The Military

For men may come, and men may go, but I go on for ever.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Brook)

Different sections of Pakistani society have different images or mirrors of paradise, which they try to create to the best of their ability on this earth, and that serve as havens from the squalor and disorder – physical and moral – by which they are surrounded. For believers, this image is of course the mosque, or, for the devotees of saints among them, the shrines.

As throughout the arid parts of the earth, almost everyone sees paradise as a garden, and those with the money to do so try to recreate on a small scale the great gardens of the old Muslim rulers. For the upper classes, paradise is an international hotel, with its polished cleanliness and luxury, its hard-working, attentive staff, its fashion shows and business presentations, in which they can pretend for a while that they are back in London or Dubai.

For the military, the image of paradise is the cantonment, with its clean, swept, neatly signposted streets dotted with gleaming antique artillery pieces, and shaded by trees with the lower trunks uniformly painted white. Putting trees in uniform might seem like carrying military discipline too far, and the effect is in fact slightly comical – like rows of enormous knobbly-kneed boys in white shorts. However, the shade is certainly welcome, as are the signposts and the impeccably neat military policemen directing the traffic in an orderly fashion.

The buildings of the cantonments are equally impressive inside. In the poorer parts of Pakistan, the contrast with civilian institutions – including those of government – is that between the developed and the barely developed worlds. In Peshawar, the recently refurbished headquarters of the XI Corps gleams with marble and polished wood, and has a fountain playing in its entrance hall, while government ministers work from decaying office blocks with peeling walls and broken stairs. In the military headquarters, every staff officer has a computer. In the government offices, most ministers do not (and in many cases would not know how to use them if they did).

The cantonments are not just about providing pleasant and orderly surroundings for generals. They also contain a range of services for the ordinary soldiers and their families of a quality totally unknown as far as ordinary people in the rest of Pakistan are concerned. The US armed forces, which also devote great attention to looking after the families and dependants of their servicemen, have been called ‘the last vestige of the Great Society’ in the US (a reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s social welfare programme in the 1960s). The Pakistani armed forces could well be called the only element of a great society that has ever existed in Pakistan.


The cantonments were originally built by the British as absolutely conscious and deliberate statements of difference and distance from the society that surrounded them, their straight lines symbolizing order and rationality; and quite apart from the British-Indian architecture that still dominates many of the cantonments, this sense of difference and distance is still very present. In the words of a senior officer of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with whom I talked in 2009:

Under the British, the military was kept in cantonments very separate from society. That was a good model, because in Pakistan there is a permanent threat of politicization and corruption of the military. We fear this very deeply and try to keep ourselves separate. Within purely military institutions, things are honest and closely controlled. This is a matter of honour for officers and people keep tabs on each other. Corruption comes wherever there is interaction with civilian bodies.

We have a great fear of the politicians interfering in military promotions and appointments. This could split the army and if you split the army you destroy the country. Look at what happened under Nawaz Sharif’s last government. Karamat [General Jehangir Karamat, then chief of army staff] accepted a lot from Nawaz, but in the end the army couldn’t take any more. Whenever a civilian government starts trying to interfere in this sector, we have to act in self-defence.

This of course is quite against democratic rules; but before condemning the military for this, it is worth acknowledging the very real dangers presented by political splits in the military – and asking oneself the question whether, given their records, one would really want the likes of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari to be responsible for military appointments.

Commitment to the army, and to the unity and discipline of the army, is drilled into every officer and soldier from the first hour of their joining the military. Together with the material rewards of loyal service, it constitutes a very powerful obstacle to any thought of a coup from below, which would by definition split the army and would indeed probably destroy it and the country altogether. Every military coup in Pakistan has therefore been carried out by the chief of army staff of the time, backed by a consensus of the corps commanders and the rest of the high command. Islamist conspiracies by junior officers against their superiors (of which there have been two over the past generation) have been penetrated and smashed by Military Intelligence.

Military morale has come under unprecedented strain from the war in Afghanistan and the very widespread feeling among ordinary Pakistanis that the military have become servants of the Americans. So far, however, discipline has held, and in my view will continue to do so unless the US does something that ordinary soldiers would see as a direct affront to their honour.

The Pakistani military, more even than most militaries, sees itself as a breed apart, and devotes great effort to inculcating in new recruits the feeling that they belong to a military family different from (and vastly superior to) Pakistani civilian society. The mainly middle-class composition of the officer corps increases contempt for the ‘feudal’ political class. The army sees itself as both morally superior to this class, and far more modern, progressive and better-educated.

In the words of Lt-General (retired) Tanvir Naqvi:

The run-of-the-mill officer feels very proud of the fact that the army is a very efficient organization and is therefore a role model for the rest of the country in terms of order, discipline, getting things done and above all patriotism. He is very proud of Pakistan and very proud of the army.1

This belief is also widely present in Pakistani society as a whole, and has become dominant at regular intervals. As Nawabzada Aurangzeb Jogezai, a Pathan tribal chieftain and politician in Balochistan, told me in accents of deep gloom concerning his own political class:

In Pakistan, only one institution works – the army. Nothing else does. Look at the difference between Quetta City and Quetta Cantonment. When people here enter the cantonment, their whole attitude changes. You straighten your tie, do up your shirt, leave your gun at home, become very polite. When you cross the military checkpoint again, you go back to being the same old bandit. Because in the city order is kept by the police, who are weak, corrupt and shambolic and dominated by the politicians, but the cantonment is run by the army, and in the end, this country is always saved by the army. The politicians themselves call for this when they have made enough of a mess of things or want to get their rivals out of power. Look at the PPP. Now they say that they are for democracy and against military rule, but in 1999 Benazir distributed sweets [a traditional sign of rejoicing and congratulation] when the army overthrew Nawaz Sharif.2

These feelings in the mass of the population are always diminished by periods of direct military rule, when the military has to take responsibility for the corruption and incompetence of the state system as a whole. However, admiration for the military always comes back again, as their relative efficiency in their own area is contrasted with the failings of civilian politicians. This was the case for example during the floods of 2010 – only two years after the last military ruler left office – when the military’s rescue and relief efforts were compared with the incompetence, corruption and above all indifference of the national and provincial governments and the civilian bureaucracy. As this chapter will bring out though, this relative military efficiency is only possible because the military has far more resources than civilian institutions.

It is unfortunately true that whatever the feelings of the population later, every military coup in Pakistan when it happened was popular with most Pakistanis, including the Pakistani media, and was subsequently legitimized by the Pakistani judiciary. As Hasan-Askari Rizvi writes of the coup of 1999: ‘The imposition of martial law was not contested by any civilian group and the military had no problem assuming and consolidating power.’3 In his book on the Pakistani military, Shuja Nawaz describes how, when his brother General Asif Nawaz was chief of army staff during Nawaz Sharif’s first government in the 1990s, some of Mr Sharif’s own ministers would come to see his brother to complain about the prime minister and ask the military to throw him out and replace him with someone else.4

It is possible that developments since 2001 have changed this pattern. This is due to the new importance of the independent judiciary and media; the way that the military’s role both in government and in the unpopular war with the Pakistani Taleban has tarnished their image with many Pakistanis; and because Pakistan’s history of military coups has taught both the PPP and the PML(N) the dangers of intriguing with the military against their political opponents. It seems highly likely that in 2009 – 10 Nawaz Sharif would have made a determined push to use mass protest to bring down the PPP national government, had he not been sure that this would inevitably bring the military back into the centre of politics, and therefore later risk repeating the experience of 1999 when the military ousted him from power too. General Kayani and the high command also deeply distrust the Sharifs.5

However, this change is not proven yet, and depends critically on how Pakistani civilian governments perform in future. On that score, by the summer of 2009, only a year after Musharraf’s resignation, many Pakistanis of my acquaintance, especially of course politicians who had failed to find a place in the Zardari administration or the PML(N) government of Punjab, and in the business classes, were once again calling for the military to step in to oust the civilian administration of President Zardari. They did not necessarily want the military to take over themselves, but to purge the most corrupt politicians and create a government of national unity or a caretaker government of technocrats.

Civilian governments themselves have often asked the military to step into aspects of government, because of its greater efficiency and honesty. For example, in 1999 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, faced with a disastrous water and power situation, put the military in charge of these sectors in order to bring some order and enforce the payment of fees. Both the Sharif and Musharraf administrations also used the military in the field of education, to search for ‘ghost schools’ (ones which are officially listed as operating, but in fact do not exist because the money for them has been stolen by officials, local politicians or both). In July 2009, the military – in the person of Lt-General Nadeem Ahmed, commander of the First Corps at Mangla, and his staff – were put in charge of co-ordinating relief and reconstruction in Swat and elsewhere.

Apart from its inherent qualities and a strong measure of popular support, the military’s power comes from the fact that it has far greater financial resources than any other state institution – indeed, than almost all the rest put together. Voltaire remarked of Frederick the Great’s Prussia that ‘Where some states have an army, the Prussian army has a state.’ In view of the sheer size and wealth of the Pakistan military and associated institutions compared to the rest of the state, much the same could be said of Pakistan – especially if the nuclear sector is included.

By world standards, the scale of the Pakistani army is very great. As of 2010, it had 480,000 men (with another 304,000 serving in paramilitary units), almost as large as the American, and far bigger than the British army. These are not the demoralized conscripts of Iraq in 2003 or the rag-tag Taleban militias of Afghanistan in 2001, but highly motivated volunteers. Fears of the effects on international terrorism if Pakistan were to collapse have focused on the fate of the country’s nuclear deterrent; but a more immediate – and absolutely inevitable – result would be the flow of large numbers of highly trained ex-soldiers, including explosives experts and engineers, to extremist groups.

