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Pakistan's Army and the New State

Written by Stratfor

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June 4, 2008
Stratfor Geopolitical Diary
stratforgeopolidiary.jpgPakistan continues to simmer. One of the two four-star generals in Pakistan’s army, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Tariq Majeed, said Monday that cross-border missile strikes into Pakistan’s tribal belt are killing civilians and contributing to the popular perception that U.S. military operations in the region are “anti-Islam.” His comments came the same day that a suicide bomber struck the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, killing eight people and wounding two dozen others.

Pakistan’s new government is facing the same balancing act that plagued President Pervez Musharraf prior to the Feb. 18 elections. Pakistan is a frontline U.S. ally in Washington’s war against jihadists, but the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has entered uncharted territory with a new civil and military leadership having replaced Musharraf’s hybrid civil-military system. Washington is concerned that the new government’s approach to Islamist militants — that is, negotiating with them — will only strengthen the jihadists. Meanwhile, Islamabad cannot afford to be perceived domestically (either by voters or by jihadists) as putting Washington’s interests above those of Pakistanis or of Muslims generally.

Another, far more dangerous indicator of how uncertain things have gotten in Pakistan has surfaced in the last few days: A.Q. Khan has come out saying that his 2004 confession claiming he sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya was made under duress, having been forced by Musharraf.

Despite his international reputation of running a nuclear arms syndicate, Khan is still a national hero in Pakistan and it is likely that he is trying to take advantage of the new political circumstances to rehabilitate himself (or is being used by those forces within Pakistan who are trying to get rid of Musharraf). But regardless of the reasons, Khan’s retraction is important because it reopens an all-but-shut case and potentially implicates the military in nuclear proliferation.

Hardly anyone believed that Khan alone was responsible for passing along nuclear technology — but because Musharraf was firmly in control at the time and had a special relationship with the Bush administration after 9/11, the United States agreed not to pursue the matter once Khan confessed and was placed under house arrest. All along it has been an open secret of sorts that Khan was carrying out orders from the top generals of the Pakistani army — who, after all, have always had full control over the country’s nuclear assets.

All of this matters a great deal because the army is the ultimate guarantor of the Pakistani state, but its role in governance has become uncertain since Musharraf was forced to give up his military title and become a purely civilian president. Along with Musharraf, the army has seen its power weakened by the recent changes in Pakistan. For Khan to retract his confession opens the door for fingers to point at the military, and creates a new source of pressure and a potential challenge to the army’s power. The army is also the same institution that for decades nurtured Islamist militant groups as domestic and foreign policy tools — and these groups are now also challenging the writ of the state within Pakistan.

What happens to Musharraf or Khan or any other individual is of very little consequence. What is crucial is whether the military will reassert control over the state, or whether the old system will be replaced with a new one (or with anarchy). It is unlikely that civilian leadership will be able to replace the army as a force to unite Pakistan.

Thus, issues such as nuclear proliferation and the state’s relationships with Islamist militants (most of whom are less and less amenable to control by the government or the military) are becoming critical concerns. It is in the interest of the new military leadership to make a push to reassert its power — but the army as an institution is under a great deal of strain from the ongoing instability and insecurity in the country. We continue watching Pakistan to see whether, or when, the crisis will reach a break point.
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