Members of the 'Russian Orthodox Army' prepare for Battle in Donetsk, 2014.
Late Putinism and the Hybrid Dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul Haq
In the aftermath of the seizure of Crimea by the Russian military, an old tactical concept gained an unprecedented degree of interest from a European public shocked by the sudden turn of events. Over the spring of 2014, European and Ukrainian media suddenly saw a proliferation of instant experts in hybrid warfare, the tactical approach by which the Putin regime paralysed Kyiv and its allies in order to seize territory with barely a shot fired. Using disinformation, allied local political activists, proxy militias and special forces to destabilize an opponent militarily while maintaining plausible deniability, hybrid warfare tactics proved very effective in destabilizing a vulnerable Ukrainian state already reeling from the political turmoil surrounding the fall of Victor Yanukovich. Prominent scholars with a background in Security Studies such as Mark Galeotti and Lawrence Freedman pointed to how this campaign built on Russian and Soviet traditions of using hybrid tactics in such conflicts as the Afghan war, Chechnya or various interventions in Cold War Eastern Europe.
What remains so problematic about much analysis of the Putin regime's use of hybrid tactics is that it tends to present this form of covert warfare as a particularly Russian approach to waging war. Yet most of the techniques that shocked Europe in the spring of 2014 would have seemed depressingly familiar to any observer of political conflict in the Greater Middle East. During the Lebanese Civil War the Assad regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Saddam Hussein, Israel and Saudi Arabia used variants of hybrid tactics to influence the course of events. In North Africa, Muammar Ghaddafi used infiltration, disinformation and proxy militias to try to gain control over Chad before eventually getting sucked into a conventional war in which the Libyan army performed miserably. In neighbouring Algeria, security services under the oversight of the notorious DRS used disinformation and other hybrid tactics to brutal effect to counter an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.
Of all the states in the Greater Middle East, however, it is Pakistan that has used hybrid warfare most extensively against more powerful neighbours. Unresolved territorial disputes with India have repeatedly led to moments of high tension. With India's significant conventional and nuclear military advantages, from an early point the Pakistani security services became fixated on the use of hybrid tactics against stronger opponents to achieve strategic goals. Yet over time, the central role played by hybrid warfare in the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) and Pakistani Army's attempt to gain control over Kashmir and Afghanistan helped to undermine the internal stability of the Pakistani state itself.
Since partition and independence in 1947, Pakistan has remained heavily influenced by ideological trends from the Arab world. Despite the long-lasting theoretical debate about whether Pakistan belongs to what American military strategists call the Greater Middle East, deep relationships between Islamabad and key states in the region including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have had a profound impact on the Pakistani state. Though Pakistan's alignment with the West and Saudi Arabia caused considerable friction with the Nasser regime, many of its key features including an emphasis on secular institutions, a strong social role for politically neutral Islamic institutions or a focus on a strong state role within the economy also defined Pakistani politics.
While the Egyptian state plunged into a period of acute instability after the 1967 war, the Pakistani political order that had been shaped by Jinnah in the independence period experienced a severe crisis after the loss of Bangladesh in 1971. As Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the increasingly unpopular head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), moved aggressively to suppress opponents in ways that threatened civil conflict, there were growing calls within elite circles for the military to intervene. Accusations of PPP vote rigging at a key election in 1977 proved to be the breaking point. Once opposition parties declared the Bhutto government illegitimate, the military under the leadership of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had the pretext it needed to suspend the constitutional order and seize control of the state. Though he claimed that he would call elections months after the coup, Zia quickly consolidated his position and set about restoring state power. With the coup d'etat successfully completed on 5 April 1977, Zia was now faced with the challenge of legitimizing his rule and restoring support for state institutions many Pakistanis had come to see as incompetent and corrupt.
In the ensuing decade, the military and security service elite around Zia often pursued contradictory goals. Ayesha Jalal's study of the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia years outlines how tightening relationships between army and security service officials with senior members of the Pakistani business elite clashed with the anti-corruption agenda that had been used to justify military rule. While Zia himself worked strenuously to maintain an image of rectitude, the families of many of his loyalists within the security services benefited from his ascendancy in a noticeable fashion. Attempts to consolidate state power had to be balanced with backroom deals sealed with powerful regional elites who could help the military solidify political control in a way that confirmed its image as a guarantor of stability. Thus the Zia era saw an enormous increase of the central power of the military without significantly undermining the neo-feudal social order in the countryside or the incestuous business networks in the cities that had so hindered attempts to modernize and democratize the Pakistani state.