The Pakistani army is the world’s largest after China, Russia – and India, which is of course the rub. In the Middle East, South-East Asia, Africa or South America, Pakistan would be a regional great power. India, however, eclipses it on every front. The Indian army as of 2008 had 1.1 million men, twice Pakistan’s numbers; but the Indian military budget, at the equivalent of $23.5 billion, was almost seven times Pakistan’s $3.56 billion, just as India’s GDP, at more than 1 trillion dollars, was eight times Pakistan’s $126 billion.6

Pakistan’s military spending in that year made up some 17.5 per cent of the government’s budget. This was a radical reduction from the 1980s, when the military proportion of Pakistan’s budget was around 60 per cent. With India spending on the military 14.1 per cent of a vastly greater 2008 budget, Pakistan’s expenditure was not remotely enough to compete with India. Meanwhile, this military spending has gravely undermined the ability of both India and Pakistan to provide essential services to their citizens.


The Pakistani military likes to think of itself as a big family – and in some ways it is more like a Pakistani big family than it likes to think. Its success as an institution and power over the state comes from its immunity to kinship interests and the corruption they bring with them; but it has only been able to achieve this immunity by turning itself into a sort of giant kinship group, extracting patronage from the state and distributing it to its members.

Much Pakistani corruption is obviously about personal gain. Equally important, however, is corruption as patronage – the recycling of state money by politicians to win, retain and reward supporters, and (which comes to the same thing) to help members of the politicians’ kinship groups. Outright individual corruption in the Pakistani military is, as one would expect, centred on weapons procurement and those branches of the military dealing with civilian businesses. The most notorious case (or, at least, the most notorious that was exposed) in the past twenty years involved the chief of the naval staff from 1994 to 1997, Admiral Mansur-ul-Haq, who was convicted of taking massive kickbacks from a submarine contract and was eventually sentenced to seven years in jail, which he managed to have radically reduced by paying back most of the money. Such cases, however, seem to be relatively rare – and, by the standards of Pakistan in general, remarkably rare.

A journalist in the Sindhi town of Larkana explained this lack of outright corruption in the military as follows:

One friend of mine, a colonel in the army, is about to retire. He has been allocated a plot of land in Islamabad, which he can either build a house on or sell for a big profit, and there is also a job in the Fauji Foundation. So he doesn’t need to steal. Another friend, an SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police], will also retire soon, and he will have nothing but his miserable pension to live on, so he has to secure his retirement through corruption.

A military friend told me of some retired military men, like Colonel Shafiq-ur-Rehman, who have become well-known Pakistani humorist writers, ‘but they write humour, not satire, because they are happy, live comfortably and play a lot of golf’.

In the Pakistani military, as in some Western defence establishments, one can almost speak of ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’ corruption. The first is theft pure and simple, as in the case of Mansur-ul-Haq. The second is benefits to servicemen – and, much more importantly, to retired servicemen – not accessible to the rest of the population. In this, it is worth noting, Pakistan is not so different from the US, where senior officers and officials on retirement step into senior jobs with private corporations dealing with the military, and use their military knowledge and connections for personal gain.

Concerning the military patronage system, public criticism in Pakistan has focused on three areas: the appointment of retired officers to senior jobs in the administration and state-owned corporations (true, but also true in the US, albeit to a lesser extent); the ability of officers to buy land through instalment plans on easy terms in Defence Housing Associations (or to be allocated a free plot after thirty-two years’ service); and militarycontrolled businesses. Some of this criticism is fair, but some reflects ignorance both of military needs and of Pakistani realities.7

Thus the Pakistani military, like all militaries, suffers from the problem of a sharply tapering promotion pyramid as officers and soldiers get older, and the need to retire large numbers of officers in their forties or fifties into an economy which cannot provide nearly enough middle-class jobs to support them. Access to plots of land is in itself a reasonable way of ensuring a decent retirement, and is part of a South Asian tradition going back to British and indeed Mughal days. Also reflecting this old tradition is the military’s grant of land to wounded soldiers and the families of soldiers killed in action.

The state also reserves certain junior categories of state service for ex-soldiers, including 50 per cent of places for official drivers.8 Officers of the rank of captain or its equivalent are also allowed to transfer to the senior ranks of the civil service and police if they pass the relevant examinations. Apart from this regular system, however, over the years a great many retired or serving senior officers have been appointed to positions in the diplomatic service, the bureaucracy, state-owned industrial and power companies and the administration of universities. In February 2008, General Kayani ordered that all serving (but not of course retired) officers resign from positions in the civilian sector.

General Naqvi justified the system of land purchase to me in words that have been used by other officers to justify the patronage system as a whole:

The officer in general sees himself as leading a frugal life compared to the civilian officials, let alone the politicians and businessmen. An officer’s career may seem privileged, but it involves a nomadic life, living for long years in freezing or boiling garrisons in the middle of nowhere, not being able to look after your children after a certain age because they have to be sent off to school and live with your parents. Wages have gone down radically compared to the private sector over the past thirty years, though you are still quite handsomely rewarded at retirement. That is why it is so important to have the possibility to buy land for a house over a long period and on easy terms ...9

The problem is that the military’s power within the state (or importance to the state) has meant that over the years the state has given these Defence Housing Associations (DHAs) free land in what used once to be outer suburbs of cities but are now among the most expensive pieces of real estate in Pakistan. In the case of the Lahore DHA, according to the BBC, the real value of a plot increased in the six years from 2000 to 2006 from $65,000 to more than $1.5 million.10

Inevitably, officers are buying their plots at subsidized rates and then selling them at market ones; and generals, who can acquire up to four plots depending on their rank (or even more at the very top – Musharraf had seven), are making fortunes – perfectly legally. Like US generals taking jobs with arms companies, this might be said to come under the heading of behaviour which isn’t illegal but damned well ought to be; and is indeed attracting some criticism within the military itself. In the words of Major-General (retired) Mahmud Ali Durrani,

They should have given every officer just one plot and then there would have been no criticism, but people got greedy. When I was a captain, I was the only officer I knew who had a car of his own (a present from my father) – and I couldn’t afford to buy a new tyre! Everyone used to bicycle to work. But then society and the middle classes became more affluent, and the officers felt that they had to catch up. The army couldn’t afford higher pay, so they looked for other ways.11

With the exception of the state-owned armaments companies, Pakistan’s military businesses were created to look after retired and disabled soldiers. The foundations were laid by the British Military Reconstruction Fund for retired and wounded Indian soldiers during the Second World War. In 1953, the Pakistani military decided to invest their share of the remaining funds in commercial ventures, with the profits still being used for the same purpose.

In 1967 the resulting complex of industries and charitable institutions was renamed the Fauji Foundation. By 2009, the Fauji Group (the commercial wing) had assets worth Rs125 billion ($1.48 billion), and the Fauji Foundation (running the welfare institutions), Rs44 billion. A popular misconception notwithstanding, the Group’s commercial activities are not exempt from taxation, and in 2005 – 6 they paid Rs32.4 million in taxes. Its spending on welfare, however, is tax-exempt as a charity.

The Fauji Board is headed by the chief secretary of the defence ministry (a civil servant), and made up of serving senior officers. The chief executive is a retired general. The Fauji Group started in textiles, and now owns or has shares in fertilizer, cement, cereal and electricity plants, security services and experimental farms. Fauji cornflakes confront many Pakistanis every day for breakfast. As of 2009 the group employed 4,551 ex-servicemen and 7,972 civilians. It obviously is a lucrative – though limited – source of patronage for ex-officers and NCOs.

When servicemen retire, only they themselves (and not their families) are guaranteed military health care. The Fauji Foundation, with a budget of around Rs4 billion a year, therefore provides health care, education and vocational training for the children and dependants of ex-servicemen, and for the parents, widows and families of soldiers killed or disabled in action.

Men actually serving are helped by the welfare trusts of the army, navy and air force, with help for their families’ education and support for amenities like sports clubs. The Army Welfare Trust has total assets of some Rs50 billion ($590 million), and owns among other things 16,000 acres of farmland, rice and sugar mills, cement plants, and an insurance company. Unlike the Fauji Foundation, the welfare trusts benefit from lower rates of tax and other state subsidies.

As of 2009, the Fauji Foundation runs 13 hospitals, 69 medical centres and mobile dispensaries, 93 schools, 2 colleges (one for boys and one for girls), and 77 technical and vocational training centres. Since its creation, it has provided Rs3.2 million stipends to the children of soldiers. It also runs a private university, with a proportion of funded places for the children of ex-servicemen. Having spent some time visiting military hospitals and talking with soldiers who have been disabled in the fight with the Taleban, I must confess that all this seems to me both necessary and admirable. In addition, the Fauji industries have a reputation for being well run and looking after their workforce.

The chief objections raised against them are threefold. Firstly, that the military should not be involved in commercial business on principle. This seems to me just another case of insisting that Pakistan rather selectively follow Western models. Since the 1990s, the Chinese military has divested itself of its formerly huge direct commercial holdings, but it has done so by spinning these off into independent companies run by retired officers – similar to those of the Fauji Foundation. The Chinese economic model is emerging as a serious rival to that of the West in Asia, so there is no particular reason why the Pakistani military should be judged according to Western patterns in this matter.

The parallel with China is also interesting from another point of view. As the Chinese, South Korean, Taiwanese (and even to some extent Japanese) examples show, high levels of corruption and of state links to private companies are entirely compatible with the highest rates of economic growth. What appears essential, though, is that the corruption be informally regulated, limited, and above all predictable; and that both the corruption and the relationship with companies exist in an atmosphere which demands that patronage produce economic results, and not merely the endless circulation of money and sinecures. If Pakistan could move towards this kind of corruption, it would have taken an immense step towards economic, political and indeed moral progress.

This argument also partially answers one of the most serious objections to the industries owned by the military: that the Fauji and Army Welfare Fund industries’ link to the state gives them unfair commercial advantages. It is true that the Welfare Fund has benefited from subsidies, but at least they appear to have been ploughed back into its industries and not simply stolen, as has been the case with so many state loans to private business.

