The Pakistani military establishment has had to contend with its fair share of strategic blunders in the past. The ones that immediately come to mind are 1965, 1971 and Kargil. The fact that the general public is not aware of the military blunders (or refuses to believe them) shows testament to the strength or rather the “myth” of the military. This myth has haunted Pakistan in the past, and it has come back to haunt us again with Osama Bin Laden. Several Pakistani military operations of the past have led to criticism and strategic failure, yet the Pakistan military has always been able to deflect blame towards civilian governments. This time, however, it may not be so easy for them.
General Pervaiz Musharraf shrewdly explained the strategic blunder of the Kargil Operation in 1999 by alleging Nawaz Sharif (then Prime Minister) as the major culprit of the debacle. Sharif, however, in 1999 was actively engaged in reopening diplomatic channels with India through then Indian Prime Minister Atul Vajpayee. General Musharraf, who was then Chief of Army Staff, refused to greet Vajpayee at the border ceremony. When the Pakistani army got caught infiltrating in Kargil territory, Nawaz Sharif went to Washington to seek clemency for an action that the military was responsible for. A few months later, Sharif was ousted and Musharraf gained power. Till this day, the Pakistani public refused to digest the fact that the Pakistani military’s Kargil strategy failed due to the military’s lack of prudence.
Fast forward to 2011, and you have a fragile political structure in which the PPP is trying desperately to hang on to its power. Coming into power after 8 years of unpopular military rule, it is remarkable to note that the public as has once again dismissed the civilian government as incompetent. The civilian government, simply put, has no control or say over Pakistan’s military policy. In 2008, President Zardari tried to put the ISI under the control of the interior ministry. However, ISI chief General Athar Abbas rejected the notion within 24 hours, and the matter was never discussed again. Wikileaks also have shown this apparent sensitivity and mistrust between these two entities. In November 2009, Interior Minister Rehman Malik conveyed his paranoia of an ISI takeover of the civilian government to then US Ambassador Anne Patterson. Similarly, Wikileaks have also shown mistrust between General Kiyani and President Zardari, with reports alleging that Kiyani in March 2009 was contemplating removing Zardari with ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan for the Presidency. This paranoia, if true, would not have existed in the first place if the institutional political structure were strong enough to resist army pressure. The threat of army intervention in the political sphere is real, and with Bin Laden’s death, it has become even more possible.
Knowing that the PPP is fragile, the military (and the ISI) have collectively been silent over the Osama Bin Laden issue, which can only be described as deeply embarrassing for the Pakistani military establishment. As the United States media has put it, the military has either been complicit or incompetent in this whole fiasco. The military’s silence is eerie, and there is every reason to believe that they will never discuss this issue in public. They might be contemplating ways in which they could eventually deflect the blame upon the civilian government. However, this civilian government is not that of Zulfiqar/Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. This civilian government has rarely interfered with the institutional structure of the military. Zulfiqar Bhutto appointed notorious Tikka Khan as chief of army staff and then Zia-ul-Haq as well. Nawaz Sharif sacked a Chief of Army Staff, and Benazir Bhutto actively tried to change ISI’s structure in 1990. This civilian government has no serious charges in terms of manipulating the military structure, which is why the military for the first time may be caught in a predicament.
From the perspective of the military though, the silence is the best policy they can advocate towards. Already, the opposition parties and the public are deflecting most of the blame on the civilian government for being “corrupt” and for selling its sovereignty. Few in Pakistan have asked the military to provide answers, and even those questions are mostly deflected by the public assertion (including Najam Sethi) that the military was in the know-how of the U.S. raid in Abbotabad. Even worse is the public answer that asserts that the military knew where Bin Laden was hiding, which shows that the public is willing to incriminate the military at the cost of them appearing incompetent. The myth of the military has scarred the public mindset to the extent that we the people refuse to protest or seek active questions against the strategy of the military. The “myth” ensures that the public never thinks of military as an entity that can be incompetent entity that can harm Pakistan’s interests (speaking strictly from a strategic sense). The military is in a tough predicament, yet the “myth” will ensure that the civilian government once again takes its share for most of the blame in Pakistan.