In foreign policy terms, the clique of generals and spooks around Zia was confronted with challenges that defied easy solutions. Though the Pakistani army still had greater prestige than other dysfunctional state institutions, its defeats at the hands of the Indian Army and Bangladeshi insurgents had weakened its levels of public support. Attempts to take the initiative in disputed border areas of the Kashmir or Punjab regions in the 1960s and 1970s ended in stalemate, as the Indian Army after was usually able to reinforce exposed positions and push Pakistani military units operating openly or covertly out of territory they had seized. The collapse of the Afghan monarchy in the early 1970s and the brittle Socialist regimes that ruled Kabul in the aftermath also caused the Pakistani military increasing difficulties. Struggling to maintain control, a new Afghan political elite aligned with the Soviet Union began back ethnic Pushtun irredentist claims on large swathes of Pakistani territory. Thus when the USSR intervened in Afghanistan with a large military contingent in 1979 to secure the survival of its local allies, the Zia regime saw itself confronted with both an ideological threat from Soviet Communism and an ethno-national threat from the Pushtun factions allied with Moscow.
As Marvin Weinbaum illustrated at the time, it was in this febrile atmosphere driven by internal instability and foreign policy challenges that Zia opted to deploy hybrid warfare tactics to secure the survival of his regime. Like Putin's shift to what could be called a Late Putinist paradigm, a crisis of legitimacy triggered by the convergence of internal instabilty with perceived external threats led to an extensive use of hybrid warfare as part of a wider ideological reorientation of the state. After the crisis of 2011, Putin abandoned an ostensible commitment to national modernization and deeper integration with the West for isolationist nationalism oriented around a revival of Russian Orthodox religious symbols. In a remarkably similar fashion, in the late 1970s Zia intensified state cooperation with radical Islamist groups whose influence until then had been balanced by more secular-oriented social milieus that dominated Bhutto's PPP. In both cases, what had been relatively politically marginal movements were not only empowered in order to provide a new ideological source of legitimacy, they became a key means through which hybrid warfare tactics were implemented to strengthen internal control and ward off external threats.
In the Pakistani case the alliance between security services and radical Islamist movements played out on multiple levels. Internally, Zia and his allies within the Ministry of Interior placed a strong emphasis on the introduction of sharia courts and the strengthening of a Koran based legal system running in parallel to the established judiciary. This provided the regime with new tools of social control which enjoyed support among a large proportion of the population and bypassed more secular oriented milieus that remained suspicious of military rule. Not only did the Zia regime provide institutional backing for these Islamization campaigns, Zia used symbolic actions such as the first declamation of Koranic verses before a leader's speech at the UN General Assembly as a way of indicating to state elites that they needed to adjust to this new course. As Aqil Shah has pointed out this internal use of Islamist movements also enabled the security services to apply pressure on opponents indirectly, providing a means with which the ISI or the police could feign neutrality while mobilizing the more religiously conservative elements of society against their opponents.
When it came to dealing with external challenges, Islamist movements organised proxy militias that could be deployed either against a secular Indian state or a Soviet-backed Afghan government in the name of the defence of Islam. While the Afghan revolt against a Socialist regime and the Soviet occupation that followed was driven by internal discontent, the ISI used links between theologically conservative groups dominated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Pakistani Islamist organizations as the basis around which to build strong militia networks loyal to Islamabad. However much the United States tried to funnel support to Afghan militias with more of a nationalist or ethnic base, the CIA's dependence on the ISI's local contacts on the ground meant that the vast influx American aid fuelling the Afghan insurgency reinforced the strength of Islamist militias loyal to Pakistan. Moreover, with a growing number of volunteers joining Islamist Afghan militias or setting up groups of their own to fight the Soviets, the ISI's pivotal role enabled the Pakistani security services to strengthen links with conservative Arab regimes and jihadi networks.
