A younger generation of Pakistan Army officers tends to consider home-grown terrorists, an enemy they have personally fought, a more significant threat than India, according to a new study by an elite Pakistani training school for senior officers who go on to man the upper echelons of the force.
They are forced to keep their views to themselves though, to private dinner parties and smaller conversations, and away from older officers, who are senior and seek to enforce the traditional anti-India narrative to safeguard and perpetuate their own legacy, the study says.
The Quetta Experience, written by retired US Army colonel David O Smith, an alumnus of the Command and Staff College in Quetta, and published by the Washington-based Wilson Center, offers an inside look at Pakistan’s middle-level and senior officers, their thoughts, attitudes and angst as expressed in unguarded moments to or around their American classmates.
Smith interviewed US Army officers who attended the Quetta institution, which counts Indian Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw among its alumni, under a long-term US programme from 1977 to 2014, on what they saw there and heard from Pakistani classmates, the directing staff and faculty.
The study was completed in 2014 but a decision was taken then not to distribute it, fearing adverse impact on US Army officers serving at the Quetta facility. The US cancelled the programme in 2016 and Smith felt confident enough to publish it after he was told in late 2017 that it would not be resumed.
In the section on India, Smith charts changing attitudes of Pakistani officers based on accounts of their American classmates going back to 1977, and, citing an American student from that year, he writes that the course material reflected the central belief that India was “the number one threat”.
A US student from 1981 said, when asked to prioritise the Pakistan Army officers’ perception of the most dire external threat: “India, India, and India.”
And so it stayed for most of the 1980s, with brief periods of spike about the Soviet Union, but India it was at the top, reinforced each year by more of the same until it began to sound like, in the words of a US student from 1995, “memorised propaganda…perhaps as a way to reinforce long held attitudes. There was just no questioning of it.”
One US student heard a Pakistani officer describe India to his child as “evil”, another officer recalled widely held contempt for the Hindu religion and a belief that Hindus were “deceptive, tricky, and generally morally reprehensible people”.
Things stayed the same for that decade and the next, through the world-changing 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and a new threat posed by differences over the sharing of river waters. If the needle shifted, it was only for the worse.
But changes were under way.
“The single bright spot in a dismal litany of conspiratorial conjecture was thought by some (US) students to be a subtle change in recent thinking about the centrality of the military threat posed by India compared to growing internal security threats from the plethora of extremist groups in Pakistan,” the report states.
According to the report, a US student from the 2009-2010 batch noted a “generational divide” between old and long-time Pakistani officers clinging to their long-held anti-India bias and the young crop of officers who were the “complete opposite”.
The report notes this new attitude was more prevalent among small numbers of Pakistan Air Force and navy students at the institution.
But the key factor was the experience of junior and mid-level army officers who served in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the historically lawless northwestern area bordering Afghanistan, and tended to view terrorism as a much more immediate threat to Pakistan than India.
The report states: “These officers, he said, had spent the bulk of their military careers fighting this new threat, had seen their brother officers and soldiers killed and wounded by the groups, and watched their friends and their families’ lives shattered forever.”
Things begin to change and rapidly.
A US student of the 2012-2013 batch told Smith he was told by a Pakistani student, “I don’t know why we hate them (Indians) so much. We like their music, their movies, and our two languages are nearly the same.”
Others in that class said it was time to “move on”.
The next batch, arriving in 2013-2014, went further. A majority of these Pakistani officers believed in and desired a “better bilateral relationship with India” but said they felt the Quetta school’s staff “was all against it”.
These young Pakistani officers will go on to lead the most resilient of the country’s institutions, the military. But can they change it?
“That’s something we can certainly hope for — that when the younger officers eventually get older and run the army, they will help engineer shifts in institutional narratives that reduce the focus on the India threat,” said Michael Kugelman, head of Wilson Center’s South Asia wing that published Smith’s report.
“If that were to happen, there would be more reason to believe that Pakistan could finally develop a more comprehensive and multifaceted foreign policy that doesn’t simply revolve around India.”