pakistan’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan:

• The Pakistan Army has been the prime beneficiary of the massive amount of U.S. aid that has flowed into Pakistan since October 2001. The Army would obviously desire to maintain close relations with the United States in order to prevent this aid channel drying up.

• General Kayani and most of the top leadership of the Pakistan Army have had tenures in the United States and other Western countries and still maintain their links with the senior military leadership in these countries. Having been exposed to Western lifestyles and cultures, most of these Generals have a liberal and progressive outlook towards life and are secular in thinking.

• Pakistan’s Army, being India-centric and eastwards-focused in its operational strategy and doctrine, does not prefer any direct involvement in the military operations being undertaken against the radical elements inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for a variety of reasons. Being a trained field army, its personnel are neither adequately trained nor equipped for counter-insurgency operations; it does not want to become embroiled in a civil war situation in the country since a substantial portion of its active-duty personnel hail from the NWFP; it has a sizeable number of religiously inclined individuals who would be loath to pick up weapons against fellow co-religionists and their own countrymen; and any significant deployment of the Pakistan Army in the north-west of the country would weaken its defensive posture against a resurgent and revitalized India. The Army’s reluctance to get seriously involved inside FATA would lead to a greater reliance on the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), which is not only woefully under-equipped but also untrained for this critical assignment (see Terrorism Monitor, July 25; August 11).

• Afghanistan has been touted as bestowing an element of geographic strategic depth to Pakistan, and this aspect necessitates the presence of a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul. While a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan might be enough to fulfill this requirement, the current pro-India Karzai government or any regime dominated by the Northern Alliance would not be acceptable to the Pakistan Army. This could well be the reason for the continued involvement of Pakistan’s ISI inside Afghanistan and its continued links with the Taliban. It can be expected, therefore, that the Pakistan Army and ISI would continue to maintain links with the Taliban while simultaneously contesting the rising Indian influence in Kabul. Such a posture might go against the policy of supporting Coalition forces fighting inside Afghanistan. The alleged involvement of the ISI in the recent terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul is a case in point (The Hindu, August 5;, August 4; AFP, August 5)

• The Army’s motivation for supporting the Coalition war effort in Afghanistan also stems from the possibility of increased US involvement in re-equipping and retraining the FC paramilitary. A revitalized and potent FC would obviate the need for Pakistan’s regular army to be deployed in the border areas and permit them to focus on safeguarding the eastern frontier with India.

• While Musharraf was seen as duplicitous in supporting the United States while simultaneously pursuing peace negotiations with the extremist elements inside FATA, the Pakistan Army has likely realized that the continuation of such a policy is further harming its image and will not bear any fruit. This is possibly why the recent offensive in Bajaur, Kurram, Swat, and areas of South Waziristan appears to be a concerted and focused military campaign, which has led to the militants suing for peace for the first time. Interestingly, the same government which was earlier contemplating holding peace negotiations responded not only by banning Baitullah Mahsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan but also by dismissing the request for a ceasefire outright (Dawn [Karachi], August 25; August 26).

Civil-Military Relations in Post-Musharraf Pakistan

While Musharraf’s departure has reduced the visible level of involvement of the Pakistan Army in affairs of state, it has by no means reduced its stature as a major domestic force and one of the key pillars of governance in the country. It can safely be expected that the weakness and instability of the political coalition will bestow greater significance on the domestic role of the Pakistan Army and could even see the coalition in Islamabad acceding to all “requests” of the Pakistan Army. The chance that any reluctance on the part of the elected politicians to digress from the path desired by the Pakistan Army may lead to yet another military coup in Pakistan is likely to figure prominently in the thinking of the elected leaders and could well force them to acquiesce to the desires of the Pakistan Army. In some ways, this would highlight a paradox that has continued to figure in Pakistani politics – the departure of a strong albeit despised military ruler from the corridors of power has once again presented the all-powerful Pakistan Army with yet another opportunity for calling the shots in Islamabad. The power and influence that the Pakistan Army continues to enjoy became fairly evident when Prime Minister Gillani’s government had to revoke an order placing the powerful ISI under the Ministry of Interior within six hours of its issuance, primarily due to pressure from the Army (Times of India, August 6).