In the short term, engaging in these kinds of hybrid tactics enabled the ISI to achieve several goals. For all the religious and anti-Communist rhetoric used by Zia and the ISI in promoting their role in the Afghan war, their primary focus was on securing and extending the position of the Pakistani military. The use of Islamist organizations to build proxy militias in Afghanistan ensured that a US backed campaign to limit Soviet expansionism was dominated by groups loyal to Pakistan and ideologically averse to engaging in Afghan irredentist projects after the war had been won. With an in-built hostility to secular regimes, groups such as the Hekmatyar network would also be extremely unlikely to work with India, Pakistan's primary enemy. By supplying arms to multiple groups, Islamabad also did its best to prevent the rise of any united Afghan mujahideen command whose dominance could potentially threaten Pakistan's ability to use the 'strategic depth' of an alliance with Afghanistan in any battle against the Indian army. Heavy involvement in the importation and training of Arab foreign fighters also deepened links with political networks in key Arab states that could be used to promote Pakistani interests across the Greater Middle East.
As Lawrence Wright has illustrated, the involvement of Arab foreign fighters also finalised the shift within many of these recruitment networks in Pakistan and the Arab world from more moderate strands of Islamism towards out and out jihadi ideologies. Rather than putting a brake on this shift to ever more extreme ideologies, the ISI deployed jihadi networks established in response to the war in Afghanistan against the Indian military in Kashmir. Though such tactics against India had been intermittently used since the mid-1960s, the late 1980s saw a surge in operations to enable the Pakistani military to exert dominance in Kashmir without having to invade directly. Whenever Indian governments in the 1980s and 1990s furiously accused Islamabad of stoking a vicious jihadi insurgency across Jammu and Kashmir, Zia and his successors would simply lean back and claim that the fighters were either locals or volunteers over which they had little control. For at least a decade, this use of disinformation, proxy militias and other hybrid tactics kept India off balance and, as Paul Kapur and other observers have set out, weakened its ability to put Pakistan under pressure.
The legacy of the use of disinformation, proxy militia groups and other hybrid tactics against internal and external opponents by the Zia regime contains valuable lessons for analysts trying to determine what impact Late Putinism will have on Russia's political future. That there are quite a few parallels between the Zia regime's linkage of hybrid tactics with the embrace of radical political movements and the actions the Putin regime took in response to the Bolotnaya protests should fill Russia watchers with great concern. As Ahmed Rashid has outlined repeatedly, the short term strategic advantage the Zia regime gained through the use of hybrid tactics and jihadi proxies was at the price of the long term destabilization of Pakistani society.
In a phenomenon that has come to be known as blowback, local and international jihadi networks that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan backed during the war against Soviet occupation turned on their sponsors. With the Saudi regime's embrace of American military support during the first Iraq War, many jihadi veterans of Afghanistan's conflicts came to identify both the United States and the al Saud dynasties as the primary obstacles to the achievement of their ideological goals. This turn against the main sources of Pakistan's financial support put Pakistani governments coping with the fall out from Zia's sudden death in 1988 and the resurgence of the PPP under Benazir Bhutto in the early 1990s under enormous pressure. For the military and the ISI, which relied on radical Islamist movements to keep India under pressure and Afghanistan weak and loyal, endless war between jihadis and the United States created a strategic dilemma that constrained the Pakistani state's freedom of action. By 1999, the risks involved in either provoking American and Saudi anger or losing control over jihadi networks that could wreak enormous damage had paralysed strategic decision-making, with attempts at finding a middle path satisfying neither side.
Linkage between hybrid warfare and alliances with radical movements had a devastating impact on the internal stability of Pakistan as well. Since Zia's death, factions within the military and ISI have colluded with jihadi movements to intimidate or even, as is rumoured in the case of Benazir Bhutto, assassinate shared opponents. The intense cooperation between the ISI and jihadi networks in particular has led to growing radicalisation within parts of the military and security services. Even at senior levels, many officers and intelligence agents have over time absorbed a jihadi outlook from militants or Taliban commanders with which they have cooperated with so intensely over decades. With this protection from high level supporters, influence over armed groups enabled Islamist movements that did not necessarily represent a majority of public opinion to put intense pressure on state institutions to back their ideological agenda. As a consequence, political conflict within Pakistan has become ever more violent, as non-religious political groups also resort to the use of armed groups to assert their interests against Islamist and other rivals.
The near collapse of the Pakistani state after the fall of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, another military ruler who meddled in Kashmir and Afghanistan, was a direct consequence of the reorientation of the Pakistani state under Zia ul Haq. The so-called Pakistani Taliban which has plunged large swathes of Northwest Pakistan into near civil war conditions punctuated by American drone strikes is a direct successor of the movements Zia had armed and coddled in the early 1980s. Initially designed to shore up the power of the military in a pious and stable society, the internal and external components of Zia's hybrid dictatorship crippled the ability of the state to respond to fundamental internal and external threats.