Moreover, if the military businesses were deriving really massive competitive advantages from the state, it should be above all rival businessmen who complain, and in my experience this is not the case. On the contrary, ‘it is better that the military is involved in industry – it helps them understand industry’s concerns’, as an industrialist friend told me. Only half-jokingly, he suggested that rather than the Fauji Group being run by a retired general, it should be a requirement for generals being considered for chief of the army staff that they should have previously run the Group – ‘that way, our next military ruler would be an experienced businessman’.

It would also be quite unfair to see the role of ex-soldiers in society as chiefly the result of state patronage. As in some Western societies – but to a far greater extent – retired soldiers are also prized by private businesses and NGOs for the qualities of discipline, honesty, hard work and indeed higher education that they have acquired during their military service – qualities which alas are not so common in wider Pakistani society.

Thus one of the most moving and convincing tributes to the military that I have seen was paid by the Citizens’ Foundation educational charity, mentioned in the last chapter. The Foundation, which is funded by a mixture of business and individual contributions, largely employs ex-officers as its administrative and directing staff. This is both because of their reputation for efficiency and honesty, and because the soldiers, having spent so much of their lives in garrisons, are prepared to go and work in the countryside and small towns, in a way that most educated Pakistani civilians are not.

There has, however, been one very dark spot on the military’s involvement in the economy. This was the use in 2002 – 3 of the paramilitary Rangers to brutally suppress protests by tenants on agricultural land owned by the military at Okara in Punjab after the terms of their tenancy were arbitrarily changed. This behaviour was no worse than that of the ‘feudal’ politicians whom officers profess to despise – but also no better. The Okara case indicates the improbability of the military ever returning to the land reform agenda of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and of launching a serious assault on the ‘feudal’ elites – of which the army itself has to some extent become a part. It was apparently, however, a unique case, which has not been repeated on military-owned land elsewhere.

The imperative to look after retirees and soldiers’ families is especially strong in the Pakistani military because of the central role of morale in Pakistani military thinking. Recognizing from the first that the Pakistani armed forces were going to be heavily outnumbered by the Indians, and that Pakistan could only afford limited amounts of high technology, a decision was made to rely above all on the morale and fighting spirit of the soldiers. This emphasis also reflected self-perceptions of Muslim Punjabis and Pathans as natural fighters, and the legacy of British belief in loyalty to the regiment.

As part of the effort to maintain strong morale, the Pakistani armed forces offer both high pay and excellent services – services that are good by world standards, not just the miserable ones of Pakistan in general. They offer these services not just to the soldiers and their immediate families, but to retired soldiers and the parents of soldiers. The effect has been to make military service very attractive indeed for many ordinary Pakistanis, and to ensure a high quality of recruits.

The family aspect of the Pakistan military was illustrated for me by a visit to the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar in July 2009, an old red-brick British building with Pakistani additions. Until the fighting with the militants began, its biggest task was delivering babies – 1,321 of them in 2008, ‘because Pakistani soldiers are very vigorous, you see’, as Colonel Bushra, the female head of the family wing (and indeed a grandmotherly kind of officer), told me with a twinkle.12

When I visited the hospital, of its 600 beds, 47 were occupied by the parents of soldiers, some 60 by children, and around 40 by non-military civilians. The hospital and its seventy doctors provide important additional services to the horribly underfunded and overloaded civilian medical services of Peshawar, with specialist paediatric and intensive care units, incubators for premature babies (four when I visited), and so on.

It was not just the equipment, but also the cleanliness and general atmosphere of the hospital that were striking after some of the truly ghastly state medical institutions I had visited in Pakistan. And the effort needed to maintain both cleanliness and diligence in the middle of the South Asian monsoon will not need emphasizing to anyone who has lived through monsoons in the plains.

As the hospital commander, Brigadier Khalid Mehmood, in an interview on the same day, told me, ‘All this is so that when the soldier is fighting at the front, he knows that his family are being looked after at home. This is crucial for maintaining the morale of the soldiers, on which in the end everything else depends. This means not just medical services, but also education, and help with finding jobs when the soldier retires.’

The brigadier also exemplified the other family aspect of the Pakistani military. He is by origin an Awan from Gujjar Khan in the Potwar region of Punjab, still the most important Pakistani military recruiting ground, and his father, grandfather, uncle and father-in-law were all officers. Most of the wounded officers I met were also from families with previous military connections.

To create services and surroundings like this hospital, two things are necessary: a strong sense of collective solidarity and esprit de corps, with the dedication and honesty that this creates; and a great deal of money. Neither element can exist without the other. The Pakistani military is a striking institution by the standards of the developing world, and an absolutely remarkable one for Pakistan. Pakistani military discipline, efficiency and solidarity have repeatedly enabled the Pakistani military to take over the state, or to dominate it from behind the scenes. They have used this power in turn to extract enormous financial benefits for the armed forces.

However, the military’s collective spirit has meant that in general these resources have not simply been recycled into patronage or moved to bank accounts in the West, as would have been true of the civilian politicians. They have mostly been used for the benefit of the armed forces; and these rewards in turn have played an absolutely critical part in maintaining military morale, discipline and unity.

The effects have been similarly Janus-faced. The military has repeatedly overthrown Pakistani ‘democracy’, and the scale of military spending has severely limited funds available for education, development, medical services and infrastructure. If continued, this imbalance risks eventually crippling the country and sending Pakistan the way of the Soviet Union – another country which got itself into a ruinous military race with a vastly richer power. On the other hand, the rewards of loyal military service have helped to prevent military mutinies and coups by junior officers – something that would plunge Pakistan overnight into African chaos, and usher in civil war and Islamist revolt. As Tan Tai Yong writes of the British Indian army, in terms very relevant to the forces of Pakistan today in their fight with the Pakistani Taleban:

Clearly, the tasks of securing the reliability of the Indian Army did not merely pertain to military discipline and punishment; the maintenance of its social base – the soldier at his home – was equally, if not more important, as 1857 showed. One could plausibly argue that it was in the soldiers’ homes and villages, and not in the regiments, that the loyalty of the army was often won or lost. Similarly, the maintenance of the recruiting ground did not merely entail ensuring a constant supply of recruits. More than that, it demanded the safeguarding of the interests of the general military population – recruits, serving soldiers, pensioners and their dependants – as a whole.13

This is hardly an academic issue. Since 9/11, the Pakistani military has been forced into an alliance with the US which a majority of Pakistani society – including the soldiers’ own families – detests. At least until 2007 – 8, when the Pakistani Taleban emerged as a direct threat to Pakistan itself, much of the military was extremely doubtful about military action against Pakistani militants, seeing this as a campaign against fellow Pakistani Muslims for the good of and on the orders of the US. As a lt-colonel fighting the Pakistani Taleban in Buner told me in July 2009,

The soldiers, like Pakistanis in general, see no difference between the American and the Russian presences in Afghanistan. They see both as illegal military occupations by aliens, and that the Afghan government are just pathetic puppets. Today, also, they still see the Afghan Taleban as freedom-fighters who are fighting these occupiers just like the Mujahidin against the Russians. And the invasion of Iraq, and all the lies that Bush told, had a very bad effect – soldiers think that the US is trying to conquer or dominate the whole Muslim world. But as far as our own Taleban are concerned, things are changing.

Before, I must tell you frankly, there was a very widespread feeling in the army that everything Pakistan was doing was in the interests of the West and that we were being forced to do it by America. But now, the militants have launched so many attacks on Pakistan and killed so many soldiers that this feeling is changing ...

But to be very honest with you, we are brought up from our cradle to be ready to fight India and once we join the army this feeling is multiplied. So we are always happy when we are sent to the LOC [the Line of Control dividing Pakistani and Indian Kashmir] or even to freeze on the Siachen. But we are not very happy to be sent here to fight other Pakistanis, though we obey as a matter of duty. No soldier likes to kill his own people. I talked to my wife on the phone yesterday. She said that you must be happy to have killed so many miscreants. I said to her, if our dog goes mad we would have to shoot it, but we would not be happy about having to do this.

Between 2004 and 2007 there were a number of instances of mass desertion and refusal to fight in units deployed to fight militants, though mostly in the Pathan-recruited Frontier Corps rather than the regular army. By early 2010, more than 2,000 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitaries had been killed. In these morally and psychologically testing circumstances, anything that helps maintain Pakistani military discipline cannot be altogether bad – given the immense scale of the stakes concerned, and the appalling consequences if that discipline were to crack.


Given the circumstances of its birth, it is somewhat surprising that the Pakistani military survived at all – and, at the same time, it was precisely because Pakistan’s birth was so endangered that the new state came to attach such central importance to its military, and from the first gave the military such a disproportionate share of its resources. As Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, stated in 1948, ‘the defence of the state is our foremost consideration. It dominates all other governmental activities’. 14 This is a statement with which almost all subsequent governments (civilian and military) would have agreed. It is still true today – though the defence of the state is now belatedly being seen in terms of defence against religiously inspired revolt as well as against India and ethnic separatism.

From the first, therefore, the leaders of the Pakistani state felt acutely endangered from within and without: from India of course, but also from Afghanistan with its claim to Pakistan’s Pathan territories, and equally importantly by internal revolt. This combination of threats led to the creation of what has been called Pakistan’s ‘national security state’. The same sense of external and internal threats has led to the creation of a powerful national security establishment in India also – but on a far smaller scale compared to the Indian state as a whole, and with a far smaller role for the uniformed military.

Relative size and geography have contributed greatly to the sense of danger, often spilling over into paranoia, which characterizes the Pakistani security establishment. With the exception of the barren and thinly populated bulge of Balochistan in the south-west, Pakistan is basically a long thin country on either side of the River Indus. Its second largest city, Lahore, is virtually on the Indian frontier, and the crucial highway linking Lahore and Karachi is, for long stretches, within 50 miles of Indian territory.