Nawaz Sharif is considered by some to be the most conservative and religious-minded amongst the key political leaders, but with Sharif leaving the coalition government, those in support of a negotiated settlement in FATA have definitely been weakened. This is not to say, however, that those in favor of continuing negotiations with the extremist militants do not still exist in sizeable numbers amongst the elected politicians. During the election campaign, most of the political parties harped on the theme that Musharraf had been waging a war on his own people; these parties instead promised to seek a non-military solution to the problems being encountered in FATA. As such, at least initially, the politicians might attempt to open channels with Baitullah Mahsud and other key leaders of the extremist groups. Such steps, however, might not go down well with the U.S. (or the West) or with the Army leadership, which would be keen on keeping the United States happy. Differences over the approach to be adopted towards the extremist elements in FATA could thus emerge as the first bone of contention between the Pakistan Army and the political government.

U.S. Policy towards Post-Musharraf Pakistan

The United States will have to maintain a careful balance in its relations with the Pakistan Army on one hand and the government of Prime Minister Gillani on the other. While the tottering Gillani regime may look to the United States for support to strengthen its domestic standing, the powerful Army will be looking for the flow of military aid and equipment to continue unabated. Since Coalition military operations in Afghanistan are contingent to a great extent on the availability of secure supply routes through Pakistan, the United States will have to try to balance the interests of both.

In an attempt to rope in the ISI, the United States may bring its influence to bear upon India and the Karzai government in an attempt to alleviate Pakistani concerns over the increasing influence that the Indians are perceived to be wielding in Kabul. U.S. efforts at assuaging Pakistan’s security concerns about being sandwiched between arch-rival India on the east and a hostile Afghanistan on the west would not only satisfy the security concerns of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership but would also encourage Pakistan to support U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan more zealously.

In what appears to be an acceptance of the key role of the Pakistan Army in Pakistan’s continuing support for the War on Terrorism, the normally irregular interaction between the senior military leadership of the US and Pakistan has been significantly enhanced in the past few weeks, culminating in a sort of a secret “military summit” between the top American and Pakistani military leaders on board the USS Abraham Lincoln (Dawn, August 28, Daily Times [Lahore], August 29) The most interesting aspect of this meeting was the statement of U.S. chief-of-staff Admiral Michael Mullen that he believed “Pakistan’s focus in the war on terror was where it should have been.” This is in sharp contrast to Condoleezza Rice and other State Department officials who have been harping on the theme that Pakistan “is not doing enough.” Speaking of how Pakistan was performing in the War on Terror, one U.S. defense official said, “They are doing more and becoming more effective, but there is still a long way to go” in the tribal areas. (The News [Islamabad], August 29)

In its efforts to prevent the cross-border movement of extremist elements between Afghanistan and Pakistan and also to eliminate those extremists who have found shelter within FATA, the current U.S. plan to implement a two-pronged strategy of revitalizing the FC and creating Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) for the socio-economic development of FATA promises to deliver effective results. Being a long-term project, however, this process will be time consuming and drawn out, necessitating uninterrupted and continuous funding with adequate supervision of the implementation process at the grass-roots level. It must, however, be kept in mind that the proposal for creating ROZs in the FATA must be undertaken in unison with the proposed socio-economic development plans that Prime Minister Gillani’s government is envisaging for FATA, including scrapping the century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).


Every challenge also presents an opportunity, and the challenges posed by the current political situation in Pakistan are no different. In order for these to be tackled, however, it must be ensured that the views as well as the compulsions of the involved stake-holders are fully taken into account.

Committed to combating the threat posed by the extremist elements currently operating inside Afghanistan from safe havens inside FATA, the United States needs Pakistan. President Musharraf’s sudden departure from the decision-making scene in Pakistan has created a void in the country’s hierarchy which will be filled over time by the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Gillani and the Pakistan Army led by General Kayani. In order to ensure that both these power nodes within Pakistan remain committed to supporting Coalition military operations in Afghanistan, the West in general and the United States in particular must continue a state of balanced interaction with both. This interaction should be aimed at soliciting their unstinting support for the War on Terrorism while simultaneously addressing the security and economic concerns of the Pakistani leadership.