Pakistan’s Military, Irregular Forces and Latin America

This has been a difficult year for Pakistan’s military. First came the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden in a house in Abbottabad, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. Then came a militant attack on an air-base in Karachi on May 22, 2011, which led to ten deaths and the destruction of two American-built P-C 3 Orion surveillance planes. On May 31, 2011 came the death of Syed Saleem Shahzad, the reporter for the Asia Times. He had covered the assault on the naval base, and reported that the cause of the militant attack had been the navy’s arrest of its personnel. He stated that naval intelligence had detected militant cells within the navy, which were plotting an attack on American targets. After their arrest, the militants opened negotiations with the navy for their release. When the navy refused, the militants responded with this assault. His death was widely blamed on Inter-Service Intelligence, a creature of the Pakistani military, which led to a firestorm of protest: ( The continuing U.S. drone attacks in Waziristan, which the Pakistani military is perceived as tolerating, also stoked widespread anger within Pakistan. Finally, on September 22, 2011, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the insurgents who had attacked the U.S. embassy the prior week had used cell-phones to call their handlers in Pakistan before and during the attack. The U.S. believed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI was behind the attacks (  In sum, U.S. observers have suspected Pakistan’s armed forces –or elements within it- of being complicit with Osama Bin Laden (or incompetent in not detecting him), of being infiltrated by militants, and of supporting violence in Afghanistan, all while taking large amounts of U.S. military aid.

All of these crises are the result of the Pakistani military’s long-standing policy of supporting irregular forces not only in its struggles with India over Jammu and Kashmir, but also within Afghanistan. Although the Pakistani military is arguably the seventh largest in the world in terms of troops, its armed forces are a fraction of those of India. Moreover, because both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, open conflict would be unwise and potentially suicidal. For this reason, Pakistan’s military has allegedly supported groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which likely was responsible for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, India. It has also tolerated the presence of militant groups in Waziristan, provided that they do not threaten the Pakistani state. The purpose of these groups, from Pakistan’s perspective, is to give Pakistan leverage over events in Afghanistan, which it views as being necessary to give it strategic depth in its struggle with India. On the one hand, these groups can carry out attacks that further Pakistan’s political agenda, while providing “deniability” so that Pakistan does not pay the price for these attacks. They are also relatively cheap to operate, and can serve as pressure groups even when they are not militarily successful, in some respects like the contra forces that the United States supported against Nicaragua during the 1980s.

There are also costs to this strategy. Militant groups have gained expertise in guerrilla warfare and terrorist operations in Afghanistan, which they have brought back with them into Pakistan. Before September 11, 2001, suicide bombings were rare in Pakistan. Since that date, according to journalist Amir Mir in an article in Asia Times, there have been over 300 suicide bombings in Pakistan, which have injured over 10,000 people, and killed over 4000 (see While the United States is widely held to be responsible for this violence by Pakistanis, who perceive that their nation has been drawn into a war on terror that they did not choose to join, the military has also been seen as ineffective. Indeed, the military has come to be a target of these attacks. The U.S. widely perceives the Pakistani army to be duplicitous, in that it accepts large amounts of military funding from the U.S., while continuing to tolerate the Haqanni network in Waziristan, which carries out attacks in Afghanistan. But when the Pakistani military does target the militants, they feel betrayed, and respond by attacking their former sponsors. As a result, for example, militants carried out a suicide bomb attack on September 13, 2007 that killed 22 commandos of the Special Service group of the army. The ISI has not proved immune to this violence as well. The military has long been seen as the most capable part of the Pakistani state, and a bulwark against arch-enemy India. But as the violence increases, the military is losing power, and questions are even raised about its control over nuclear weaponry, given evidence of militant infiltration.

The Pakistani military’s experience is not unique. Indeed, recent events have many parallels to the recent history of Latin America, where militaries and states have a long history of supporting irregular forces. This was the case in the 1980s, which Colombia’s military had ties to paramilitaries that it used to target guerrilla groups, in particular the FARC. During the same period, the armed forces of El Salvador and Guatemala had ties to right wing death squads. More recently, there has been evidence tying the Venezuelan and Ecuadoran states to the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia. In each case there was a common outcome. The irregular forces proved to be a liability for their state sponsors, which ultimately chose to eliminate them, either through political agreements or violence.

In the Colombian case, the paramilitaries expanded their power and became increasingly involved in narco-trafficking. With time, the Colombian government shifted from viewing these forces as a useful tool, to a liability that threatened the state itself. The military itself retained ties to these forces, but was compelled to act against them. Similarly, the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala were responsible for atrocities so horrific that they undermined the states’ support for their existence, if only because they caused international outrage and condemnation. These forces were largely dismantled after peace agreements ended the guerrilla struggles in these nations.

In the case of Venezuela and Ecuador, their support for the FARC became public after the Colombian military raided a FARC camp in Ecuador in March 2008. During this raid, Colombian forces captured laptop computers that contained documents and e-mails detailing these states support for the FARC (for the details of this evidence see This attack nearly brought Colombia to war with Venezuela, but it also warned President Hugo Chavez that the costs of supporting the FARC were too high. As a result, both Colombia and Venezuela are now seeking to improve their ties, and the support for the FARC has likely dried up.

The lesson for Pakistan’s military and government from the Latin American experience is that irregular forces seldom endure, because they ultimately prove to be liabilities. In the short term, they are attractive tools. They are relatively inexpensive. They allow the state to carry out attacks that regular forces could not, because the risk of open conflict with neighbors would be too great, or international condemnation would be too strong. They allow the state and armed forces to escape both moral and legal constraints. But these forces also tend to escape control. With time, they create their own funding sources, leadership, and networks. They also tend to be poorly kept secrets. For this reason, their actions can bring states to the brink of war with neighbors. In almost every case, Latin American governments have had to renounce or abandon the very allies and forces that once seemed critical. But these forces tend to be difficult to eliminate, and there is often blowback. Irregular forces believe that they are betrayed by their former patrons, and try to exact a political price for this decision. In the end, they weaken without their sponsors, but this can be a long and painful process. If the Latin American experience is a guide, the Pakistani state and military are likely to decide to abandon these forces in the end. But the process that follows is likely to be a long and difficult one, before violence truly becomes a state monopoly.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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