Understanding Pakistan's military

A guided tour of Pakistan’s Army, from its role within Pakistani nationalism, prospects of mutiny, and the relationship of the ISI to the Jihadi world, to hostilities with India, suggests that some key ways of defusing the situation may be being neglected
Anatol Lieven
9 August 2010

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, effectiveness and wealth of the Pakistan military and associated institutions compared to the rest of the state, much the same could be said of Pakistan.

The Pakistani military is the only Pakistani state institution which works as it is officially meant to – which means that it repeatedly does something that it is not meant to, which is to overthrow what in Pakistan is called “democracy” and seize control of the state from other institutions. The military has therefore been seen as extremely bad for Pakistan’s progress, at least if that progress is to be defined in standard western terms.

On the other hand, it has also always been true that without a strong military, Pakistan would most probably long since have disintegrated. That is more than ever true today, as the country faces the powerful insurgency of the Pakistani Taleban and their allies. The Taleban threat makes the unity and discipline of the Army of paramount importance to Pakistan and the world – all the more so because the deep unpopularity of US strategy among the vast majority of Pakistanis has made even the limited alliance between the Pakistani military and the US extremely unpopular in Pakistani society, and among many soldiers.

The Pakistani military owes its success as a modern institution to the fact that it has to a considerable extent separated itself from the political culture of the rest of the country, which revolves around kinship, factions, and patronage – which alas all too often shades over into corruption and even kleptocracy. Of course, corruption does exist within the military, but to nothing like the same extent as in the rest of society.

The military has been able to achieve this separation because of two deeply intertwined and mutually dependent factors: a collective ethos which promotes honest service to the military as an institution; and a great deal of money. Without the resources to reward the soldiers adequately and provide them with decent services, the collective ethos of service, honesty and discipline could not be maintained. On the other hand, without this collective ethos, many of the resources given to the military would simply be stolen, as they are in the rest of the state.

To put it another way, the military’s success as an institution and its 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.

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 also 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.

Our mad dog

As a Lt Colonel fighting the Pakistani Taleban 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 Mujahedin 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 in the regular Army. 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 consequences if that discipline were to crack.

Fortunately, 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 very likely destroy it and the army 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.

Morally superior

The Pakistani military therefore, 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.

This belief is also widely present in Pakistani society as a whole, and has become dominant at regular intervals. It is sadly 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, “the imposition of martial law was not contested by any civilian group and the military had no problem assuming and consolidating power.”

It is possible that developments since 2001 have changed this pattern, above all because of the new importance of the independent judiciary and media, and 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.

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 in the business classes, were once again calling for the military to step in to oust the civilian administration of President Zardari – not necessarily to take over themselves, but to purge the most corrupt politicians and create a government of national unity or a caretaker government of technocrats.

Military loathing for the politicians is strengthened by the fact that Pakistani politics is dominated by wealth and inherited status, whereas the officer corps has become increasingly socially egalitarian, and provides opportunities for social mobility which the Pakistani economy cannot, and a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and big 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 like 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”.

This may seem like a ludicrous 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. 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.”

Pakistani nationalism

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 only a direct and massive 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, they are many different kinds of conservative Muslim, and this is also true of the officer corps.

On the whole, by far the most important aspect of a Pakistani officer’s identity is that he (or sometimes she) is an officer. The Pakistani military is a profoundly shaping influence as far as its members are concerned. This can be seen amongst 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 Tabligh-e-Jamaat. However, as the careers of the 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 German army carried Gott mit Uns (God with Us) on its helmets and standards; but according to a moderate Islamist officer, Colonel (retd) 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.”

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. To judge by retired and serving officers of my acquaintance, this includes the genuine conviction that either the Bush administration or Israel were responsible for 9/11. Inevitably therefore, 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?”

Mutineer scenarios

In 2007-2008, 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.”

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, seems 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 willing to do so.

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 September 19th 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 is 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.

India and Kashmir

Traditionally, hostility to the US in Pakistan has stemmed from a mixture of anger at US policies in the Muslim world more widely (especially of course concerning Israel and Palestine) and a feeling that on specific occasions, the US has used and then abandoned Pakistan. More recently, however, hostility has been considerably strengthened by the growing alliance between the US and India. This is especially dangerous as far as the military is concerned, for fear of India is the military’s central raison d’etre.

Speaking of the average Pakistani officer of today, however, Lt General (retd) Tanvir Naqvi told me that:

“He has no doubt in his mind that the adversary is India, and that the whole raison d’etre 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.”


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 played a formative role in their worldview.

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. 


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 Mujahedin 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.

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. Due mainly to intense US pressure, from mid-2003 on this ban has been enforced, leading to a steep reduction in violence in Kashmir. Largely 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. However, 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.


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 began to see the need for a new and much tougher approach to some of its militant allies within Pakistan.

However, the military is genuinely concerned that if it attacks some of these groups it will drive them into joining the Pakistani Taleban – as has already occurred with Sipahi-Sabah, Lashkar-e-Janghvi and some sections of Jaish-e-Mohammed. The suspected involvement of JeM activists in the attempts 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.

The ISI’s 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 guess-work based on numerous discussions with experts and off-the-record talks with Pakistani officers including retired ISI officers.

Concerning the ISI, the consensus of my informants is as follows: There is considerable resentment of the ISI in the rest of the military, due to their perceived arrogance and suspected corruption. 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 of the ISI from 2004-2007, and ordered a limited crackdown on jihadi groups that the ISI had previously supported.

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, and 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.

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 greatly exceeded those of the US in Afghanistan. Equally, however, in 2007-2008 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.

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.

On the crucial question of support for terrorism against India, it is obvious that not just the ISI but the military as a whole are committed to keeping Lashkar-e-Taiba (under its cover as Jamaat-ut-Dawa) at least in existence, both as a potential future weapon against India and because they are genuinely scared of driving this very powerful and popular group to revolt.

Jamaat-ut-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 also launch successful terrorist attacks in the West, with disastrous results for Pakistan’s international position. 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 helped shelter them 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.”

Blaming Pakistan

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, therefore, 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 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 actually 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.

ISI help is however not necessary for Islamist terrorists who wish to carry out attacks against India (though it has certainly occurred in the past). The discontent of sections of India’s Muslim minority (increased by ghastly incidents like the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, encouraged by the Hindu nationalist state government) gives ample possibilities of recruitment; the sheer size of India, coupled with the incompetence of the Indian security forces, gives ample targets of opportunity; and the desire to provoke an Indian attack on Pakistan gives ample motive. But whether or not the ISI is involved in future attacks, India will certainly blame Pakistan for them.

This creates the real possibility of a range of harsh Indian responses, stretching from economic pressure through blockade to outright war. Such a war would in the short term unite Pakistanis, and greatly increase the morale of the Army. The long term consequences for Pakistan’s (and possibly India’s) economic development could however be quite disastrous; while if the US were perceived to back India in such a war, anti-American feeling and extremist recruitment in Pakistan would soar to new heights.

All of this gives the US every reason to press the Pakistani military to suppress some extremist groups and keep others on a very tight rein. Washington also however needs to press India to seek reconciliation with Pakistan over Kashmir, and to refrain from actions which will create even more fear of India in the Pakistani military.

This article was first published in The National Interest, Washington DC, no.94, March/April 2008, under the title “All Kayani’s Men”.

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