Old Habits, New Challenges to Pakistani Establishment

Many senior officers in the Pakistani Army still remember the days when, not so long ago, evenings were spent in crusty officers' messes, buying or being bought a round of whiskey with "the boys" before retiring for the night.

The rules in those days came from the "Sandhurst tradition" a military culture modeled on the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, that trained the British Army's officer corps and on which model the Indian and Pakistani armies were based.

But while the Indian Army still strives to maintain the Sandhurst tradition, epitomized by the unwritten gentlemen's code of conduct: 'No talk of women or politics in the mess, infringers buy a round of whiskey for all,' the Pakistani Army consciously dumped its colonial traditions in the 1980s for what is widely known as an "Islamization" process.

As the world watches in alarm as tens of thousands of incensed anti-U.S. demonstrators have been gathering on the streets of Pakistani cities and thousands of tribesmen line up at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to offer their services to their fellow tribesmen — the Taliban — in its "war against America," the world instinctively understands that Pakistan's stability cannot be taken for granted.

And as the military campaign in Afghanistan promises to realign global geo-politics, Pakistan's stability is a vital strategic concern to the international community. But while pundits have been attempting to monitor the situation in Pakistan in the worry lines on the face of its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not much attention has been paid to two pivotal Pakistani institutions: the army and the intelligence agency, Interservices Intelligence, or ISI as it is known.

"Historically, Pakistan's armed forces and intelligence services have been seen as the two strategically important pillars of the four that made up Pakistani civil society," said Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American who has been a consultant to the U.S. government in nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism and Islamic issues. "The other two, democracy and religion, have failed as institutional frameworks — one having collapsed under the weight of corruption and the other having deeply damaged civil society by breeding radicalism."

The radicalization of the army is widely believed to have started in the 1980s under the tenure of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, then Pakistani leader and military commander-in-chief. It was, according to Sumantra Bose, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, a part of Zia's radicalization of Pakistani society as a whole in order to quell political dissent.

A State Within a State

But while the military has controlled the Muslim-dominated country for most of its 54-year history and its presence is visible, relatively little is made public about the influential, highly secretive ISI, an institution widely believed to have spawned the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

"The ISI is like a state within a state," said Bose. "Pakistan has an extensive network of intelligence agencies and the ISI is the crown jewel of the network. While it is a part of the Pakistani military establishment, at the same time it has a record of independence that dates back to the Afghan war in the 1980s."

While the ISI was the main conduit for channeling CIA funds to the Afghan mujahideen, or freedom fighters, during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, Pakistan's shifting policy on Afghanistan is widely believed to have seriously affected the ISI brass, many of whose officers are still intensely loyal to the Taliban and their hard-line Islamic ideology.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

It's a matter of brass tacks that Musharraf is well aware of, judging from his actions on Oct. 7, just as the much-awaited U.S. and British strikes on Afghanistan began.

In one fell swoop, Musharraf ruthlessly sacked Lt. Gen. Mehmood Ahmed, the powerful head of the ISI, and Gen. Muzaffar Hussain Usmani, deputy chief of staff of the Pakistani army.

Both Ahmed and Usmani were widely believed to have uncomfortably close ties to the Taliban and unhidden sympathies for the Pashtun tribesmen who dominate the regime. In the wide and often accurate Pakistani rumor mill surrounding ISI operations, word has it that a small group of ISI officers visited the Taliban stronghold city of Khandahar in Afghanistan days after the Sept. 11 attacks without the permission of the government.

According to a report by seasoned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, the group had reportedly gone into Afghanistan to help the Taliban prepare their defenses and a strategy against U.S. attacks.

"This superseding of the chain of command in favor of religious or brotherly fealties at the working level of the ISI was, if accurate, a technical violation of the code of conduct," said Ijaz.

And in the current climate, Musharraf was apparently having none of it. Although the Pakistani leader downplayed the significance of the staff shuffle in the immediate aftermath of the dismissals, experts noted that the new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Eshanul Haq, had a reputation for being a "moderate" and "reasonable" man.

But many experts also warn against putting too much emphasis on the staff shifts as a yardstick of Musharraf's control over the two institutions. "It's questionable what difference the getting rid of one general here and there can really make," said Bose. "Unless there is a disbanding or a fairly radical overhaul of the ISI, I would guess it's unlikely to make any significant difference."