This led in the past to a frequent obsession with strategic depth in the Pakistani military, which has had particularly damaging effects on Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan – seen as a potential source of that increased depth. In February 2010, the then COAS (Chief of Army Staff), General Kayani, publicly defined ‘strategic depth’ as meaning ‘a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan’, and offered to help train the Afghan National Army.15 However, most of the Pakistani military see such a stable and friendly Afghan state as unachievable, and an Indian-influenced and hostile government in Kabul as a real possibility. So a Taleban-controlled territory under Pakistani influence remains the Pakistani high command’s reserve position.

Before being too harsh on the Pakistani military over this, one should remember that it is the job of militaries to be paranoid, and that the US security establishment in its time has generated remarkable levels of concern over infinitely smaller potential threats than those faced by Pakistan. The sense of strategic disadvantage and embattlement has been with the Pakistani military from the start. Partition left Pakistan with hardly any of the military industries of British India, with an acute shortage of officers (especially in the more technical services) and with a largely eviscerated military infrastructure.

The institutional and human framework inherited by Pakistan, however, proved resilient and effective. This framework remains that created by the British. As the history of law, democracy, administration and education in Pakistan demonstrates, other British institutions in what is now Pakistan (and to a lesser extent India as well) failed to take, failed to work, or have been transformed in ways that their authors would scarcely have recognized. The British military system, on the other hand, was able to root itself effectively because it fused with ancient local military traditions rather than sweeping them away (as was the case with education and law).

By a curious paradox, the Indian revolt of 1857, the defeat of which dealt a shattering blow to Muslim power and civilization in South Asia, also laid the basis for the future Pakistani army. The mutiny of most of the soldiers from the traditional British recruiting grounds of Bihar and Awadh left the British extremely unwilling to trust soldiers from these regions again.

By contrast, Muslim and Sikh soldiers from the recently conquered Punjab mostly remained ‘true to their salt’ – in the case of the Muslims, in part because the British had delivered them from the hated rule of the Sikhs. To this was added British racial prejudice, which saw the tall, fairskinned Punjabis and Pathans as ‘martial races’, providing military material far superior to the smaller and darker peoples of the rest of India. This was a strange belief, given that by far the most formidable Muslim opponents the British Raj ever faced, the armies of Tipu Sultan, were from South India – but it is a prejudice that is completely shared by the Punjabis themselves, Pakistani and Indian alike.

By the 1920s, Punjab, the NWFP and Nepal (i.e. the Gurkhas) were providing some 84 per cent of the soldiers of the British Indian army. On the eve of the Second World War, almost 30 per cent of all soldiers were made up of Punjabi Muslims alone. These in turn were recruited chiefly from the Potwar (Potohar) area of north-western Punjab adjoining the NWFP, where the chief British military headquarters and depot at Rawalpindi was situated. The Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkhar and Gujjar tribes of this region continue to provide a majority (though a diminishing one) of Pakistani soldiers today.

Punjabi domination of the army (not to nearly the same extent of the air force and navy, but these are much smaller services) is a central element in complaints from the other provinces about Punjabi domination of Pakistan as a whole – an issue which will be discussed further in Chapter 7 (on Punjab). This accusation is somewhat overstated, at least as far as the senior ranks are concerned. Of Pakistan’s four military rulers, only Zia-ul-Haq was a Punjabi.

The British land-grant system, derived from the Mughals but based on the new giant irrigation schemes of the ‘canal colonies’, has passed into Pakistani practice. It was intended most of all to provide a loyal and reliable source of recruitment of the Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs), who constituted the backbone of the British Indian army, and under new names continue to play a key role in that of Pakistan. At a time when the officer corps was monopolized by the British, the native VCOs served as the essential link with the ordinary soldiers (colloquially known as jawans – ‘boys’ or ‘lads’).

This remained true for a considerable time in the army of Pakistan. The vast increase of officers of middle- and even lower-middle-class origin means that it is less so today, but the bulk of the soldiers still come from traditional rural backgrounds, have often not travelled far beyond their own villages, and find the rhythms, the disciplines and the technicalities of military life very alien. Though of course this is much less so than in the past, the Pakistani army still makes the process of introducing them to military life a more gentle and prolonged one than in other military services, and one in which the Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and NCOs are central. This in turn is part of the belief in morale and the regiment as family which is central to the whole Pakistani military system – and, once again, is of critical importance today, given the issue of how far the military can be isolated from the feelings and passions of the society that surrounds them.

The idea of the regimental family has been tested in recent years by the army’s attempts to create a more truly national army by increasing the (previously tiny) numbers of Sindhi, Mohajir and Baloch recruits and reducing the dominance of north-west Punjab and the NWFP. This has involved, among other things, the creation of new military cantonments in Sindh and Balochistan, and a propaganda drive to encourage volunteers. As Lt-Colonel (retired) Anwar Awan told me:

Twenty years ago a Sindhi in the infantry would have been seen as like a girl flying a fighter aircraft – absolutely impossible. But now we have three girls flying fighter aircraft, and more and more Sindhis are joining the army. So you see in the Pakistani military, nothing is impossible!16

In fact, the effectiveness and determination of this programme are difficult to judge. The military are extremely cagey about releasing figures for ethnic proportions in the military, while critics from the other provinces claim that the whole business is mere window-dressing. According to Shuja Nawaz, who obtained internal army documents, 65 per cent of the army by 1990 was made up of people from Punjab (some 10 per cent more than Punjab’s proportion of Pakistan’s population), 14 per cent of people from the NWFP and FATA, 15 per cent of those from Sindh and Balochistan, and 6 per cent from Kashmir (reflecting the large numbers in paramilitary units along the Line of Control).17

It should be noted that ‘from Sindh’ is not the same as ‘Sindhi’, as ever since the British rewarded retired Punjabi soldiers with land grants in the new canal colonies in Sindh, Punjabi settlers there have contributed a disproportionate number of recruits. A more significant shift may be within Punjab itself, where more soldiers (and an even higher number of officers) are now recruited from southern districts that previously provided very few soldiers. Anecdotal evidence from conversations with military officers suggests that the change in ethnic balance over the past twenty years has been extensive enough to cause a certain amount of worry, both concerning future career prospects for military families from the Potwar region, and concerning regimental unity and morale.

The lt-colonel with whom I spoke in Buner told me that his battalion of the Punjab regiment contained roughly equal numbers of Punjabis and Sindhis (despite the territorial names of Pakistani infantry regiments, they are not based on deliberate recruitment from particular territories), as part of the general principle that no unit should have more than 50 per cent from one province, except Punjab – naturally. The colonel is the sixth generation of his family to serve in the military, and his father was, like himself, an officer of the Punjab Regiment. The family are Awans from Chakwal in the Punjab – another classic military recruiting ground.

Echoing the views of other Punjabi and Pathan officers with whom I spoke, the colonel expressed unease about the effects of increased recruitment of Sindhis, both on the army and his own family:

To increase the number of Sindhis and Baloch, we had to lower educational and fitness standards, because in those provinces education is less and poverty is worse. Perhaps this does not matter too much – we look after our soldiers’ education and health, and in the end 30th Punjabi will fight for 30th Punjabi, not for anyone else – the old British regimental spirit is still very strong with us. But I do feel that some important standards have been compromised, and that is bad and causes resentment.

Colonel Awan (himself another Potwari from Chakwal), who served as chief of the army’s training centre at Sukkur in Sindh, told me that:

It was a great problem at first getting Sindhis to join, but now many are coming in – native Sindhis, not just local Punjabis. And at first it is true that we had to go soft on discipline problems because of local culture. When Sindhis go to the local town twenty miles away, they say ‘we are going abroad’. The Sindhi soldiers used to rush back to their villages at every opportunity. But now there is no problem with Sindhi officers, and less and less with the men. And after all, if we have to compromise a bit on standards, still we have to look at the wider canvas and think about the integration of the country. We also have to cast our net wider because the Potwar region itself is changing as a result of economic development, education, and people going to work in the Gulf ... The army is no longer the only road to get ahead, even for village kids from Chakwal.

Nonetheless, the tens of thousands of men (and some women) in the Pakistani officer corps make the armed forces Pakistan’s largest middle-class employer by far. In recent decades, it has also become perhaps the greatest agency of social advancement in the country, with officers originally recruited from the lower middle classes moving into the educated middle classes as a result of their service with the military.

One sign of this is the way that knowledge of English – that quintessential marker of Pakistani social status – improves as officers move up the ranks. To judge by my experience, the Pakistani military almost has a new variant of an old British army adage (about marriage): lieutenants need not speak very good English; captains may; majors should; colonels must. In the process, the officers also acquire increasing social polish as they rise.

The military therefore provides opportunities which the Pakistani economy cannot, and a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and bigger farmers across Punjab and the NWFP. This allows the military to pick the very best recruits, and increases their sense of belonging to an elite. In the last years of British rule and the first years of Pakistan, most officers were recruited from the landed gentry and upper middle classes. These are still represented by figures such as former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, but a much more typical figure is the present COAS (as of 2010), General Ashfaq Kayani, son of an NCO. This social change reflects partly the withdrawal of the upper middle classes to more comfortable professions, but also the immense increase in the numbers of officers required.

Meanwhile, the political parties continue to be dominated by ‘feudal’ landowners and wealthy urban bosses, many of them not just corrupt but barely educated. This increases the sense of superiority to the politicians in the officer corps – something that I have heard from many officers and which was very marked in General Musharraf’s personal contempt for Benazir Bhutto and her husband.

I have also been told by a number of officers and members of military families that ‘the officers’ mess is the most democratic institution in Pakistan, because its members are superior and junior during the day, but in the evening are comrades. That is something we have inherited from the British.’18

This may seem like a very strange statement, until one remembers that, in Pakistan, saying that something is the most spiritually democratic institution isn’t saying very much. Pakistani society is permeated by a culture of deference to superiors, starting with elders within the family and kinship group. As Stephen Lyon writes:

Asymmetrical power relations form the cornerstone of Pakistani society ... Close relations of equality are problematic for Pakistanis and seem to occur only in very limited conditions. In general, when Pakistanis meet, they weigh up the status of the person in front of them and behave accordingly.19

Pakistan’s dynastically ruled ‘democratic’ political parties exemplify this deference to inheritance and wealth; while in the army, as an officer told me:

You rise on merit – well, mostly – not by inheritance, and you salute the military rank and not the sardar or pir who has inherited his position from his father, or the businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the sons of havildars [NCOs]. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they are generals.

