The Military Imbalance

Pakistan’s hope is that, given its fragile state, Washington will restrain India from engaging in military action against Pakistan that would destabilize the Indo-Pakistani border and further complicate U.S./NATO operations on Pakistan’s western frontier. But Islamabad cannot afford to become overconfident. India has a need to react to the Mumbai attacks, for political as well as national security reasons. If Pakistan is incapable or unwilling to give in to Indian demands, New Delhi will act according to its own interests, despite a U.S. appeal for restraint.

The natural geographic area for Pakistan and India to come to blows in a full-scale war is in the saddle of land across the northern Indian plain, between the Indus and Ganges river basins, where Pakistan would be able to concentrate its forces. But military action against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks is far more likely to be limited to Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, involving some combination of airstrikes, limited artillery exchanges and tactical ground operations.

To some extent, Indian military action against Pakistan serves Islamabad’s interest in rallying a deeply wounded and divided Pakistani population around the government. Nevertheless, an Indian attack also would expose Pakistan’s profound military disadvantages vis-à-vis its South Asian rival.

Geographically speaking, India’s vast territory offers considerable strategic depth from which to conduct a war, and its large population allows it to field an army that far outnumbers that of Pakistan. Though the lack of terrain barriers along the Indian-Pakistani border is an issue for both sides, Pakistan’s core in the Punjab-Sindh heartland of the Indus River Valley deprives Islamabad of the strategic depth that India enjoys. This is why Pakistan concentrates six of its nine corps formations in Punjab, including both of its offensive “strike” corps.

Compounding its underlying geographic weaknesses are the qualitative challenges Pakistan faces in its military competition with India. Pakistan’s game of catch-up in the nuclear arms race is ongoing, and the gap is enormous. Its warhead design is still limited by rudimentary test data, while India is thought to have attempted tests of more advanced designs in 1998. And with a recent U.S. civilian nuclear deal, India can now secure a foreign supply of nuclear fuel for civilian use, thereby expanding the portion of domestic uranium resources and enrichment capability available for military purposes.

Indian delivery systems are also more advanced. Pakistan has cooperated closely with China and North Korea in nuclear weapon design and delivery system development, but India’s missile program is far more advanced than Pakistan’s. With two domestic satellite launch vehicles already in service, India’s knowledge of rocketry is far ahead of Pakistan’s, which relies largely on expanding Scud technology. And though both countries are also working on cruise missiles, India has already fielded the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, developed in cooperation with Russia (though it is not clear whether India’s nuclear warheads are compact enough to fit into one).

With mobile land-based ballistic missiles and limited quantities of delivery systems on either side, India and Pakistan are each thought to have the capacity for a second, or retaliatory, strike. This, along with fairly dense populations on both sides of the border, makes nuclear conflict especially unattractive (in addition to the obvious detractions). Still, nuclear weapons capability is yet another area where Pakistan’s disadvantage is real and significant, further absorbing Islamabad’s resources and military capability.

India’s recent military cooperation with Russia has stretched the qualitative lead even further. Specifically:
India has fielded the most modern Russian main battle tank, the T-90, and has even begun to build the tanks under license. While Pakistan fields a significant number of older but still reasonably modern and capable Russian T-80s, it is qualitatively outmatched in terms of tanks.

India’s armored formations also include more heavily armed armored fighting vehicles than those of Pakistan. (However, Pakistan fields a large number of U.S. BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, including TOW systems aboard AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, which give it an anti-armor capability that cannot be ignored.) The Indian formations are provided additional support by heavier and newer rocket artillery, including the Russian heavy 300 mm BM-30 “Smerch” system.

The Indian air force has begun to field the Russian Su-30MKI “Flanker,” one of the most modern jet fighters in the world, and has more on the way. In international exercises with the United States in Nevada known as “Red Flag,” India’s Su-30s and their pilots have been regarded as increasingly professional and capable over the years. Pakistan, meanwhile, has struggled to secure more modern F-16s from the United States in return for its counterterrorism cooperation, but even the latest F-16 is outmatched by a competently operated Su-30.

Already overwhelmed by a jihadist insurgency within its own borders, Pakistan is in no way fit to fight a full-scale war with India. The Pakistani military simply lacks the resources for internal security missions and border protection in rough, mountainous terrain in both Kashmir to the east, and along the Afghan border to the west. With more attention now being placed on the Indian threat, the jihadist strongholds in Pakistan’s northwest have more freedom to maneuver in their own operations, with Pakistani Taliban leaders even volunteering their services to the Pakistani military to fight the Indians.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that the Pakistani military, the primary instrument of the state, is in internal disarray. With military threats from India, pressure from the United States, rogue ISI operatives, civil-military infighting and a battle against jihadists whose main objective is to break the morale of Pakistan’s armed forces, command and control within the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment are breaking down.

