Are Pakistani Troops Defecting?

Today brings another report of the capture of 50 Pakistani troops in Waziristan in the volatile tribal area of northwestern Pakistan. Reports are confusing, fragmentary, and, of course, “official,” so it is hard to determine exactly what is happening.

Some 240 paramilitary troops “captured” on August 30th in the same general area are still missing, though a few bodies from that group have been found, allegedly executed.

What is really going on here? Could it be that, rather than merely surrendering with no or very little resistance, whole units of the Pakistani military are now defecting to Taliban-affiliated tribal militias in Pakistan?

Let’s ponder the question in a little more depth below the break.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos.)

It is hard to imagine how a unit of some 240 troops would surrender without a shot, unless the tribal militias and Taliban forces are now operating in large units approaching battalion size. If this is the case, then there is something more than an irritating little guerrilla conflict going on in Waziristan. It seems at least conceivable that in the incident on August 30th, two companies of Pakistani paramilitary troops may have simply defected to the side of the militias and Taliban.

Events may now be spiralling out of General Pervez Musharraf’s control, despite his reelection last Saturday with 98 percent of the votes cast–a truly Brezhnevian number. The catalyst for Musharraf’s downward spiral seems to have been the violent storming of the “Red Mosque” in Islamabad in July. The more than 100 deaths resulting from that Pakistani Army assault seem to have served as a catalyst for opposition to Musharraf’s rule at the Islamist end of Pakistan’s political spectrum, while the dissent of Pakistani lawyers, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, and Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League pull at the other end of the spectrum. Musharraf’s swift expulsion of Sharif when Sharif attempted to enter Pakistan last month looked to be part of an increasingly desperate effort to circle the wagons.

Musharraf is left with the Army and the civilian security apparatus as his primary supporters. In most times and places, that support should be sufficient to fire off a few “whiffs of grapeshot” (as Musharraf ordered at the Red Mosque in July) to preserve power. But if even Musharraf’s chief backer, the Army, has now begun to disintegrate, Pakistan may now be moving beyond mere political turmoil to the brink of widespread violence or even civil war.

While Pakistani Army officers essentially run the country and derive great personal benefit from Gen. Musharraf’s rule, even within the officer corps there has been substantial sympathy for Islamist elements in Afghanistan dating back to Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Mujahedeen during the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s and its backing of the Taliban after the Soviet withdrawal. It is more than likely that the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) still tries to exert influence with the Taliban by providing it with training and weapons. The Pakistani officer corps tends to attract politically rightward-leaning cadets. In Pakistan rightward-leaning politically often means fundamentalist-leaning religiously. (True, some Pakistani officers are “Western-leaning,” but no one really seems to have any useful polling data on numbers, percentages, attitudes, etc. within the Pakistani officer corps. Maybe some intelligence agency, somewhere on the planet, does. But there seems to be nothing in the public domain.)

What is true for important elements in the officer corps is even more true of enlisted jawans and noncoms, who by and large come from the same segments of the Pakistani population that tend to be sympathetic to a radical Islamic agenda such as the one preached by the former mullahs at the Red Mosque and to the revolutionary political agenda espoused by Osama bin Laden.

We need to keep in mind that Osama bin Laden is more popular among Pakistanis than is Gen. Musharraf, at least according to a poll conducted in August (numbers: bin Laden-46 percent, Musharraf-38 percent, Bush trailed badly at 9 percent). Last month bin Laden called upon Pakistanis to “rebel against the apostate Musharraf.” Today a helicopter accompanying one in which Musharraf was riding on a visit to Kashmir crashed enroute, reportedly because of “technical difficulties.” Maybe the report is accurate, but one has to wonder whether Gen. Musharraf today just managed to escape a fourth assassination attempt.

So why should we especially care what the Pakistanis do to one another?

If Pakistan degenerates into civil chaos along the lines, for example, of Iraq, there are components and delivery systems for several dozen nuclear weapons stored in various depots in Pakistan. Much of the nuclear material is highy enriched uranium, which–even if not yet inserted into warhead–could without too much difficulty be fabricated into a crude but workable “gun-barrel” nuclear device even by non-state actors.

While the Bush/Cheney White House continues to waste attention, lives, and weaponry in the quagmire of Iraq, and to launch a neocon drumbeat to threaten to do so again in the abyss of Iran, in Pakistan there appears to be a real, not imaginary, emerging threat of chaos and seizure of nuclear materials by non-state actors, i.e., activists and sympathizers of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden’s shortest path to obtaining a strategic nuclear capability appears to lie through instigating the collapse of Gen. Musharraf’s increasingly brittle and beleaguered regime and perhaps by promoting the collapse of the Pakistani nation state.

Is anybody in the White House or on Capitol Hill paying attention?

Or cannot the Bush Administration and its enablers on the Hill perpetuate the debacle in Iraq, threaten a cataclysm in Iran, chew gum, and still ponder the complex, accelerating events on the ground in Pakistan–all at the same time?


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  1. Afghanistan, Burma, now Pakistan.

    Yet another South Asian government is on the verge of collapse and no one appears to have the slightest idea what to do about it.

    The perils of fighting a two front war should be abundantly clear by now.

    • xaxado on October 9, 2007 at 20:57

    It’s the best!  you’re asking excellent questions and digging up hard-to-find facts that stitch together into alarming images.

    Anything further on the Israeli bombing in Syria?  Latest news is that the Israelis used a new US device that enters enemy computers and disables command and control of things like radar.  A contrarian hypothesis could be that the Syrian/Russian forces had a workaround for the stealth computer snatcher but let themselves be bombed anyway, so that Israel and the US would blunder into a huge mistake with the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.  Interesting times!

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