However, hopes that this might lead military governments to adopt radical social and economic policies (as has occurred with some Middle Eastern and Latin American militaries) have never come to anything. Whatever the social origins of its officers, the military establishment is part of the social elite of the country, and – as has been seen – the armed forces control major industries and huge amounts of urban and rural land. Finally, most of the progressive intelligentsia – whose input would be needed for any radical programme – have always rejected alliance with the military.

The social change in the officer corps over the decades has led to longstanding Western fears that it is becoming ‘Islamized’, leading to the danger that either the army as a whole might support Islamist revolution, or that there might be a mutiny by Islamist junior officers against the high command. These dangers do exist, but in my view most probably only a direct ground attack on Pakistan by the US could bring them to fruition.

It is obviously true that, as the officer corps becomes lower middle class, so its members become less Westernized and more religious – after all, the vast majority of Pakistan’s population are conservative Muslims. However, as the last chapter explained, there are many different kinds of conservative Muslim, and this is also true of the officer corps. In the words of General Naqvi:

Officers suffer from the same confusion as the rest of our society about what is Islamic and what it is to be Muslim. The way I have read the minds of most officers, they certainly see this as a Muslim country, but as one where people are individually responsible to God, for which they will answer in the life hereafter, and no one should try to impose his views of religion on them. Very few indeed would want to see a Taleban-style revolution here, which would destroy the country and the army and let the Indians walk all over us ...

Many officers still drink, and many don’t. They don’t bother each other, unless people misbehave when drunk. So among those who drink, great store is set by being able to handle your drink, and not drinking on duty. There is no toleration at all for that. Liquor used to be allowed in the officers’ messes and clubs until Bhutto banned it. Now officers drink together at home, at private parties ...20

General Musharraf exemplified the kind of officer who was well known to like a whisky and soda but was never (to the best of my knowledge) known to get drunk.

On the whole, by far the most important aspect of a Pakistani officer’s identity is that he (or occasionally she) is an officer. The Pakistani military is a profoundly shaping influence as far as its members are concerned. This can be seen, among other things, from the social origins and personal cultures of its chiefs of staff and military rulers over the years. It would be hard to find a more different set of men than Generals Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Musharraf, Beg, Karamat and Kayani in terms of their social origins, personal characters and attitudes to religion. Yet all have been first and foremost military men.

This means in turn that their ideology was first and foremost Pakistani nationalist. The military is tied to Pakistan, not the universal Muslim Ummah of the radical Islamists’ dreams; tied not only by sentiment and ideology, but also by the reality of what supports the army. If it is true, as so many officers have told me, that ‘No army, no Pakistan’, it is equally true that ‘No Pakistan, no army’.

In the 1980s General Zia did undertake measures to make the army more Islamic, and a good many officers who wanted promotion adopted an Islamic façade in the hope of furthering this. Zia also encouraged Islamic preaching within the army, notably by the Tablighi Jamaat. However, as the careers of Generals Karamat and Musharraf indicate, this did not lead to known secular generals being blocked from promotion; and in the 1990s, and especially under Musharraf, most of Zia’s measures were rolled back. In recent years, preaching by the Tabligh has been strongly discouraged, not so much because of political fears (the Tabligh is determinedly apolitical) as because of instinctive opposition to any groups that might encourage factions among officers, and loyalties to anything other than the army itself.

Of course, the army has always gone into battle with the cry of Allahu Akbar (God is Great) – just as the old Prussian army carried Gott mit Uns (God with Us) on its helmets and standards; but, according to a moderate Islamist officer, Colonel (retired) Abdul Qayyum:

You shouldn’t use bits of Islam to raise military discipline, morale and so on. I’m sorry to say that this is the way it has always been used in the Pakistani army. It is our equivalent of rum – the generals use it to get their men to launch suicidal attacks. But there is no such thing as a powerful jihadi group within the army. Of course, there are many devoutly Muslim officers and jawans, but at heart the vast majority of the army are nationalists, and take whatever is useful from Islam to serve what they see as Pakistan’s interests. The Pakistani army has been a nationalist army with an Islamic look.21

However, if the army is not Islamist, its members can hardly avoid sharing in the bitter hostility to US policy of the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani population. Especially dangerous as far as the feelings of the military are concerned has been the US ‘tilt towards India’, which associates the US closely with all the hostility, suspicion and fear felt by the soldiers towards India.

To judge by retired and serving officers of my acquaintance, this suspicion of America includes the genuine conviction that either the Bush administration or Israel was responsible for 9/11. Inevitably therefore, despite the billions of dollars in military aid given by the Bush administration to Pakistan (which led to the army being portrayed not just by Islamists but by sections of the liberal media as ‘an army for hire’), there was deep opposition throughout the army after 2001 to US pressure to crack down on the Afghan Taleban and their Pakistani sympathizers. ‘We are being ordered to launch a Pakistani civil war for the sake of America,’ an officer told me in 2002. ‘Why on earth should we? Why should we commit suicide for you?’

In 2007 – 8, this was beginning to cause serious problems of morale. The most dangerous single thing I heard during my visits to Pakistan in those years was that soldiers’ families in villages in the NWFP and the Potwar region were finding it increasingly difficult to find high-status brides for their sons serving in the military, because of the growing popular feeling that ‘the army are slaves of the Americans’, and ‘the soldiers are killing fellow-Muslims on America’s orders’. Given the tremendous prestige and material advantages of military service in these regions, this was truly worrying.

By late 2009 the sheer number of soldiers killed by the Pakistani Taleban and their allies and, still more importantly, the increasingly murderous and indiscriminate Pakistani Taleban attacks on civilians, seem to have produced a change of mood in the areas of military recruitment. Nonetheless, if the Pakistani Taleban are increasingly unpopular, that does not make the US any more popular; and if the US ever put Pakistani soldiers in a position where they felt that honour and patriotism required them to fight America, many would be very glad to do so.


The issues of religious orientation and attitudes to the US obviously lead to the question of the military’s links to Islamist extremism, both inside and outside Pakistan. These links are obvious, but their origins have sometimes been misunderstood. The Islamists were initially intended to be tools, not allies; and the goal was not Islamist revolution as such, but to further Pakistan’s national interests (as perceived and defined by the Pakistani military and security establishment), above all when it came to attacking those of India.

A common definition of tragedy is that of a noble figure betrayed and destroyed by some inner flaw.22 The Pakistani military is in some ways an admirable institution, but it suffers from one tragic feature which has been with it from the beginning, which has defined its whole character and world view, which has done terrible damage to Pakistan and which could in some circumstances destroy Pakistan and its armed forces altogether.

This is the military’s obsession with India in general, and Kashmir in particular. Of course, Kashmir is by no means only a military obsession. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who once said that ‘Kashmir must be liberated if Pakistan is to have its full meaning’, and Pakistani politicians share responsibility for encouraging ordinary Pakistanis to see jihad in Kashmir as legitimate.23 Nonetheless, both the military’s prestige and the personal experiences of its men have become especially focused on Kashmir.

Speaking of the average Pakistani officer of today, General Naqvi told me:

He has no doubt in his mind that the adversary is India, and that the whole raison d’être of the army is to defend against India. His image of Indians is of an anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim, treacherous people. So he feels that he must be always ready to fight against India.24

Pakistan was born in horrendous bloodshed between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims; and, within two months of its birth, fighting had broken out with India over the fate of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. This fighting has continued on and off ever since. Two out of Pakistan’s three wars with India have been fought over Kashmir, as have several smaller campaigns. These include the bitter, 25-year-long struggle for the Siachen Glacier (possibly the most strategically pointless fight in the entire history of human conflict) initiated by India in 1984.

The vast majority of Pakistani soldiers have served in Kashmir at some point or other, and for many this service has influenced their world view. Kashmir therefore plays for Pakistan the role of an irredenta, and has joined a long historical list of such obsessions: like France with Alsace-Lorraine after 1871, Italy with Trieste after 1866, and Serbia with Bosnia after 1879. The last case, it may be remembered, led the Serbian military to sponsor terrorists who, by assassinating the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparked the First World War.25

Kashmir is not a specifically military obsession. It is very widely shared in Punjab, and to a lesser extent in the NWFP and FATA, from which many volunteers for the Kashmir struggle have been drawn ever since 1947, but far less in Karachi, Sindh and Balochistan. This belief has been kept alive in part by the belief (which is true but – as in so many such cases – irrelevant) that democracy and the past resolutions of the UN are on Pakistan’s side; and by anger at Indian atrocities against Indian Muslims, both in Kashmir and more widely.

In both the Pakistani and the Indian militaries, the commitment to fight for Kashmir has been reinforced over the years by the sacrifices made there: some 13,000 dead on both sides in the wars of 1947 and 1965, together with around 1,000 dead in the Kargil battle of 1999, and some 2,400 (mostly from frostbite and accidents) in the twenty-five years of the struggle for the Siachen. That is without counting the thousands of civilian dead in 1947, and the 50,000 (according to Indian official figures) or more than 100,000 (according to Kashmiri groups) civilians, militants and Indian security personnel killed or missing in the Kashmiri insurgency which began in 1988.

Washington’s growing alliance with India since 2001, and abandonment of the previous US stance on the need for a plebiscite on Kashmir’s fate, has therefore caused intense anger in the Pakistani military. The military’s obsession with India and Kashmir is not in origin Islamist, but Pakistani Muslim nationalist. With rare exceptions, this has been true even of those senior officers most closely involved in backing Islamist extremist groups to fight against India, like former ISI chief Lt-General Hamid Gul.