Ethnically, religiously and territorially divided, Pakistan began as a nation in crisis. It was not until the military intervened in the early days of parliamentary democracy and established itself as the guarantor of the state’s stability that Pakistan was able to stand on its own feet. Given the current state of the military and the mounting stresses on the institution, Pakistan is showing serious signs of becoming a failed state.

Pakistan historically has been an economically weak, mismanaged and corrupt state. The Pakistani military elite, deeply entrenched in the economy, holds much of the country’s wealth as well as a number of key assets in the corporate and real estate sectors. The agricultural industry remains the country’s economic backbone, employing some 44 percent of the population, yet accounting for only 21 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP). The remainder of the GDP comes from services (53 percent) and industry (27 percent).

Pakistan’s most fundamental economic problem is that it has very few natural resources to tap in the first place. And it is not necessarily a matter of lacking the resources; security issues in the country’s northwest have long constrained even basic exploration in much of the country, going back to times that predate the British colonial experience. In order to industrialize, therefore, Pakistan has been forced to import whatever materials it needs without first being able to establish a source of income. The unavoidable results are high debt and a sustained, massive trade deficit. As of 2008, the country’s national debt was more than 60 percent of GDP, and the trade deficit about 9.3 percent of GDP.

Even agriculture, the cash cow of many developed states, is a bit of a no-go for the Pakistanis. The Indus River Valley might be productive — indeed, Pakistan has leveraged it to become the 11th-largest producer of wheat — but the country remains a net importer of foodstuffs largely due to the a burgeoning population of 168 million. Though Pakistan is the fifth-largest exporter of rice and 14th-largest exporter of cotton, floods and pest pressure over the past year have hit rice and cotton production hard, with the growth rate last reported by the agricultural sector (for fiscal year 2008) at a dismal 1.5 percent.

The bulk of Pakistan’s exports come from low-value-added products such as textiles and chemicals, but the relative income from such sources has been declining for three decades and is somewhat in danger of disappearing altogether. Pakistan used to enjoy access to the broad Commonwealth market, but starting in 1973, when the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC, a predecessor to the European Union), that market evaporated, forcing Pakistan to compete internationally on its own merits. And now that textiles are subject to the full/normal trading rules of the World Trade Organization,

Pakistan lacks much of a competitive advantage. China, Bangladesh and India can regularly produce textiles at lower cost. In fact, the only true growth industry in Pakistan is its near-monopoly on fuel supply to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Aside from refining, nearly all of Pakistan’s economic sectors face massive challenges at best, and are flirting with collapse at worst.

The net result is not only a low level of development (with the notable exception of Karachi, the center for Pakistan’s international trade, and Lahore, the country’s agricultural capital), but also a chronic lack of capital to invest in the sorts of projects, such as infrastructure, education and finance, that could enable Pakistan to make true economic progress. Pakistan’s only substantial source of capital comes from abroad, and access to that capital is dependent upon factors such as currency rates, the global economic situation and the price of oil — factors that remain firmly beyond Islamabad’s influence.

And the need for new sources of capital is now greater than ever. In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed a collapse of its infrastructure, with power outages of up to six hours a day across the country. The 2008 spikes in energy and food prices almost bankrupted the state. In the year to date, Pakistan’s food bill has jumped by 46 percent over 2007 figures, and its oil bill by 56 percent. Simultaneously, the deteriorating security environment has manifested itself in major cities in the form of suicide bombings — Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have not proved immune — and has done an excellent job of chasing away foreign and even domestic investors. Foreign direct investment (FDI) per capita in Pakistan has plunged to a barely noticeable US$32 per year. (By comparison, sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita FDI is US$50 per year.)

Pakistan is holding the line only by spending money that it does not have to spare. What social stability that remains can largely be credited to food and energy subsidies, which have contributed to an annual inflation rate of more than 25 percent. The costs of those subsidies, along with ongoing military deployments, have landed the budget in deficit to the tune of 7.4 percent of GDP, among the world’s highest. Recent spending has reduced Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves by 75 percent in the course of one year to US$3.45 billion. This is only enough to cover one month of imports, bringing the country dangerously close to defaulting on its debts. Though it has seen some respite in the form of sharply declining oil prices, Pakistan’s ability to finance the debt through bond issues has effectively ended; during a credit crisis, few investors want to lend to well-managed countries, much less a badly run country like Pakistan.

The Economic Limits of Geography

What truly sets Pakistan apart from other countries in terms of economic performance is a geography that greatly curtails its economic opportunities. Of Pakistan’s cities, only Karachi remains globally competitive by most measures. Karachi is the country’s only real port and has easy access to major trade lanes. Moving north along the Indus Valley, one becomes tightly hemmed in by marshes and deserts to the east and arid highlands to the west. The result is that Karachi functions as a city-state unto itself, with the bulk of Pakistan’s population found much farther upstream, where the Indus Valley widens.

