An insider looking in from the outside

Col BRIAN CLOUGHLEY, formerly Australian defence attache to Pakistan, remembers his service in the region and gives a fascinating viewpoint. He has written a history of the Pakistan Army, Wars and Insurrections to be shortly published by the OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

While wondering what to write for this piece I found a newspaper supplement for Defence of Pakistan Day in 1984. There were four photographs of General Zia ul-Haq, of course (remarkably few, for the period), and articles by various luminaries including my old friends Admiral TK Khan and General Talat Masood, both of whom, I am happy to recount, are still going strong and do not hesitate to send me rude messages when they disagree with what I write.

As I browsed through the yellowing pages I reflected on what has happened to Pakistan and its armed forces in the time since that year in which Mrs Gandhi was slain and a referendum in Pakistan that endorsed Islamic policies was taken as extending President Zias tenure for another five years. Courtesy of Maj Gen Salim Ullah, DGISPR, I now share these thoughts with you.

The mid-eighties were difficult for Pakistan. The Afghan war was raging and nearly three million refugees were being looked after, mainly in North West Frontier Province. In 1984 there were talks with India about Pakistans ideas for a no-war pact and Indias for a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation but, as usual, they got nowhere. Diplomatic pinpricks abounded and relations between the countries were poor, with the Indian army having advanced onto the Siachen Glacier in what has proved one of the most futile military expeditions ever conducted, anywhere. This barren icy waste, of use to neither man nor beast, has cost the lives of many young soldiers because of that adventurism, which was entirely contrary to the letter and spirit of the Simla Accord. (Mr AB Vajpayee said at the SAARC summit in Colombo in July this year that the countries of the sub-continent should grow rich together and that one way ahead was to forget hostile nationalism, but one wonders whether the words meant anything or if they were just intended to look good in media handouts.)

But possibly the most significant event for Pakistan in the period was the death of President Zia by hand unknown in August 1988. Things had not been going well for him in the months before he was killed and the country appeared rudderless and confused. Karachi was in chaos (so what is different now? — you may well ask), and there were terrorist bombings throughout the country. Although Zia did a great deal of good for Pakistan, his regime was under threat and it was well that democracy was restored, for which action praise must be given to General Aslam Beg and His Excellency Mr Ghulam Ishaq Khan (and their advisers, too). The Services had been loyal to their President and by and large supportive of his aims, but civilian rule came as a relief, not least because no-one knew exactly where they stood in relation to a military president who was army chief while also being supreme commander. The chain of command was a nonsense and inconsistent with the military ethos—it was time for a change, although I, for one, regret the manner of it because Zia was kind to me.

The challenges facing the Services in the late Eighties had altered slightly in a decade or so. Afghanistan was no longer the external threat that it had seemed to present earlier, but there was concern about the other border, as India appeared to be flexing its military muscles to a strange extent.

By June 1987 the Sri Lankan army had advanced to Jaffna and was preparing for what would probably have been a final reckoning with the Tamil rebels. In the words of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Survey of that year, At this point India intervened to compel President Jayawardene to halt the advance. Mr Rajiv Gandhi interfered dramatically in the domestic concerns of a sovereign nation because of his own domestic imperatives over the Bofors and submarine contract corruption affairs together with election victories by the opposition in three states. He needed a diplomatic triumph, said the IISS. But Indias adventure in Sri Lanka did not work out that way.

Pakistans armed forces regarded the Sri Lankan debacle, it must be said, with some satisfaction. The commander of Indias 54 Infantry Division (the fine soldier Lt Gen SC Sardeshpande) has written critically of leadership standards and other unsatisfactory aspects of that senseless campaign in his book ‘Assignment Jaffna — but although it was obvious that the Indians got bogged down, it was New Delhis political will to become involved in foreign ventures that struck a chord in Rawalpindi.

The Indians might have stumbled around Sri Lanka, but would they trip up if they attacked Pakistan? Certainly Exercise Brass Tacks in 1986/87 had not given much cause for apprehension on the score of great efficiency in the Indian Army, but the fact remained that it had 1.2 million men and 3, 500 tanks while Pakistans strength was rather less than half in both cases. India, too, had enormous preponderance in the air, with over 700 combat aircraft as against Pakistans 340, and comparative naval strengths were so disparate as to verge on the absurd. Indias naval expansion was in full swing, and there were worries about that further afield than in the immediate neighbourhood. It seemed that power-projection was high on Rajiv Gandhis priorities, and acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine, INS Chakra, in February 1998 did little to persuade the rest of the world that his motives were benign. The time had come for Pakistans defence forces to modernise, not only by acquiring better equipment but by approaching the threat in a less pedestrian way than in former years.

The US wished to sell the Abrams tank to Pakistan (it was following a demonstration of the tank at Bahawalpur that Zia was killed in the C-130 crash), but the system was complex, especially logistically. There was also the complication that if Pakistan had to go to war there was no guarantee that the US would supply ammunition or spares. So Pakistan turned to China, an assured supplier of not-quite-up-to-date material — but at least it was reliable. Spares and ammunition could be acquired on a surge basis and much could be made in Pakistan. This went for aircraft as well as tanks and artillery, but so far as the navy was concerned extended only to light vessels and, later, a replenishment ship. This was enough to cause the then Indian defence minister, Mr KC Pant, according to the Times of India, to express serious concern over the maritime threat to India by the increasing naval build-up by Pakistan and China. The statement caused a certain amount of mirth amongst western intelligence analysts, but was serious enough to lead Pakistan to examine air support to the fleet (such as it was) and dedicate a Mirage squadron for that purpose. (The command and control aspects of this were a bit shaky at the time, but have since improved.) With acquisition of (comparatively) new frigates and state-of the-art submarines in the years since Mr Pants comments, the Pakistan Navy has come a long way under successive Chiefs. It is now, at least, able to engage forces outside territorial waters in the event of hostilities. Commissioning of two replacement submarines in the next few years will add significantly to the navys capabilities.

One result of Indias posture was development of General Begs doctrine of the Riposte. This break from conventional hold-and-fight planning has meant a great deal to the army and air force, and I was grateful to be given the chance to follow its progress closely over the years. During the tenures of Generals Asif Nawaz (a great loss to the country), Abdul Waheed, and, now, Jehangir Karamat, the Riposte has been refined to a considerable degree. The Chiefs of Air Staff have been closely involved in planning the air-land battle, and there is no longer a fear that troops will be left undefended against what is still a marked superiority in numbers in the air as well as on the ground.

The nuclear factor has changed much. Neither India nor Pakistan has evolved what can be called nuclear doctrine. This is very much in the planning stage—and let us hope that it never has to be used. The fact remains that the nuclear option must be taken into account should tension between the countries increase to the extent that war-drums are beaten by aggressive elements on both sides.

The Armed Forces of Pakistan, nuclear shadow or not, are in good shape. May they continue to prosper as guardians of freedom. l

(Brian Cloughleys history of the Pakistan Army, Wars and Insurrections, is to be published by OUP in November.)