Most have used the Islamists as weapons against India without sharing their ideology. Similarly, the deep hostility of men like Gul or former chief of staff General Aslam Beg to the US comes from anger at perceived US domination and subjugation of the Muslim world, not from radical Islam – a feeling to be found among many entirely secular and liberal figures in institutions such as Al Jazeera, for example.

That does not necessarily make their hostility to India any the less dangerous though. I had a rather hair-raising glimpse of the underlying attitudes of some ISI officers in 2008 when I asked a senior ISI public relations official (and seconded officer) to tell me who he thought were the most interesting analysts and think-tanks in Islamabad. He recommended that I see Syed Zaid Hamid, who runs an analytical centre called ‘Brasstacks’ (after the huge Indian military exercise of 1987, seen in Pakistan as a prelude to Indian invasion).

Mr Hamid also presents a programme on national security issues on the News One television channel. He fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the Afghan Mujahidin, and, though he told me that he had never been an ISI officer, there can be no doubt that he was close to that organization. He described the ISI as ‘the intellectual core and centre of gravity of the army. Without the ISI, the army is just an elephant without eyes and ears’ (this phrase caused extreme annoyance among some military friends to whom I repeated it).

Mr Hamid described himself to me as ‘a Pakistani neo-con’, and there really is something neo-conservative about his mixture of considerable intelligence, great fluency in presenting his ideas and geopolitical fanaticism and recklessness. Like some neo-cons of my acquaintance in Washington, his favourite word seemed to be ‘ruthless’. Despite his background, he had a geekish air about him, and spoke with nervous intensity.

On the Taleban, he echoed the Pakistani security establishment in general (at least when they are speaking off the record), emphasizing the difference between the Pakistani Taleban, who were in revolt against Pakistan and had to be defeated, and the Afghan Taleban, who had never attacked Pakistan and were an essential strategic asset. However, he stressed repeatedly that he was a Pakistani nationalist, not an Islamist, and said that he himself would have far preferred to see Pakistan allied to the late Panjshiri Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, ‘Afghanistan’s only liberal leader’.

On strategy towards India, his views were the following:

We say that if India tries to break up Pakistan by supporting insurgents like the Baloch nationalists then our response should be to break up India. In any case, we owe them payback for what they did to us in East Pakistan ... India is not nearly as strong as it looks. The faultlines of the Indian Federation are much deeper than those of Pakistan: Kashmir, the Naxalites, Khalistan, Nagaland, all kinds of conflicts between upper and lower castes, tribals, Hindus and other religions and so on. If we were to support these insurgencies, India would cease to exist.26

I hasten to add that, Kashmir aside, there is in fact no evidence that the ISI is supporting any of these insurgencies within India. Nonetheless, this kind of attitude is deeply troubling, especially because India’s growing problem with the Naxalite Maoist peasant rebellion means that Mr Hamid’s words, while horribly dangerous, are not as stupid (seen from the perspective of an ultra-hardline Pakistani) as they might first appear.

To understand ISI attitudes, and Kashmir strategy in particular, it is necessary to understand that they saw victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan very much as their own victory. It became their central institutional myth. Because of the huge funds flowing from the US and Saudi Arabia to help the Mujahidin, which the ISI administered and used for its own purposes, the Afghan jihad of the 1980s was the key episode in giving the ISI an autonomous financial base and boosting ISI power within the military and the state as a whole.

The ISI became quite convinced that what they had done to the Soviets in Afghanistan they could do to India in Kashmir, using the same instruments – Islamist militants (the fundamental political and geopolitical mistakes involved in this belief should hardly need repeating). The spontaneous mass uprising of Kashmiri Muslims against Indian rule from 1988 on (initially in protest against the rigged state elections of the previous year) seemed to give a great chance of success. However, to a much greater extent than in Afghanistan, these militants were to be recruited not just in the country concerned, but from within Pakistan (and to a lesser extent the wider Muslim world).

The ISI’s Kashmir strategy reflected the longstanding Pakistani strategy of promoting Kashmiri accession to Pakistan, and not Kashmiri independence. They therefore used pro-Pakistani Islamist groups to sideline the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which initially led the Kashmir uprising. This strategy included the murder by the ISI-backed Islamist militant groups of a considerable number of JKLF leaders and activists – even as these were also being targeted and killed by Indian security forces.

The Islamist radical groups, madrasahs and networks which had served to raise Pakistani volunteers for the Afghan jihad had always hated India, and were only too ready to accept Pakistani military help, including funding, weapons supplies, provision of intelligence, and the creation of training camps run by the Pakistani military.

However, just as in Afghanistan first the Mujahidin and then the Taleban escaped from the US and Pakistani scripts and ran amok on their own accounts, so the militants in Kashmir began to alienate much of the native Kashmiri population with their ruthlessness and ideological fanaticism; to splinter and splinter again into ever-smaller groups and fight with each other despite ISI efforts to promote co-operation, and to prey on Kashmiri civilians. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s greater discipline in this regard was reportedly one factor in the increasing favour shown to it by the ISI.

Finally – though it is not clear if this was really a departure from the script, as ISI officers claim in private, or was planned by the ISI as the Indian government believes – the militants began to carry out terrorist attacks on Indian targets outside Kashmir (starting with an attack on Indian soldiers at the Red Fort in Delhi in December 2000). This last development in particular ensured that in the wake of 9/11 Pakistan would come under irresistible US pressure to abandon its active support for the Kashmiri jihad and crack down on its militant allies.

In January 2002, Musharraf formally banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, and ordered an end to militant infiltration into Indian Kashmir from Pakistan. From mid-2003 this ban on infiltration has largely been enforced, leading to a steep reduction in violence in Kashmir. As a result, in November 2003 India and Pakistan agreed a ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir, and initiated a dialogue on a possible settlement over Kashmir, which will be discussed further in the Conclusions.

The Pakistani military remained firmly convinced that India would never agree to terms even minimally acceptable to Pakistan unless at least the threat of future guerrilla and terrorist action remained present. Meanwhile, their continued hostility to India was also fuelled by attacks on Muslims in India, and especially the infamous Gujarat massacres of 2002, which were orchestrated by the BJP state government (and which claimed, it should be pointed out, at least ten times as many victims as the Mumbai terrorist attacks, while receiving perhaps one-tenth of Western media notice).

By 2008, as the Taleban insurgency against Pakistan itself gathered pace and an increasing number of ISI officers and informants fell victim to it, the ISI itself had also begun to see the need for a new approach to some of its militant allies within Pakistan. In the meantime, however, various developments had made it far more difficult for the Pakistani military to take effective action.

The military had helped the militant groups root themselves more deeply in Pakistani society, especially in parts of Punjab, exploiting not just the military’s financial assistance but the prestige of taking part in a jihad which most Punjabis saw (and were encouraged by the military to see) as legitimate. The extensive charitable and educational network developed by Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa with military encouragement also served as a way of employing fighters withdrawn from the Kashmir battle. By 2009, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s own resources had made it independent of ISI financial support.

The military is genuinely concerned that if it attacks these groups it will drive more and more of them into joining the Pakistani Taleban – as has already occurred with Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and some sections of Jaish-e-Mohammed. According to Stephen Tankel, some members of Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa did press the organization to revolt against the Pakistani government when Musharraf sided with America after 9/11, but their demands were rejected by the leadership and they left the organization. Since Lashkar-e-Taiba remained focused on Kashmir (and, after 2006, on Afghanistan), and did not attack Pakistan, the ISI did not move against it.27

On 14 January 2010, Jamaat-ud-Dawa condemned the killing of Muslims by suicide bombing as un-Islamic and said that such attacks ‘played into the hands of the US, Israel and India’. It is important to note that LeT and JuD’s hatred and fear of India may act as a deterrent against their joining in revolution in Pakistan – at least, a JuD spokesman whom I interviewed in January 2009 stressed repeatedly his organization’s loyalty to Pakistan as the state that ‘defends Muslims of South Asia against Indian Hindu conquest and oppression’. He promised therefore that the JuD would do nothing to destroy Pakistan.

Pakistani officials have told me that their greatest fears of mass revolt in Punjab concern what would happen if Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa were to swing against the state and use their extensive network to mobilize and organize unrest. This they say is one key reason (along with their anti-Indian agenda, which they do not mention) for not taking the sweeping measures against the organisation that the US is demanding. As the commissioner of one of Punjab’s administrative divisions said to me in January 2009:

We have to worry that if we do what you say and crack down on them that some of them at least will turn to terrorism against Pakistan in alliance with the Taleban. After all, they have the ideology and the training. The last thing we need now is yet another extremist threat. And, after all, is it really in your interest either to cause revolt in Punjab? This province alone has three times the population of the whole of Afghanistan, and don’t forget that the army too is recruited from here.

These officials also do not add that one way of keeping LeT quiet in Pakistan is to allow (or even encourage) its activists to join the Afghan Taleban to fight against Western forces on the other side of the Durand Line.

In Jaish-e-Mohammed, by contrast, militants pressing for a jihad against the ‘slave’ government of Pakistan prevailed against the counsel of the group’s leadership. The suspected involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) activists in the attempt to assassinate Musharraf in December 2003 (apparently with low-level help from within the armed forces) led to a harsh crackdown on parts of the group by Pakistani intelligence. On the other hand, ISI links with the group meant that other parts remained loyal to the Pakistani state – though only, perhaps, because they were allowed to help the Taleban in Afghanistan and to retain at least their potential to attack India.

Moreover, their long association with the militants, first in Afghanistan and then in Kashmir, had led some ISI officers into a close personal identification with the forces that they were supposed to be controlling. This leads to a whole set of interlocking questions: how far the Pakistani high command continues to back certain militant groups; how far the command of the ISI may be following a strategy in this regard independent from that of the military; and how far individual ISI officers may have escaped from the control of their superiors and be supporting and planning terrorist actions on their own. This in turn leads to the even more vital question of how far the Pakistani military is penetrated by Islamist extremist elements, and whether there is any possibility of these carrying out a successful military coup from below, against their own high command.