The upper Indus is where the country’s best infrastructure is located and where any deep, integrated development might take place. But such development is impossible for three reasons. First, the region’s high population has required extensive irrigation, which has drawn down the Indus’ water level, making it unnavigable by any but the smallest of ships. The upper Indus region is, in effect, cut off from Karachi except by far more expensive rail or road transport. Second, the upper Indus’ natural market and trading partner is none other than India. Indian-Pakistani hostility denies the region the chance for progress. Finally, what water the Indus does have is not under Pakistan’s control; the headwaters of not just the Indus but nearly all of its major tributaries lie not in Pakistan, but in Indian-controlled territory. India is damming up those rivers, both to generate electricity and to further tilt the balance of power away from Pakistan.

The remainder of Pakistan’s population is split off (or perhaps more accurately, sequestered) into the mountainous region of the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region that is simply too remote to justify developing under normal circumstances. With the notable exception of Karachi, economic development in Pakistan is virtually impossible without the country somehow getting past its conflict with India.

Thus, the question must be asked: How is Pakistan able to survive? Economic development has been nearly impossible since partition from India, and certainly since the United Kingdom joined the EEC. The answer, put simply, is that Islamabad has been very creative. What Pakistan has succeeded in doing is leveraging the political and security aspects of its geography in order to keep its system going. Just as geography has been Pakistan’s curse, to a great degree it also has become its lifeline. Pakistan sits at the intersection of many regions, countries and cultures, including Iran, India, Afghanistan, Shiite Islam, Sunni Islam and Hinduism. This mix makes ruling Pakistan a major headache on the best of days, but it also means that powers beyond Pakistan’s immediate frontiers have a vested interest in seeing Pakistan not fail.

British diplomatic and economic support has maintained the Pakistani-Indian balance of power. All manner of Chinese support, including the sharing of nuclear technology, has strengthened Pakistan against a far superior India. Economic and energy support from Arabs of the Persian Gulf has lent strength to Pakistan when it seemed that India would overwhelm it. And support from the United States, which proved critical in backing the Pakistanis against the Soviet-leaning Indians during the Cold War, continues today in exchange for Pakistan’s support in the war against militant Islamism.
Islamabad’s success in leveraging its geography means that the country has not had to succeed economically on its merits for decades. Put another way, Pakistan has leveraged its geopolitical position not only to push for softer security policies from the United States or India, but also to pay the bills.

This has certainly been replicated in current times. None other than U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus was reported to have personally intervened with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ensure that Pakistan received a US$7.6 billion loan in November, a loan for which Pakistan certainly did not qualify. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates chipped in another US$2 billion in credit, while China contributed US$500 million and the Asian Development Bank provided another US$300 million — all in the past few weeks.

While these funds certainly will delay Pakistan’s day of reckoning, they are unlikely to prevent it. Pakistan’s economy is flirting with becoming nonfunctional, and it cannot operate in the black any more. Doing that would at a minimum require slashing military and subsidy expenditures, an impossible move for a socially seething country operating on a war footing (and, incidentally, a move the IMF loan supposedly will require).

But the real danger is that the world is shifting away from Pakistan, and with that shift, Pakistan’s ability to leverage its geography diminishes. The United States views Pakistan to be as much part of the problem of the Afghan insurgency as it is part of the solution. Oil prices have dropped by US$100 a barrel in less than five months, drastically limiting the Gulf Arabs’ ability to dole out cash. China has many concerns, and fighting Islamist extremism that has leaked into its own western provinces is something Beijing is now weighing against its commitment to Pakistan. The result might not prove to be a total cutoff of funds, but a slackening of support certainly seems to be in the offing. And without such outside support, Pakistan will have to make it or break it on its own — something it has never proved capable of doing.

Conclusion: After a period of diplomatic, restraint India is likely to proceed with unilateral military action against militant targets in Pakistan. The United States is trying to press Pakistan into concessions to prevent a flare-up on the Indo-Pakistani border; as we mentioned on 10 Dec. such a flare-up at a minimum would complicate the Afghan war. Islamabad, however, can only go so far, which means New Delhi will have to act. It seems the Indians intend to limit such action to surgical strikes, but the chances for miscalculations on all sides are high. We will therefore continue to monitor the situation and post more information as soon it is available.

But while initially we thought Kashmir would be the main target, while many of the militants hiding out in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by now have already fled, the Indian armee most likely already is focussing on other targets, for example they might choose an entrance point near the the Barmer district would involve mechanized and armored forces that could threaten the core Karachi-Hyderabad-Islamabad corridor — Pakistan’s only transit corridor that links the Pakistani heartland of Punjab with the coast:

Case Study Indian Subcontinent Today P.1 of 3:  From Geography to Crisis in Indian-Pakistani Relations.

Case Study Indian Subcontinent Today P.2 of 3:  Kashmiri Groups Cut Loose.


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