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Hilal English

Hybrid War and Pakistan’s National Security

January 2021

Nearly two centuries ago, Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz observed, ‘War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.’ He further added, “War is a remarkable trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
Pakistan today is in the thick of a hybrid war, waged on it from multiple directions, by a ‘syndicate of sworn enemies and pretentious allies’. Resultantly, we are faced with serious national security challenges, internally and externally. The contours of this new threat started to become discernable in the last few years and bear relationship with a chain of regional and extra-regional developments and events, namely, failure of India’s Cold Start Doctrine and its frustration with intensification of resistance by Kashmiris, U.S.’ Pivot to Asia and its strategic partnership with India against China, CPEC accord, fast tracking of U.S. agenda for wider recognition of Israel in the Muslim world and perusal of U.S.’ unfinished agenda of weakening a string of countries on its list in the Muslim world after Iraq, with a clear focus on Pakistan because of its nuclear capability. 
The hybrid war threat was first alluded to by Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in an important speech in 2018. Globally, hybrid wars are also known by other names such as gray zone strategies, competition short of conflict, active measures, asymmetrical war, unconventional conflict, non-linear and sub-conventional wars. By inducting hybrid elements prior to employing conventional forces, the aggressor, in most cases, aims to prolong the conflict in time and space to make its conventional strength more effective at the time of application, which may otherwise have inherent limitations or be inadequate to achieve a decisive victory. 
The scarlet thread running in hybrid war elements is much like ‘the smiler with the knife under the cloak’ mentioned by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ written about six centuries ago. The target being ‘the mind and thinking of the adversary’s population’ through intrigue, conspiracies, secrecy, espionage, mystery and media wars; subversion of opponent’s religious, sectarian and ethnic fabric as well as social issues; and economic strangulation. The latest manifestation of this has surfaced recently in the form of ‘disinfo’ campaign, which had been orchestrated by India for nearly fifteen years in Europe to discredit Pakistan and tarnish its image globally.


Tatiana Carayannis, Director at Social Sciences Research Council, an independent U.S. think tank opines that hybrid wars are organized around social networks, which link a wide range of actors who themselves are embedded in the international system. The adversary manipulates core values, motivational factors, cultural biases, ethnic dissimilarities, sectarian differences, to spoil the strategic communication and critical infrastructure of a country.


Though ‘hybrid wars’ has become a buzz word in recent times, its historical pedigree goes as far back as the fifth century to Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, where Athenians targeted agricultural support (read: economy) of Spartans as supplement to their conventional military effort. In 18th century North America, both France and Indian auxiliaries used hybrid warfare against each other. The British soon followed when they first used these tactics in Canada against French settlements resulting in the fall of Quebec and then against Ottoman empire, prompting Captain T. E. Lawrence to famously write that Turks ‘only owned what they sat on and subjugating only what, by order, they could poke their guns at’. 
The German Army experienced this phenomenon during WW-II when their long logistics chain on the eastern front came under stress and began affecting its main effort adversely. England unleashed its Special Operations Executives (SOEs), ‘to set Europe ablaze’, as Winston Churchill would put it to dramatize its essence. In Indochina, Ho Chi Minh used hybrid war tactics, first against the French culminating in catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and then against U.S. resulting in its ignominious defeat in Vietnam a few years later. In Algeria, the insurgents used it against France. India employed it successfully against Pakistan in 1971 in former East Pakistan, as did Talibans against the U.S. in Afghanistan in recent years. Invariably, both sides blended hybrid tactics with lethality of other means at their disposal.    
In most of these cases, challenges were compounded because militaries were engaged in conflict far away from their homeland against adversaries employing hybrid strategies. As the dictum goes: On land a lion can kill a crocodile but in water, the crocodile will kill a lion – place of battle is important. In the past, it was invariably the weaker side which employed hybrid tactics against the stronger. This has seen an exact opposite nowadays, as increasingly it is the stronger side which is engaged in hybrid war against the economically and militarily weaker foe. 
Tatiana Carayannis, Director at Social Sciences Research Council, an independent U.S. think tank opines that hybrid wars are organized around social networks, which link a wide range of actors who themselves are embedded in the international system. The adversary manipulates core values, motivational factors, cultural biases, ethnic dissimilarities, sectarian differences, to spoil the strategic communication and critical infrastructure of a country.
Pakistan’s adversaries have been operating along these lines mentioned by Tatiana, using a mix of different tools, including proxy forces such as radicalized separatist organizations, exploiting its fragile economy, and deploying cyber and disinformation warfare to coerce Pakistan to shape its policies to their advantage. It is in this context that we experience military pressure on our borders, coupled with incidents of terrorism and disruptive social behavior. A full-fledged effort, with extensive financial support from abroad by this ‘syndicate’ is currently underway, to create fractious political environments and spawn Shia-Sunni violence. 
Economic assistance has always been a norm in international relations, where countries in financial difficulties were assisted by others to tide over their problems. A certain level of influence wielding was always a part of such assistance but, generally it was a commercial transaction without adversely impacting the other’s sovereignty. In the 1950’s, Pakistan extended financial aid, howsoever meagre it may have been, to some Arab countries in the spirit of good brotherly relations, which today are in a position to help others. Unfortunately, this bond between Muslims has weakened and money is the new ‘religion’ replacing historical ties based on common faith. As if this was not bad enough, use of their huge financial resources as a hybrid weapon against Pakistan is nothing short of a tragedy. 