Since this whole field is obviously kept very secret by the institutions concerned (including Military Intelligence, which monitors the political and ideological allegiances of officers), there are no definitive answers to these questions. What follows is informed guesswork based on numerous discussions with experts and off-the-record talks with Pakistani officers including retired ISI officers. It is also worth remembering that even in Western democracies (notably France and the US) intelligence services have had a tendency to develop both institutional cultures and institutional strategies of their own; and also that the nature of their work can make it extremely difficult to control the activities of individual agents – especially of course after they retire. A number of retired middle-ranking ISI officers are reported to have openly joined LeT and other militant groups.

Concerning the ISI, the consensus of my informants is as follows. There is considerable resentment of the ISI in the rest of the military, owing to their perceived arrogance and suspected corruption. This sentiment was crystallized by a notorious case in 2006 when ISI officers harassed the family of a highly decorated retired brigadier after a clash between his grandchildren and the children of the head of the ISI’s political wing. However, when it comes to overall strategy, the ISI follows the line of the high command. It is after all always headed by a senior regular general, not a professional intelligence officer, and a majority of its officers are also seconded regulars. The present chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, was director-general of the ISI from 2004 to 2007, and ordered a limited crackdown on jihadi groups that the ISI had previously supported. Nonetheless, ever since the Afghan war the ISI has been building up a separate corporate identity and ethos, which has bred a willingness to pursue separate tactics and individual actions without consulting the high command.

Concerning the Afghan Taleban, the military and the ISI are at one, and the evidence is unequivocal: the military and ISI continue to give them shelter (though not much actual support, or the Taleban would be far more effective than they are). There is deep unwillingness to take serious action against them on America’s behalf, both because it is feared that this would increase Pathan insurgency in Pakistan, and because they are seen as the only assets Pakistan possesses in Afghanistan. The conviction in the Pakistani security establishment is that the West will quit Afghanistan leaving civil war behind, and that India will then throw its weight behind the non-Pathan forces of the former Northern Alliance in order to encircle Pakistan strategically.

In these circumstances, ‘It’s not that we like the Taleban, but they are all we’ve got,’ as Mr Hamid told me, reflecting the private statements of several officers. As these words suggest, in the great majority of Pakistani officers a willingness to shelter the Afghan Taleban does not indicate any affection for them – while on the Taleban side, the memoirs of the former Taleban official and ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, are filled with the most virulent hatred for Pakistan in general and the ISI in particular.

Concerning the Pakistani Taleban and their allies, however, like the military as a whole, the ISI is now committed to the struggle against them, and by the end of 2009 had lost more than seventy of its officers in this fight – some ten times the number of CIA officers killed since 9/11, just as Pakistani military casualties fighting the Pakistani Taleban have been more than double those of the US in Afghanistan.

Equally, however, in 2007 – 8 there were a great many stories of ISI officers intervening to rescue individual Taleban commanders from arrest by the police or the army – too many, and too circumstantial, for these all to have been invented. A senior civilian counter-terrorism officer told me that his agency has repeatedly arrested members of terrorist groups who have turned out to have ISI links. He also said that his counter-terrorism operations have received very little co-operation from the ISI – though that, he said, was often in his view more from institutional rivalry (so familiar from relations between the CIA and FBI in the US) than from a deliberate desire to protect terrorists.

It seems clear, therefore, that whether because individual ISI officers felt a personal commitment to these men, or because the institution as a whole still regarded them as potentially useful, actions were taking place that were against overall military policy – let alone that of the Pakistani government. Moreover, some of these men had at least indirect links to Al Qaeda. This does not mean that the ISI knows where Osama bin Laden (if he is indeed still alive), Aiman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders are hiding. It does, however, suggest that they could probably do a good deal more to find out.

Concerning the threat of terrorism against the West (as opposed to attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan), the Pakistani military and civilian intelligence services have been extremely helpful to Britain in particular, as British intelligence officers testify. Problems in this co-operation appear to be due to lack of co-ordination between Pakistan’s different agencies, and the lack of an overall counter-terrorism strategy by the Pakistani state, rather than to any ill-will towards Britain or sympathy for the terrorists.

However, on the question of support for terrorism against India, it is obvious that not just the ISI but the military as a whole is committed to keeping Lashkar-e-Taiba (under its cover as Jamaat-ud-Dawa) at least in existence ‘on the shelf’. Reflecting these continuing links, up to 2010 Lashkar-e-Taiba has been careful to oppose militant actions in Pakistan itself, arguing that ‘the struggle in Pakistan is not a struggle between Islam and disbelief’, that the Pakistani state is not committing Indian-style atrocities against its own people, and that true Islam should be spread in Pakistan by missionary and charitable work (dawa) not jihad. Echoing statements by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taleban, LeT/JuD leaders have also argued that fighting fellow Muslims in Pakistan is a distraction from the true jihads in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The group has also taken a strong line against sectarian violence within Pakistan.28

As part of its programme of missionary and charitable work, and of spreading its influence by these means, the group has built up an impressive network of schools, hospitals and social welfare organizations in northern Pakistan. In 2005, it played an important part in relief work after the Kashmir earthquake, and the efficiency and honesty of its officials won praise from doctors and aid workers despite their lack of sympathy for the group’s ideology. Evidence is contradictory on whether the 2010 floods have allowed JuD to build up their prestige in the same way. Some accounts claim that this is so, but others say that the sheer scale of the catastrophe swamped their efforts, and that any boost to their popularity was local and limited. After the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani state was forced by US and Indian pressure to take over the supervision of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s formal educational and welfare organization – but many of the same people work there as in LeT, and the group is also thought to have an extensive informal network which the state has left alone.

Because of this, and much more importantly of the popularity of its fight against India among the great majority of the population, Lashkar-e-Taiba has struck deep roots in Punjabi society. This is despite the fact that its Ahl-e-Hadith theology is alien to most Punjabis. This theology draws Lashkar-e-Taiba closer to Saudi Arabia and indeed to Al Qaeda, with whose leaders it was once closely linked.

From my talks with Pakistani military and intelligence officers it is clear to me that, having done so much to build up Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani security forces are now very afraid of the creature they helped create, of its possible sympathizers within their own ranks, and of the dreadful consequences if it were to join with the Taleban and the sectarians in revolt against Pakistan.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s extensive international network in the Pakistani diaspora also leads Pakistani officers to fear that if they attempt seriously to suppress the group it will launch successful terrorist attacks in the West, with disastrous results for Pakistan’s international position. This is something that up to mid-2010 the Pakistani intelligence services have done much to help prevent. While the Pakistani Taleban and their allies have begun to sponsor such attacks (like the abortive one on Times Square in New York in May 2010), groups still allied to the Pakistani state have not.

However, Lashkar-e-Taiba members certainly have contacts with Al Qaeda, and helped Al Qaeda operatives escape from Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taleban, and gave them shelter within Pakistan. As Stephen Tankel writes:

Ideologically, for all of its strategic restraint following 9/11 Lashkar is, after all, a jihadi organization with a long history of waging pan-Islamic irredentist campaigns. Indian-controlled Kashmir may be the group’s primary ideological and strategic target, but it has never been the apotheosis of Lashkar’s jihad.29

Men trained by LeT and still associated with members of the group have been implicated in terrorist plots in Europe, North America and Australia, though the group’s leadership does not seem to have been involved. They have also taken part in actions within Pakistan which their leaders have deplored. The world of Sunni Islamist extremism as a whole functions not as a hierarchical organization, or even as interlocking organizations, but rather as a net with nodes.

All the groups and individuals within this net hate the US, Israel, India and indeed Russia alike, though they have different targets at different times. Despite LeT’s strategic decision to concentrate on India, there is no ideological barrier to its members taking part in actions against the West. The jihadi world could even be called a kind of cloud of interplanetary gas in which individuals join some clump for one operation and then part again to form new ad hoc groups for other attacks. This also makes it extremely hard for the ISI to keep tabs on the individuals concerned, even when it wants to.

By far the biggest terrorist attack carried out by LeT itself was that in Mumbai in November 2008. The great majority of the Pakistani experts and retired officers whom I know do not think that the Pakistani high command, either of the ISI or the army, was involved in ordering Lashkar-e-Taiba’s terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. They point out in particular that, while deliberately targeting Westerners greatly boosted LeT’s prestige among international militants, it would have been an unprecedented, reckless and pointless strategy for the Pakistani high command, ensuring a furious reaction from the international community.

Equally, there is an overwhelming consensus that this operation could not have been planned without ISI officers having been involved at some stage, and without the ISI knowing that some sort of operation was being planned. Whether the operation then continued as it were on autopilot, was helped only by retired officers, or whether the junior officers concerned deliberately decided to pursue it without telling their superiors, is impossible to say at this stage. The American LeT volunteer David Headley, who was involved in the preparations for the Mumbai attacks, has testified under interrogation that ISI officers were involved in the planning, but could not say whether they were acting independently or under orders from above.

Certainly the ISI and the military as a whole made strenuous attempts – in the face of incontrovertible evidence – to deny that LeT had carried out the attacks. While the Pakistani authorities could do a great deal more to restrict and detain LeT activists and leaders, it is extremely difficult to put them on public trial – for the obvious reason that they would then reveal everything about the ISI’s previous backing for their organization.


The question of military links to Islamist terrorists raises particular fears in the West because of Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons. The horrendous consequences if such a weapon did fall into terrorist hands makes this a natural fear, but one which has led to a considerable degree of exaggeration and even hysteria in the Western media as far as Pakistan is concerned.