A Matter of Class and Ethnic Loyalties

In the complex political situation of the subcontinent, where caste and ethnic loyalties play a major role, the significance of Musharraf's class and ethnic background is not lost on seasoned South Asia watchers.

Born in Delhi, India, before the British colony was split into India and Pakistan on the eve of independence in 1947, Musharraf belongs to what is called the muhajirs or immigrants who fled India for Pakistan.

His Westernized habits, even the fact that he is often photographed with his pet dog, an animal considered unclean by conservative Islamists, is not lost on Pakistanis. An army man trained in the old school Pakistani military tradition, Musharraf heads an army that is dominated by officers from the Punjab region.

With Pakistani officials making serious attempts to rectify the dominance of Punjabis in the military, where opportunities for young men and women abound, ethnic Pasthuns have been the largest benefactors of the new recruitment drives.

Popularly called "Pathans" in India and Pakistan, Pashtuns are a tribe with historical warrior roots spread over northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. The rise of Pathans within the army and the ISI, according Bose, is a direct offshoot of Pakistan's growing influence in Afghanistan over the past two decades.

Personnel or Philosophy

But retired Pakistani military officials downplay the significance of ethnic loyalties within the two institutions. "The army is a very homogeneous organization," said retired Brigadier Rao Abid Hamid. "While I agree it is dominated by Punjabis traditionally, the comradeship within the army is very good."

While acknowledging that looking to ethnic lines for likely cracks within the army is a matter of speculation, Bose conceded that if Pakistani civil society were severely threatened, "the tug-of-war within the army would be whether state allegiance will win or whether religious and ethnic ties will rule."

For now, most experts believe Musharraf's position that sticking by him and by the United States is the only patriotic option for the Pakistani state has wide appeal among the country's military and civilian elite.

But their optimism does not always extend to Musharraf's ability to maintain control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the event of a coup.

The Nuclear Threat

Along with arch foe India, Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear device in 1998, which it hailed as the Islamic world's first atomic bomb.

"I don't want to be an alarmist over this," said Bose. "But at the same time, I'm not sure that either India or Pakistan have a secure safety control system. And unless we have hard evidence to go on, we simply can't be sure."

Former Pakistani military officials though scoff at what they see as the Western media's obsession with their nuclear program. A recent article in the magazine The New Yorker reported that an elite U.S. unit whose mission included the destruction of nuclear facilities was being readied in case of a contingency in Pakistan.

But retired Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, author of the forthcoming book, The Nuclearization of South Asia among others, was dismissive of the report. "Nuclear weapons are stored in a disassembled state in several locations. Most of the time, the location of war heads is not known. How can you conduct this operation in the middle of a country? I don't think it's possible."

Kashmir on Their Minds

The international community has also been concerned that the combination of the current crisis in Afghanistan will exacerbate the Kashmir issue.

Both India and Pakistan have claims on Kashmir and while Pakistan claims its neighbor is ruthlessly suppressing a freedom movement in Kashmir, India accuses Pakistan, mainly through the long arm of the ISI, of supporting Islamic terrorists in the region.

While India has been upset with Washington's new cozying up to what it believes are the very forces that created the Taliban, few experts believe the matter would explode into a nuclear war. "Both India and Pakistan are responsible nations," dismissed Matinuddin. "There is no cause for alarm."

Bose offered strategic reasons for his calm. "The Pakistani military regime is preoccupied with what's happening in Afghanistan and it doesn't want an escalation on its eastern border. While India has been trying to make Musharraf's life more difficult than it already is, the Indian leadership basically does not want an escalation either. They want the U.S. to see the Kashmir issue on Indian terms."

Certainly the old guard of the Pakistani military establishment does not want to see a conflict on the eastern front.

"We share so many similarities," said Hamid, referring to the common colonial traditions that the Indian and Pakistani armies have shared. "I'm a part of the India Pakistan Soldiers Peace Initiative and when we're not in conflict or when we're part of joint peacekeeping initiatives out of the region, it's amazing the goodwill our soldiers share."

Hamid is, of course, referring to the old Sandhurst tradition that still binds the upper echelons of the two armies, but with the situation on the ground rapidly deteriorating, it's questionable how effectively and quickly old habits can die.