Event Recap: The Quetta Experience | Wilson Center

Event Recap: The Quetta Experience

In light of the administration adopting a tougher stance with regards to policies of Pakistan that it deems deeply problematic, there has been much debate about what the future holds for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. However, despite the recent downturn in bilateral relations, the consensus remains that the U.S. can ill-afford to disengage with a nation critical to its interests.

Historically, military-to-military relations have been a key component of U.S-Pakistan relations. Therefore, it is helpful to know what members of the Pakistani Army think. For example, what are their values; what are their attitudes toward the United States and other key countries; how do they perceive internal and external threats; what are their thoughts on Pakistan’s political situation; what do they think about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program; and how do these perspectives differ, if at all, within the Army and over time.

On September 18, the Asia Program held a panel to discuss the launch of a book authored by David O. Smith, “The Quetta Experience.” The study offers key insights into the thinking of three groups of Pakistani Army Officers—senior officers (brigadier and major generals); senior mid-level officers (lieutenant colonels and colonels); and junior mid-level officers (captains and majors)—who served at the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College in the city of Quetta between 1977 and 2014. Being an invaluable addition to the literature on this subject, it draws on the experiences and observations of American military officers—including Smith himself—who attended the facility as students over that 37-year period.

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program, gave his opening remarks by introducing the study and situating it within the current context of U.S.-Pakistan relations. “The Pakistan Army is a critically important actor, it is arguably the most powerful political player in Pakistan today.” He further added that, “The Pakistan Army is a challenging yet critical partner for the U.S. government.” While historically, the military-to-military ties have played a key role in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, he explained that this aspect of the relationship “has taken some considerable hits in recent times.” 

Next up, David O. Smith, Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, kicked off the panel by discussing the key findings of his study. He explained that the genesis of this study occurred in 2012 when U.S.-Pakistan relations were at a low point in the aftermath of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound and a deadly NATO attack on Pakistani border troops that Islamabad claimed was intentional. With regards to bilateral relations, “Pakistan nominally is an ally, but it does not really act like an ally. Despite huge amounts of U.S. assistance over the years.” He further pointed out that “walking away from Pakistan has usually not proven to be a good strategy, we have tried that many times in the past.”

According to Smith, the United States has 4 key interests which make Pakistan an important ally:

  • Preventing a regional conflict with India that could escalate to the nuclear level
  • Stabilization of Afghanistan
  • Ensuring the safety and security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal
  • Defeating al-Qaeda and affiliated groups from Pakistani soil

“The Pakistan Army is the key to addressing all four of these interests,” Smith explained, adding that the common Pakistani narrative has been one of betrayal. This sentiment comes up regularly on the issue of the 1965 and 1971 wars between Pakistan and India and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In line with this trend, it has always been part of the narrative of the Pakistani military, that a fourth betrayal is inevitable.

Out of the 17 key findings that David O. Smith came up with during his study, he went on to mention a few of them:

  • The backgrounds of the top finishing students at the Staff College have remained relatively unchanged throughout the period of the research. This is key because these students constitute the small cadre of officers that are going to become General Officers.
  • The fear of Islamization with the Pakistan Army is exaggerated. There is a moderate brand of Sunni Islam which dominates.
  • The International Military Education & Training (IMET) program was viewed by U.S. Army students as promoting positive military values within the Pakistan Army. This needs to be highlighted because the United States is no longer allowing IMET for Pakistan.
  • In the past few years a generational divide has been evident with regards to the prioritization of Pakistan’s internal and external threats. Initially, the focus was primarily on external threats, notably India. However, a shift took place in 2001, and more significantly in 2009 with the rise in militancy within Pakistan.
  • Since 2011, the United States has been viewed as a military threat to Pakistan. There exists a perception that the United States intends to seize or neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from platforms in Afghanistan.
  • The Army always supports democracy in theory, and even during times of military rule. However, it is always harshly critical of civilian governments whenever it is allowed to be practiced.
  • The implications of the strategic and tactical use of nuclear weapons are not well understood, and there is no doctrine for nuclear war fighting at the Staff College.

Moving forward, David O. Smith mentioned four key implications for the United States in light of the above findings:

  • For the next several years at least, the Pakistan Army will be led by officers that perceive having relations with the United States as valuable. However, the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan makes sustaining such a relationship increasingly difficult for them.
  • The eroding conventional military balance between Pakistan and India, and a number of systemic military weaknesses, combine in a way that in the case of a future war with India, there could be a rapid escalation to the nuclear level.
  • The internal security situation in Pakistan has greatly improved over the past four years, however, the internal security situation is not completely benign. As the nuclear program continues to grow, there remains a great deal of concern regarding the security and safety of nuclear weapons and material.

During the latter half of the panel, Mr. Shuja Nawaz, Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center, shared his thoughts on the findings that were discussed. He characterized the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as “one between two extremely dysfunctional and imbalanced polities.” This dysfunctional aspect of the relationship is reflected in the tactical, rather than strategic approach combined with the use of carrots and sticks.

With regards to the current state of affairs, Mr. Nawaz lamented the fact that current policy makers in DC lack institutional memory and fail to place the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in its historical context.

“While Pakistan may not have played with a straight bat, the U.S. has also thrown more than its share of curve balls.” This has been part of the Pakistani narrative when they view the relationship with the United States historically. Since last January, the relationship has been on a very steep downward trajectory. Significantly, the United States has removed one of the key elements of this relationship, which costs next to nothing-the IMET program, which had a budget of $5 million and trained around 4000 Pakistani officers. These officers were potential friends of the United States, and suddenly the program was cut.

“It is very critical that both sides go back and look at the history.” Mr. Nawaz further added that the alumni of this relationship should be used to better improve understanding of each other.

On a closing note, he explained that the Pakistani Army is not a monolith, and there are differences in views regarding key issues such as India, Afghanistan, and the United States. There are Army officers who view maintaining a relationship with the United States as beneficial, and would prefer not placing all their eggs in China’s basket. “They prefer U.S. equipment, and they prefer U.S. training.” According to him, such facts are unfortunately lost on the decision makers in the White House. The military-to-military relationship remains strong based on some good understanding, however, where the decisions are made at the political level, it’s lost. “That’s a shame because both sides end up losing.”

Click here to download a copy of The Quetta Experience: Attitudes and Values Within Pakistan's Army by David O. Smith.

Image: Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.