The new contextualization and conceptualization, both in political and military domains, is crucial in order to avoid doctrinal lag, with which Pakistan is too well conversant to be mentioned here. It also needs to be a regular and constant exercise for correct policy direction and allocation of scarce resources since the adversary is most likely to apply different levers, at different times, with different intensities in pursuit of its objectives.  


It would be laughable if it was not serious, that even the entertainment industry has been sucked into this evil phenomenon as witnessed after screening on PTV of a popular Turkish serial drama depicting important historical events. It is sad to note that gone are the times when plays and dramas of one country were a source of joy and celebrations of human spirit in other countries, irrespective of the nature of their mutual relations. Now they have become victim of geopolitics and intra-state biases.
Global mechanisms like FATF, ostensibly well-meaning to check the flow of money for less than holy purposes – which is of course, in Pakistan’s own interest to comply with in order to be a responsible member of international community and Pakistan is doing that diligently, has been used against the country as an element of hybrid warfare to exert economic pressure. A good example of how FATF is used brazenly and unashamedly by global establishment in support of their nefarious polices is the removal of Sudan in 2015, from gray list of FATF, when it started edging towards recognizing ‘favoured state’ but not Pakistan, which has made so much progress towards compliance on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) dictates of FATF, as per its own reports. In the primacy of discriminatory global politics and hybrid tactics from U.S., it has been ignored that for decades Pakistan has been at the forefront in the fight against terrorism, and suffered hugely in terms of finances and human lives. 
Ironically, an insatiable desire of many unscrupulous political players and more illegal wealth has also provided opportunities to our adversaries to employ hybrid tactics against us. Not long ago, CIA agents in the garb of Blackwater contract force, crawled the length and breadth of Pakistan after visa regime was relaxed for them. These are tales of shoddy businesses, intellectual discourse, media networking and sowing the seeds of anarchy in the name of so-called ‘freedom of expression’. In response to public scorn, it was retorted that they don’t need certificates of loyalty from anyone, but in reality we all owe it to the Pakistani public to come clean on the irresponsible and questionable actions which can endanger our nation’s survival.  
The global pot of hybrid wars has stirred further with the emergence of self-centered power players at the power pyramid, both in developing and under-developed world, thus plummeting treacherous international politics to its nadir. This constantly changing kaleidoscope of hybrid threats to our security warrants a review in the prevalent national security paradigm. The new contextualization and conceptualization, both in political and military domains, is crucial in order to avoid doctrinal lag, with which Pakistan is too well conversant to be mentioned here. It also needs to be a regular and constant exercise for correct policy direction and allocation of scarce resources since the adversary is most likely to apply different levers, at different times, with different intensities in pursuit of its objectives.  
Such a review should begin with a vibrant national debate to enhance public awareness about the threat staring in our face. No national responses against any war thrust on a country, least of all hybrid war, can ever be effective, without the fullest understanding and participation of its people. The government also needs to counter naysayers, who do not take hybrid threats seriously and consider it a bogie raised by the state institutions. A wider understudy on the issue will be of great help in mounting a collective national response.
Throughout history, only those hybrid adversaries have emerged victorious, which have had the political will and strategic patience to extend wars in time and space to achieve their goals. Put another way, the side which possess the advantage when the clock runs out, as it were, wins by default. This temporal aspect has represented a major challenge to countries engaged in hybrid warfare and Pakistan is no exception. Our ‘syndicated adversaries’ in this struggle, both geographically near and far, are more resourceful and Machiavellian. However, the whole world has seen in the past and accept us as the ‘most resilient nation’. In the past we have defeated our much bigger enemy with the nation fully backing the armed forces, of which the War on Terror is a recent paralleled example when we stand triumphant, Pakistanis as a nation will survive and overcome this challenge, too. What we need is a wider understanding of this monumental threat, and a great unity among us leaving aside all differences.


The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
 E-mail: [email protected]