It is one thing to resort to a military coup to grab power inside a State. It is quite another — in fact, the opposite — thing to be seen as the defenders of the State from external aggression. On both counts, the image and credibility of Pakistan’s army have taken a severe beating, though not for the first time.
Let facts and figures speak for themselves here. Opinion and interpretation, if any, could follow. That there took place a colossal intelligence failure which permitted Osama bin Laden’s presence under the very nose of Pakistan’s military establishment is evident. Moreover, if Pakistani authorities failed to detect US helicopters in the vicinity of large military installations right at the heart of the country, how does one assess the performance of the defence command of Pakistan’s air force? Is it up to the mark? These lapses occurred in spite of the extension of the tenure of the army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, by three years and that of the Inter Services-Intelligence chief, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, by one year. What would now be the reaction of the dozens of lieutenant generals who are in the queue? Will they tolerate the authority of a disgraced army chief and of an ISI “super-sleuth”? That seems highly unlikely if both Kayani and his protégé, Shuja Pasha, manage to cling to their chairs and survive the unprecedented crisis in the Pakistani citadel.
The beauty of the present crisis lies in the fact that the damage control had to be done by the much-despised civilian government of Islamabad. An embarrassed military left a forlorn and harassed civilian government filling the “local vacuum” created around the raid on Abbottabad. Thus President Asif Ali Zardari optimistically insisted that Pakistan was clueless about the raid by the air forces of the United States of America, and that bin Laden had not been a guest at the invitation of Islamabad. Salman Bashir, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, chose to talk about a non-existing Indian threat on the occasion instead of blaming or finding fault with the special forces of either the US or Pakistan. Subsequently, however, the sullen silence of the military was broken. Understandably, the mighty men of Pakistan’s forces found India to be the “real foe”.
Now, visualize Abbottabad’s ‘defence’ scenario. The central command of the Frontier Force Regiment is located here. The force has 67 battalions, the average strength of which is between 900 to 1,000 men per unit, though not all of them are stationed in Abbottabad. The Baloch Regiment centre, along with the school of mountain warfare and Pakistan’s military academy, are also in Abbottabad. To top it all is the presence of the Army Medical College (to nurse anyone, including a fugitive) at Rawalpindi, which is only 50 kilometres from where bin Laden had been found staying for years.
In this scenario, the US attack indisputably exposed the chinks in Pakistan’s armour. The country’s radar system overseeing the northern hilly regions was simply jammed while the US stealth helicopters flew in and flew out unchallenged. The US helicopters not only intruded in the area but also operated from the place, thereby repeating a dreaded scenario of a bygone era, when the same northwest frontiers of the Asian subcontinent would be ravaged by foreign invaders from West and Central Asia.
This ‘success’ of the US forces indicates the weaknesses of Pakistan’s army. There is a shortage of high-quality officers owing to a long tradition of senior commanders’ interests being diverted from the military to politics. The lukewarm and, at times cold, relations between the army and the air force is also well-known. Thus Pakistan’s commanders (and they are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to the country’s security and to India, Afghanistan or Kashmir) faced massive problems in dealing with the insurgency threat in the western region. Little wonder then that the US SEALs came in and went out unopposed from the wild west of northwest Pakistan.
However, this blunder of the military could have been avoided had Pakistanis learnt the right lessons from its 1989 exercise, Zarb-e-Momin (Believer’s Blow), which led to considerable restructuring, including the creation of the air defence command and artillery divisions. It was found then that the Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) had serious deficiencies — “especially in the passage of tactical information from higher command to unit level”. The lingering defects proved deadly for Kayani and Shuja Pasha.
The most damaging outcome of ‘Operation Osama’, however, is the revelation that both Kayani and Shuja Pasha, who constitute the vanguard of Islamabad’s armed forces, are ISI hands. Moreover, both of them are deeply connected, through their Baloch and Frontier Force Regiment centres, to Abbottabad. Pakistan has recently acquired considerable military hardware. Yet, it could not detect the penetration of its airspace by the US forces. In the fiasco, the ISI was conspicuous by its absence, thereby leading to a severe loss of face for those men who are meant to die for the country’s defence if need be. Heads are bound to roll. None can stop the inevitable and the imminent.