Developments in the Pakistani region of Waziristan and Afghanistan have altered the balance of forces between regular armies and religious militants. These developments, indirectly but effectively, create new dangers for India. They threaten the Pakistani state even more.
The balance of power between Western armies and religious militants in the Middle East has shifted. Western difficulties in Iraq and Lebanon have already raised expectations among jihadis and their supporters. In Afghanistan, the United States and its NATO allies are going down to defeat. That is not an exaggeration. Taliban attacks are rising steadily while the size of NATO forces is not. British forces report the most intense fighting they have faced since the Korean War, yet neither Britain nor its allies have increased their troop levels. Current Western casualty rates and force levels are not sustainable together. America is tied down in Iraq. A bombing campaign in Afghanistan or Waziristan would not avert defeat. A Taliban victory against Western armies in Afghanistan is bound to embolden jihadis in Pakistan and to humiliate Musharraf, who aligned with America against the Taliban on Sept. 12, 2001.
The Afghan Taliban war effort has been based in Pakistan, particularly in the tribal regions of North and South Waziristan adjacent to Afghanistan. The local militants also call themselves Taliban. The Pakistan Army appears to have made a substantial effort to gain control of North Waziristan, losing around 700 soldiers. In early September it conceded, as it had earlier in the south. The army has withdrawn back to its bases, returned weapons it had captured to the Pakistani Taliban, and restored travel links from the region to the rest of Pakistan. Waziristan also contains a large concentration of al-Qaeda terrorists. They now have a safe area and improved access to the rest of the world.
The autonomy of Taliban-ruled Waziristan will have a wide impact. Waziristan can easily become a base to seize the Pakistani state. The main cause of instability is the weakning of the Pakistani state itself. Musharraf faces a profound dilemma. He needs his army to protect him from both itself and jihadis. It is difficult to do both. Musharraf commands no emotional loyalty from his officers and soldiers. His way of ensuring obedience has been to expel jihadi-minded officers from senior ranks, keep top generals in position for only short periods, and offer generous retirement packages to senior officers. Musharraf has sought to promote to top ranks only those motivated primarily by money. But this policy has never made for good fighting armies.
The Pakistan Army has been the spine of the state since the early years. There is a strong tradition among soldiers and officers of loyalty to the army as an institution and to the chain of command. However, Musharraf has found it necessary to subvert the institution of the army in order to remain in power. There is a split between the upper ranks and the middle and lower ranks. It is only the upper ranks, the top few thousands of an army of half a million, who have received the material rewards of military rule, and who have been selected for their greed. The middle and lower ranks are left with little but ordinary salaries and religious motivation to sustain them. They are well aware of the nature of the senior officer corps.
In short, the Pakistani state rests on an exceptionally narrow foundation at present. After the fall of the last two military rulers the state was able to reconstitute itself. After General Yahya Khan’s ouster following the 1971 war, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto retained a strong popular following, and was the only major political force outside the army in the remaining Pakistan. After General Zia’s death in 1988, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif commanded mass followings and could rise to govern, albeit under army supervision. Again, jihadis and fundamentalists were a marginal force at the time. Now jihadis form an armed bloc that Musharraf cannot disarm and are the most motivated political movement in the country. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, while still commanding followings, are a shadow of what they were in 1988. It would even be difficult for a new military dictatorship to arise. No general would allow another to supersede him, knowing that the dictator must suppress his former peers, as Musharraf did. Moreover, the top generals are tainted in the eyes of soldiers and officers as Musharraf’s men. Any breakdown of the Musharraf dictatorship will create an opportunity for jihadis to seize power in Pakistan.
On the positive side, Musharraf’s anti-coup strategy ensures peace between the Indian and Pakistani armies. On the negative side, it makes it difficult for the Pakistani state to resist the jihadi tide. The specter of jihadis commanding a large population and a nuclear arsenal now faces India, America, and the world.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.