Struggling to the End: A Review of C. Christine Fair’s New Book on Pakistan’s Army

A famous saying goes: countries have armies; in Pakistan, the army has a country. As a result, it seems important for those interested in South Asia to know what that army is thinking and how its attitudes and actions have ramifications for those inside and outside Pakistan.

C Christine Fair’s new book, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War goes through tomes of army literature.  She lays out a case that Pakistan’s army is eternally bent on changing the current status quo in Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations more generally. It believes that it has never lost a war with India (it has lost at least 3), because of the sheer fact that it is still fighting and India has neither conquered all of Kashmir nor eliminated Pakistan as a serious concern in South Asia.  The army believes it is succeeding as long as what Fair considers the founding ideology of Pakistan (the theory that Hindus and Muslims in South Asia constitute different ‘nations’) is intact.  It uses its nuclear capability not simply as a deterrent, but as an umbrella to shield it from otherwise strong responses to military adventurism.

While Fair makes an extensive case for these claims, it remains a fact that the Pakistani army is not regularly launching full-scale invasions of India or even Kashmir.  It does, it seems, have some sense of boundaries, so to speak, in the nuclear standoff between the two countries.  Perhaps the extended nature of Fair’s argument should not be taken as evidence of its intensity or purported reach, but it is hard not to do so.

Beyond Indo-Pak relations, the book covers a variety of other subjects.  While the resulting text can frequently be tedious to wade through for those who are not familiar with and intensely interested in subjects like the “strategic culture” of militaries, the book contains several nuggets for those more broadly interested in more understanding Pakistan.  Perhaps the most notable section of the text is a series of charts which reflect the attitudes of ordinary Pakistanis, broken down by ethnicity (using mother tongue as a proxy) and state.  For example, 41% of Punjabis in the Punjab believe that their country ‘completely’ governed by elected representatives, while only 14% of Punjabis in other parts of Pakistan believe this.  Only 12% of Punjabis in Sindh want greater sharia law, while 20% of Sindhis in Sindh do.

Fair’s book also contains a great deal of history on the various conflicts that Pakistan and its predecessor state of British India took on.  Significantly, this includes not just Pakistani-India relations, but a significant chunk of text devoted to Pakistan’s attitudes towards Afghanistan.  Afghanistan, Fair argues, is seen as an important site for Pakistan to try to maintain its security, either through direct meddling or through maintaining relationships with friendly governments.  Fair argues that since colonial times, British India and then Pakistan alternated between strategies that were more intrusive and less intrusive in Afghan affairs.

One puzzle that Fair looks at is why Pakistan’s army has a more critical stance towards the United States, considering it a fair weather friend at best, while it has relatively uncritical support towards China.  Fair does not fully resolve this issue, but it seems somewhat intuitive that, regionally, Pakistan’s army needs China to contain India-it’s primary raison d’etre-while the United States might be seen as not quite as vital to that concern, due to sheer geography if nothing else.  Another issue in the relationships might be China’s status over much of the period covered in the book as a fellow developing country, while the U.S. is a superpower, easy to resent.

Fair’s analysis is deeply pessimistic, and she explicates this towards the end of her book: she does not believe any combination of external or internal changes in Pakistan is likely to change the army’s attitudes or its level of power within Pakistani society.  One curiosity is that in considering possible changes, ranging from a genuine civilian takeover of the state to a resounding military defeat by India, she does not consider the possible impact of a genuine military victory by Pakistan, particularly in the divided region of Kashmir.  While it does seem unlikely based on the balance between India and Pakistan’s military and the nuclear weapons they both hold, it would have been interesting to hear Fair’s thoughts on what the turnover of a united Kashmir to Pakistan might mean for Pakistan’s army and the country as a whole.  Even a plebiscite in Kashmir seems like it might have an impact on the Pakistan army’s commitment to eternal conflict.

In conclusion, while the book is, as stated above, exceedingly dry reading, there are several portions, ranging from the history of British relations with Afghanistan to the history of the Pakistan-Bangladesh split, that are worth reading.  If nothing else, the book casts a particular light on not just the power of the Pakistani army, but the views of the figures who have made it up.  It is recommended reading for those interested in that institution in particular, while those more broadly interested in Pakistan would probably fare better with Ian Talbot, Christophe Jaffrelot, Ayesha Jalal, or Hamza Alavi.  Coming back to the book after reading more traditional experts on Pakistan might shed more light on the significance of some of Fair’s arguments, such as that Pakistan’s commitment to both Islamism and informal fighters goes back much further than the late 1970s or early 1980s.


Whither the World: a short note on Narendra Modi

If you have spent any time on social media that deals with India, you have run across the name of its new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The erstwhile Chief Minister of Gujarat is in the United States this week on a state visit, overcoming a multi-year ban on his presence due to complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms while he ran the state.  He is, by all accounts, being treated like a rock star, having appeared before 20,000 fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

A less trumpeted but far more enlightening visitor to the States is Manoj Mitta.  Mitta is a reporter for the Times of India and author of two books on communal violence in India.  He addressed a small crowd at George Washington University in Washington, DC tonight at an event sponsored by the Sikh Coalition.

Through a recounting of anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 and anti-Muslim ‘rioting’ in 2002, Mitta effectively laid out an argument that Indian democracy and the Indian state have  a serious and ongoing issue with anti-minority violence that can’t be explained away as just two major episodes. He pointed out that there was a failure to hold perpetrators accountable in both instances, and that the impunity around the anti-Sikh pogroms helped lead to a political calculus in favor of anti-Muslim violence. This, he implied, pointed to a system problem.

Academic Atul Kohli provided a fairly convincing explanation for this system problem, why India’s politics over the last three decades have been so communal in nature.  In brief, he argues that India’s governments have been pro-rich for the last 30 years, and this leaves few vehicles to mobilize the voting base.  Communalism of the kind exposed by Mitta is one such avenue.

We see laid bare, then, the links between labor and economic justice issues on the one hand and the politics of communalism and other identities on the other; the neoliberals are using communal politics as a way to drum up support for a pro-rich electoral program that would otherwise be rejected.