Pakistan's Military Holds the Real Power

A Pakistani soldier under his nation's flag in the Swat district in 2009 Mian Khursheed / Reuters-Landov

Yet another attempt to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan came to a screeching halt in mid-July in Islamabad. At a press conference devoid of the usual diplomatic niceties, the normally urbane and courteous Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi compared remarks made by the Indian home secretary to the invectives hurled by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist outfit behind the bloody 2008 assault on Mumbai. That bitter comment scuttled the talks, suggesting to Indian officials that Pakistan had no interest in making headway on issues such as dealing with India’s accusations about Pakistani complicity with terror and the demilitarization of a contested glacier in Kashmir.

Sadly, Qureshi was diverting attention from the real issue: that the Pakistani military remains the biggest ob-stacle to regional peace. At bottom, it does not want peace because it would undermine its extraordinary position of privilege within Pakistan’s political order. Instead, it has fixated on the nation’s dispute with India over Kashmir and castigates India for being a destabilizing force. As recently as January, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani stated that India is the principal security threat facing Pakistan. To counter this perceived threat—and bolster its power—the military has waged an asymmetric war strategy against India, supporting jihadi organizations with training, weaponry, and sanctuaries within Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

This intransigence is more than a bilateral issue between warring states. Several of the jihadi groups it spawned and nurtured, especially the Lashkar-e-Taiba, are no longer content with attacking Indian security forces and civilians. They are now aiming at American and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Pakistan Army’s links with the Afghan Taliban suggest to the U.S. that it is only a partial ally, not a dependable partner in Afghanistan. Consequently, Washington cannot continue merely to urge Pakistan to rein in these forces while it also doles out funds to Islamabad, as Hillary Clinton did last week. A drastic change in policy, long overdue, should be put forward: unless the military shows a willingness to end its use of this asymmetric war strategy, America may have to curb its largesse.

The military’s history of supporting jihadi groups dates back two decades, and although this has brought it no closer to loosening India’s grip on Kashmir, it continues to use this relationship to thwart attempts to bring peace to the region. After the Obama administration announced it would start drawing down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military began working hard to realize its dream of reinstalling a client regime in that country. It stepped up support for the Afghan Taliban and exerted pressure on the fragile Karzai government to consider a power-sharing arrangement with a reconstituted Taliban. Unfortunately, Washington, seeking a face-saving means of withdrawal from Afghanistan, has grudgingly granted its imprimatur to this dubious enterprise.

Indian ineptitude has played neatly into the hands of the Pakistani military. New Delhi has failed to generate significant new job opportunities for young, poorly educated Kashmiris, or exercise adequate oversight on development funds in the region. Some of its security forces have been callous in their dealings with the local populace. As a result, another wave of discontent swept across the region during the past month. Officials overreacted, and soon significant parts of the state were aflame. Ultimately, India called out the Army to end the protests. The Pakistani military viewed this outpouring of Kashmiri frustration as an opportunity to put India in the dock again. This was not a moment to bail out Pakistan’s principal adversary through high-level negotiations but to find a way to bring them to a close.

Qureshi knows that the power in Pakistan, and over his own livelihood, lies with the military establishment. His incendiary press conference comment helped it accomplish its goal—killing any chance of a rapprochement with India—and cemented its power over the entire region in the process.

Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University.