Given Pakistan’s lack of economic development, the Pakistani nuclear deterrent is the most remarkable achievement of the Pakistani state. It may also in certain circumstances lead to that state’s downfall. This is obviously because of the risk of a nuclear exchange with India and the destruction of both countries; and perhaps even more importantly because of the fears that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have raised in the US. These fears are in part based on mistaken information and analysis, but they are nonetheless real.

For a long time, the US turned a partially blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. The reasons for this were that every Pakistani administration since the early 1960s – military and civilian alike – was involved in this programme, and several of those administrations were, at different times and for different reasons, key US allies. Moreover, until the 1990s at least, India, and not Pakistan, was generally seen in Washington as the culpable party in driving a South Asian nuclear race – partly because during the Cold War India was seen as a Soviet ally, but also because India did indeed lead the race and carry out the first nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

From 1989 and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is untrue to say that the US was indifferent to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. After a ten-year interval brought about by Pakistan’s help to the US in combating the Soviet occupation, the US administration permitted the re-imposition of the terms of the Pressler Amendment, mandating sanctions against countries which could not certify that they were in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

These sanctions were imposed on both India and Pakistan, but hurt Pakistan very much more, given its smaller size and more vulnerable economy. Indeed, the imposition of these sanctions is one of the chief Pakistani arguments concerning America’s ‘betrayal’ of Pakistan once the Soviet withdrawal diminished Pakistan’s apparent strategic importance to the US.

Fear of India has always been the driving force behind Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Rhetoric of an ‘Islamic bomb’ reflects pride in Pakistan’s role (in this if nothing else) as the leading country of the Muslim world, and has also been used when dealing with other Muslim countries over nuclear issues. According to every Pakistani soldier and official with whom I have spoken, though, it reflects neither the core motive nor the strategic intention behind Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. As a senior retired general told me,

Look, we knew from the mid-60s that India was seeking the bomb. Given that, any Pakistani who did not want to get the bomb too would have been either a complete fool or a traitor. We needed the bomb at all costs for exactly the same reason NATO needed the bomb in the Cold War, faced with overwhelming Russian tank forces threatening you in Europe. So how can you criticize us?

Part of the problem in South Asia, first in trying to prevent a nuclear arms race and then in managing it, has always been that, unlike in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, this was never a straight two-way competition. Rather, ever since the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and the first Chinese nuclear test at Lop Nur in 1964, India has been largely motivated by rivalry with China – a rivalry that combines strategic and emotional elements. India’s desire to achieve a balance with China makes it impossible to devise an agreed balance between India and Pakistan – unless of course China were to extend a nuclear shield to Pakistan.

As early as 1965, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told a Western journalist that if India were to acquire a nuclear bomb, ‘then we should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one of our own!’ As prime minister after 1971, Bhutto was instrumental in getting Pakistan’s nuclear programme off the ground – a programme which naturally gathered momentum immensely after India carried out its ‘Smiling Buddha’ nuclear tests in 1974.

Bhutto also began the co-operation with Libya on nuclear development that continued through the 1980s and ’90s until Libya revealed and abandoned its programme as part of its effort for reconciliation with the US after 2001. Secret dealings with Libya, North Korea and Iran were greatly extended under the direction of Dr A. Q. Khan, a metallurgist working in Holland’s nuclear industry who returned to Pakistan in 1976 with information stolen from his then employers.

A. Q. Khan has been well described by Shuja Nawaz as ‘part brilliant and hard-working scientist, part patriot, and partly self-serving, publicityseeking egomaniac’.30 The success of his publicity campaign has indeed been such as to make it very difficult to assess his real importance to the development of Pakistan’s bomb. Where he was clearly of critical importance was in acquiring essential technology, expertise and material from abroad, as part of barter with states dubbed ‘rogues’ by Washington. Since 9/11, these links have naturally attracted immense interest from the US. Before 9/11, Musharraf had already removed A. Q. Khan from his position as chief of the nuclear programme in March 2001. He was later placed under (a very liberally defined) house arrest.

The extent of US pressure on Pakistan over the nuclear proliferation issue has been modified by two facts well known to US intelligence. The first is that A. Q. Khan is not an Islamist, but a secular Pakistani nationalist. His wife is of Dutch – South African origin. There is no evidence at all of any links between him and Al Qaeda or other terrorist organization.

The second fact is that, while A. Q. Khan certainly profited personally from some of his deals, at no stage was he a truly ‘rogue’ element. Rather, as my military acquaintance quoted above told me, every Pakistani president and chief of the army staff knew in broad outline what A. Q. Khan was doing. They might not necessarily have approved in detail – but then again, they took good care not to find out in detail. ‘He had been told, “get us a bomb at all costs”, and that is what he did.’

As far as US intelligence is concerned, this means that, on the one hand, they cannot really pursue A. Q. Khan for fear of unravelling their relationship with the entire Pakistani military and political establishment. On the other hand, the fact that this establishment was always ultimately in charge means that US fears concerning potential terrorist access to Khan’s network are less than the Western media have sometimes suggested. As a result, the private US line to Pakistan on nuclear links to ‘rogue states’, in the off-the-record words of a US official, has been ‘We know what you did and we will let you off this time. But don’t do it again. Since 9/11, everything has changed. If you do it again, we will have no choice but to hit you very hard.’

The most worrying aspect by far of the A. Q. Khan network concerns not the network as such, or the proliferation to Iran and North Korea (which are also not about to commit suicide), but the links to Al Qaeda before 9/11 of two Pakistani nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed. Neither of these men was part of the A. Q. Khan network or concerned with the weapons programme as such, and it would be impossible for people like this to produce a nuclear bomb. If, however, terrorist sympathizers in the nuclear structures could get their hands on radioactive materials, what such figures could do is help terrorists to produce a so-called ‘dirty bomb’. This is the greatest fear of US diplomats, as revealed by WikiLeaks.

It is certain that if there ever seemed a serious chance that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were going to fall into the hands of Islamist radicals, the US would launch some kind of strike to capture or disable them. Barring a split in the army and the collapse of the Pakistani state, such a danger is in fact minimal. There is no chance at all of the Pakistani military giving them to terrorists. The Pakistani army exists to defend Pakistan. That is its raison d’être. A move which would ensure Pakistan’s destruction for no strategic gain would contradict everything the military stands for. Moreover, these weapons are Pakistan’s greatest military asset. ‘We are not going to cut off our own crown jewels and give them to terrorists,’ an officer told me.

Nor is there any chance – once again, unless the state and army had already collapsed – of terrorists somehow seizing the weapons, which are the most heavily defended objects in Pakistan, and protected by picked men carefully screened to eliminate extremist sympathizers of any kind. The weapons are not on hair-trigger alert, and a majority may well be disassembled at any given time. According to a report of 2007 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London:

A robust command and control system is now in place to protect Pakistan’s nuclear assets from diversion, theft and accidental misuse. For the most part, these measures have been transparent and have worked well. Indeed, Pakistan’s openness in explaining its command and control structures goes beyond the practices adopted by most other nuclear-capable states ... Responsibility for nuclear weapons is now clearly in the hands of the National Command Authority and its constituent bodies. General Khalid Kidwai and the Strategic Plans Division he commands have gained national and international respect for their professionalism and competency.31

Incidents such as the terrorist attack on the military headquarters in Rawalpindi are not a precedent, because this was a suicide attack – whereas if you want to steal a nuclear weapon, you obviously don’t just have to get in, you have to get out again, carrying it.

The greatest danger may be not Pakistani realities but US fears. That is to say, the risk that the US might launch a strike on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent prematurely, thereby precipitating precisely the scenario that the US fears – since such an attack would so radicalize the army and destabilize the state as to run a really serious risk of bringing about mutiny and state collapse.

Another danger is that the growth of India’s nuclear forces will leave Pakistan in a position where it feels that it has no alternative but to seek new technology on the international black market. Such a move, if discovered – as it certainly would be sooner or later – would bring about the collapse of relations with the US and the imposition of Western sanctions, risking economic collapse, an increase in radicalization, and possibly revolution.

Finally, there is the ultimate nightmare scenario (other of course than a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan) of a successful attack on a US target using a weapon of mass destruction. If the aftermath of 9/11 is anything to go by, the effects of such an attack would be temporarily at least to deprive the US establishment of its collective wits, and remove any restraint in US strategy.

Even if such an attack turned out to have no Pakistani origins, Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons would undoubtedly place Pakistan squarely in America’s gun-sights. Very likely, this is precisely what the perpetrators of such an attack would be hoping – since a US attack on Pakistan would be the shortest road to victory for Al Qaeda and its allies that could be imagined, other than a US invasion of Saudi Arabia.

The most dangerous moment in my visits to Pakistan since 9/11 came in August/September 2008, when on two occasions US forces entered Pakistan’s tribal areas on the ground in order to raid suspected Taleban and Al Qaeda bases. On the second occasion, Pakistani soldiers fired in the air to turn the Americans back. On 19 September 2008 the chief of the army staff, General Kayani, flew to meet the US chief of the joint staffs, Admiral Mike Mullen, on the US aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, and in the words of a senior Pakistani general ‘gave him the toughest possible warning’ about what would happen if this were repeated.

Pakistani officers from captain to lt-general have told me that the entry of US ground forces into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taleban and Al Qaeda is by far the most dangerous scenario as far as both Pakistani – US relations and the unity of the army are concerned. As one retired general explained, drone attacks on Pakistani territory, though the ordinary officers and soldiers find them humiliating, are not a critical issue because they cannot do anything about them.

US ground forces inside Pakistan are a different matter, because the soldiers can do something about them. They can fight. And if they don’t fight, they will feel utterly humiliated, before their wives, mothers, children. It would be a matter of honour, which as you know is a tremendous thing in our society. These men have sworn an oath to defend Pakistani soil. So they would fight. And if the generals told them not to fight, many of them would mutiny, starting with the Frontier Corps.

At this point, not just Islamist radicals but every malcontent in the country would join the mutineers, and the disintegration of Pakistan would come a giant leap closer.

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