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Strategic coercion through hybrid warfare

Hybrid attacks against Pakistan across a broad front are focused mainly on Balochistan, the former Fata region, Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) gets very special attention. In today’s digital age hybrid warfare has become the supreme tactic to target an adversary’s opportunity of growth without waging a real war. The feedback from a very knowledgeable audience at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), was that our institutions do not seem really worried about the grave potential of this existential threat, this is a matter of concern. The lack of awareness among the critical institutions about the nature of hybrid threats is compounded by the ignorance among the general public about the damage it can wreak.

Wars in this modern age are no longer fought on conventional battlefields but asymmetrically over the digital world, cyberspace, social media, etc. Strategic competitors are making the best use of hybrid warfare tools in the exploitation of domestic fault lines like political, economic and societal to destabilize one another. The tools of waging this type of war are many i.e. Information Technology (IT), cyber warfare, media projection, planting/creating fake news, subversion and sabotage, sponsorship of terrorism, etc.

Rife with historical, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and geographic differences Pakistan is a convenient target for enemies with a vested interest in destabilizing Pakistan and sabotaging the CPEC, not only a game-changer but also a fate-changer for Pakistan. The economy of any country is the trump card when combating hybrid warfare, the first challenge therefore is to overcome economic deprivation of the underprivileged by taking certain reformative and compensatory initiatives. Non-kinetic hybrid strategy cripples a State’s ability to take decisions in adverse circumstances. When the nature of the threat changes in fast and aggressive manner, one must adapt to the new rules to avoid isolation, demoralization and eventual loss. Strong leadership and institutional harmony are vital for substantially enhanced civil-military cooperation.

A force-multiplier for the economy across the broad spectrum, the TELCOS are also a potent medium for conducting hybrid warfare if their platform is not properly regulated and monitored. All TELCOS being foreign-owned they now have local financial institutions of their own, financial clout to go with the power of the social media. This is a very real threat this gives them enormous leverage in this age of digitalisation of financial transactions. Most of their employees are loyal and patriotic but were the Indian employees selected by the British for “The East India Company” loyal to India or to the British crown? The grey area of regulation between State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) can be easily exploited to Pakistan’s detriment. The Chairman PTA Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa (retd) has extensive practical experience across the broad spectrum of modern telecommunications in the Armed Forces and Intelligence. Without going into details he has fundamental awareness of how national security can be compromised, this should be very useful provided he can exercise control over vested interest in the PTA. While not taking part in money-laundering themselves some Telcos have been indicted in other countries for providing the platform for the “Hundi” trade and playing with the value of the local currency. Hybrid warfare can exploit data which is possibly stored in “servers” on foreign soil to spread financial disquiet among the population. With hybrid war a real threat we must tackle internal pressure points other than commercial particularly ethnic sensitivities and civil rights issues to prevent their misappropriation by external elements. Aspects of policy must be addressed candidly without playing “politics” or favourites.

Public awareness remains the quintessential factor that can eradicate the scathing effects of hybrid warfare. The population acting as the eyes and ears of the State in remote regions or crowded neighbourhoods will go a long way in improving Pakistan’s effectiveness in spotting and pro-actively countering any spurious and clandestine propaganda. Inputs from the intelligentsia, academia, politicians, and strategists should be incorporated along with security and law enforcement arrangements. While our military leadership has acknowledged the presence and impact of hybrid warfare, the challenge is to involve society in collectively confronting the danger.

The CoAS, Pakistan Army, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, very rightly stated recently that “we now have a greater responsibility to ensure that our people, especially the youth, stay aware and steadfast against propaganda onslaught being launched through soft offensive.” To effectively confront the challenges as and when required he has exhorted all forces of society to become aware of the nature of non-kinetic warfare and how it functions. The fundamental objective must be to build our capacity to respond swiftly to ward off this existential threat.

(Extracts from a talk given recently by this writer at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI)) 

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

Ekram Sehgal, "Strategic coercion through hybrid warfare," Business Recorder. 2019-02-15.
Keywords: Economics , Social war , Hybrid attacks , Cyber war , Politics , Terrorism , Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa , SBP , PTA