What Pakistan Thinks

The Quetta Experience: What Lessons Are There For India

Suresh Bangara New Delhi, India 23 October 2018

In the early 1980s, a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, written by Norman F Dixon, a psychologist by profession but with a military background at the Royal Engineers for a few years, caught my attention for its perspicacity and audacity. Predictably, it was the military which found the book unpalatable but it also received glowing reviews from many who even ventured to call it a “classic”.

In the book, Dixon looked at many of the wars fought by the British for over a century and a half, and later the Allies, and examined them from the leadership perspective. Based on scientific methods of critical assessment, the author was able to deduce the factors that had led to poor ‘Generalship’ and inept leadership in wars that were unsuccessfully fought. Essentially, the book pertained to the levelling down of human capabilities.

It is in this context that a recent study titled The Quetta Experience – Attitudes and Values within Pakistan’s Army, becomes relevant to all of us. The author Col (Retd) David O. Smith has painstakingly conducted a field research in 2013-14 based on interviews of U.S. Army officers who attended the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College in Quetta between 1977-2014. Primarily focussed on the attitudes and values of the Pakistan Army, the study provides an insight into the very course which shapes the minds of a selected few young officers of their service.

What is unique is that although reports rendered by officers attending foreign courses are routinely processed by almost all countries, this is the first such report in the public domain which covers a period of 37 years. This is long enough to corroborate conclusions based on individual assessments.

As far as we are concerned, some of the conclusions arrived at by Col Smith may not necessarily coincide with our thinking on our consanguineous neighbour. We do interact with them at UN peacekeeping operations and on courses conducted by friendly countries. It is true that the Indian and Pakistani officers more often than not become good friends due to factors of commonality of food, music, language and Bollywood. Even during wars there have been instances of display of human qualities not seen on battlegrounds elsewhere. However, that has partly been vitiated by the recent disrespect shown to our soldiers with their mutilated, dead bodies handed over across the border.

Coming back to the study, a number of key issues have been covered here. I will analyse four of them below and bring in observations based on my personal knowledge of our neighbour. This knowledge has been collated during courses in the U.K. U.S.; chance meetings in friendly ports; stay in Pakistan for three years during the Zia regime; my participation in CBM related issues at sea between an Indian and Pakistani group of maritime experts; and my recent participation at an anti-piracy seminar at Karachi in March 2012.

First – Demographic changes and social issues. Smith concludes that, “Fears of Islamisation within the Pakistan Army officer corps and its susceptibility to radical religious influence are exaggerated.”

At the outset, I must admit that my interactions were biased towards the Navy and not so much the Army. Given that the Army in Pakistan is all powerful, and that the other two services play a secondary role even in the joint commands, Islamisation would be steered by the Army, as dictated by the stereotypical general-turned-president of the country.

Ironically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto along with Zia, later to be his bête noire, laid the grounds for Islamisation of the Armed Forces. Introducing special clauses in the ACR format on imperatives based on religion, identifying those prone to alcohol consumption and making religion the primary focus, were overseen by Zia during his time in power. When viewed from an Indian perspective, other critical changes such as rewriting the history of Pakistan, and thereby detaching their past from India, ensured that the alienation of the future generation was more or less achieved.

The impact could immediately be seen in the military. The Pakistan Navy, I knew then, was no different from our navy except that they had increasingly become more Americanised in their outlook. We had moved from British, to Russian and finally to a concatenated Indian model.

It is with this backdrop that I was saddened to see the sailors of PN Ships in 2011, lined up on deck looking like mullahs rather than sailors. They hurled invectives at us followed by praises of Allah as they steamed past one of our ships. This was over two decades after I left Islamabad. My datum on Islamisation changed even as I witnessed the conduct of their Army at Kargil. As a result, I disagree with Smith that Islamisation and radicalisation have been exaggerated. In fact, it is a cause for worry, if not concern for India.

Second – Perception of external threats. Smith alludes to a growing generational divide between the senior and mid-level officers. He suggests that the younger generation does not view India as a primary threat.

My observations of university students at the Bahria college at Karachi in 2012 gave me hope. Not a single student questioned me — the only Indian — about Kashmir or other controversial subjects. Instead, I was bombarded with questions on reputed colleges and institutions of India for skill development and scientific research; medical facilities and commercial activities if and when we open our facilities for South Asians. They were more than happy to interact with me with little or no anger. Their careers and future were on top of their agenda.

This tallies with Smith’s assessment, but there is a flip side which needs consideration. The younger generation which is brought up on tinkered history and Wahhabi culture get more of that when they enter service. Fortunately, Bollywood continues to allure them with songs and visuals of India. Social media does the rest to keep them up to date. Breaking of barriers of communications using WhatsApp (a double edged tool though it may be) has its merits too.

Given that the change of official history has completely alienated the post-Zia generation from their roots in India, if anything, they should be more antagonistic. Perhaps the knowledge that India has advanced well beyond their reach in academic, economic, commercial and industrial capabilities and hence militarily too, has sobered their current threat assessments.

Third – Attitudes towards the State and its institutions. The most unresolved riddle for a young Pakistani officer is democracy. That all democracies are highly flawed but survive since there are no better alternatives, is an idea which is not sellable in Pakistan.

When a General is in power the military stands to gain materially and financially. The military which runs many major commercial institutions including transportation tends to be pampered even more. Large incomes that accrue from purely military-run commercial ventures pay for more perks and comforts. On the contrary, democratically elected leaders tend to be corrupt, indecisive and poor administrators and thus contempt for civilian governments and institutions is endemic. As a result, the military officer would any day support an Army regime in Pakistan.

Fourth – attitude towards nuclear issues.Two important deductions that Smith makes here are critical. First, there is the issue about negligible material on nuclear issues in their foundation course. Use of tactical nuclear weapons and its strategic implications are not appreciated at Quetta. Such an attitude needs to change. Encouragement to pen analytical material on nuclear issues, like many Indian scholars and authors have done, is an essential pre-requisite to grow in a nuclear environment.

Second, the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is being repeatedly reassured even by ill-informed students of this course. Repeated reassurances in the face of internal threats is a bad sign and cannot be construed as a positive and confident gesture in relation to the safety and security of their nuclear assets.

In conclusion, there are issues on the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum. Militaries all over are averse to changes. The “all is well” theme of the famous movie Three Idiots is a culture that should be discouraged. Continuous reappraisal of course content is often stymied by the military-bureaucracy in most democracies. Going by Dixon’s findings, one needs to beware of the military bureaucrat — he tends to be much worse when placed in a seat of power.

(The author is a retired vice-admiral of the Indian Navy and former chief, Southern Naval Command. Views expressed are personal.)

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