The parallels between the political approach of the Zia regime and the methods used by the Late Putinist Kremlin have worrying implications for the future development of Russian society. Though cooperation with extreme nationalist groups was already a feature of High Putinism, such relationships remained on an arms length basis and were balanced through regime alliances with liberal figures. But through a shift towards a more openly aggressive stance towards external and internal opponents, particularly in the wake of Ukraine's Maidan Revolution, the Putin regime has publicly adopted irredentist aspects of the Russian nationalist agenda. Prominent Russian nationalists have been extensively used as proxies in the hybrid warfare phase of the Kremlin's military campaign against Ukraine. By the final months of 2014, nationalist networks that had previously been kept at a distance were used extensively by the security services to man pro-Russian military units in Eastern Ukraine. Adopting this expansionist agenda, Ramzan Kadyrov and other Chechen figures have used Russian nationalist rhetoric to increase influence through participation in a shared territorial project. There are also strong signs that many figures across the Putinist hierarchy have embraced ultra-nationalist ideology. As former members such as Aleksandr Sytin have revealed even key intelligence think tanks such as RISI are now controlled by members of the intelligence establishment who share the world view of once marginal nationalist ideologues such as Alexander Prokhanov and Aleksandr Dugin.
Yet the Pakistani example demonstrates that while such an alliance with radical groups built around cooperation in forms of hybrid warfare may give a a regime short term tactical advantage, it can also breakdown the cohesion of the political elite and undermine the state in the long term. The growing political influence of radical groups can alienate other constituencies equally vital to the stability of the regime, leading to conflict over the future course of domestic or foreign policy. The armed nationalist volunteer networks the FSB and GRU have helped establish may prove difficult to dismantle, and are now in a position to cause significant damage if their members decide that the Putin government has turned against them. While the seizure of parts of the Donbass through hybrid tactics may have given the Kremlin temporary advantage in relation to the Ukrainian government, a political vacuum within the Donbass also provides various radical groups a safe haven they could use as much to organise operations against opponents in Russia as the Ukrainian state. While the conquest of Crimea may prove the high point of Late Putinism, the dependence on nationalist proxies to carry out forms of hybrid warfare in the Donbass has opened up a political dynamic which could wreak the kind of long term havoc in Russia the Pakistani public is all too familiar with.
The fevered speculation surrounding the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is already an indication of the corrosive effect the methods of the Late Putinist Kremlin have had on its ability to maintain internal stability. One of the main theories put forward by dissidents such as Alexei Navalny or Leonid Volkov is that the assassination was carried out by groups closely associated to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, causing deep irritation within a dismayed FSB. While these figures tend to assume that Putin must have initiated the assassination, alternative explanations suggest that Putin is no longer the master of events.
Even if inaccurate, such widespread speculation about the extent to which Kremlin is fully aware of actions take by elements within official or informal security structures punctures the Putin myth of a strong power vertical guaranteeing national stability. The erratic actions of a whole range of pro-Russian and Russian nationalist militias in East Ukraine also indicate that the Kremlin may be finding it difficult to restrain proxies the Russian military has armed to the teeth. The implications of such a radical erosion of Putin's power vertical and the resulting threat to the stability of a state he has subordinated to his personalised form of government would represent a worrying outcome for Western policy makers. While a situation in which Putin carries direct responsibility for criminal acts committed by regime supporters provides the hope that pressure on his circle could get him to rein in his allies, US, EU and Ukrainian officials would have very few means with which to influence a situation in which Putin has lost control over factions his security services have armed and trained.
The Pakistani experience during and after the Zia era provides a clear precedent for what can unfold if a personalised authoritarian regime shores up its internal and external position through alliances with radicals and the use of hybrid tactics. The clear parallels between Zia's hybrid dictatorship and the methods of the Late Putinist Kremlin are an indication that specialists in the study of Russian politics have much to gain by exploring recent Pakistani history. For policy makers and analysts, understanding how the actions of a Pakistani military elite in the early 1980s sowed the seeds of the chaos their successors are struggling to stem today may provide some clues to working to ensure that Late Putinism does not push Russia towards a similarly disastrous course.
Where such a course might lead if nothing is done to counteract it can be seen most vividly today on the battlefields of Yemen, the country to which the final post in this series will turn.