Pakistan, Geopolitics and ‘Hybrid War’

Imtiaz Gul

Is hybrid war a reality of geo-politics, or a deflective pretext to cover up one’s own failures, or a combination of both?

The theory of hybrid war can be viewed from two angles – both as a blessing or bane; if you take it as an external intervention that triggers you into corrective measures, it indeed is a blessing. But if you don’t admit the underlying causes and only take it as an imposed tool of destabilization, then you are mostly consumed by reactive measures – often cast in a narrative of victimhood – as well as attempts to deflect attention without really focusing on removing or at least acknowledging the causes.[1]

Before we try to make sense of what hybrid warfare is and whether exploitation of governance failures also belongs to it, a few questions will not be out of place to understand if Pakistan, too, is up against the hydra of hybrid warfare, including the exploitation of bad governance by external forces.

Firstly, is the simmering spat between the provincial government and the Municipal Corporation over the heaps of garbage in Karachi, the capital of the southernmost Sindh province, and the resultant governance dysfunction in the largest of Pakistani cities the latest addition to the broad matrix of hybrid war? The province as a whole received 2.5 trillion rupees in development funds between 2009-2018 but Karachi, the country’s doorway for external trade through the Arabian Sea, as well other major towns of the Sindh province represent a dismal picture of poor governance.

Secondly, has the revocation of Kashmir’s special status on August 5 (2019) emerged as a new element of the hybrid war that India has been using against Pakistan? The incessant firing from across the one along the Line of Control (LoC) for several years and the latest tensions rooted in Kashmir have led to emotional responses in Pakistan. The issue has been consuming energy and attention of all and sundry, and this distracting the government from its pressing economic reform and financial stabilization agenda. 

Thirdly, is the international watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), yet another tool of hybrid warfare? Most of the conditions it placed on Pakistan in the June 2018 Action Plan centred on terrorist financing and money-laundering. Also, almost all of the demands and resolutions presented against Pakistan were driven by India. It remains seized with what it calls the “terrorist infrastructure” in Pakistan, a reference to various non-state actors including Jaishe Mohammad (JeM) and Jamaatud Dawa (JuD).

Although Pakistan has tightened the noose around these groups since 2017, initiated cases against their leaders, frozen their bank accounts and taken over control of their key facilities, India as a co-chair of FATF’s Asia Pacific Group (APG), has been manipulating the drive against Pakistan with the support of key countries such as the US, France, UK and Germany, which led to the June 2018 “grey-listing” of Pakistan. 

The financial sector, too, has been plagued by loopholes, which criminals, vested interest and terrorists exploited to the hilt, and hence the FATF conditions. By default, poor governance within the financial sector and wanting enforcement of law became a source of exploitation by external factors. 

What is Hybrid warfare?

Defining hybrid warfare in a world polarized by geopolitical considerations and geo-economic interests is probably as hard as developing a consensus on what constitutes “terrorism.”

Hybrid war in present times is synonymous with multi-dimensional, non-conventional measures – economic squeeze through international fora such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), cyber warfare, exploitation of the sense of deprivations among sub-nationalist ethnic groups – inflict harm on the target state without engaging in open armed hostilities. The hybrid warfare primarily targets disgruntled local populations, particularly the socio-economic inequities of the system and dysfunctionality of service infrastructures. This way the hybrid warfare exploits systemic weaknesses of the political economy – dated governance systems that fail to meet increasing service delivery demands.  

Hybrid war is an emerging notion in international war and conflict studies and refers to the use of non-conventional methods in order to disrupt e an opponent’s actions and undermine its political-economic interests without engaging in open hostilities. The term also implies infiltration of proxies into government, military and security systems and disruption through social media, fake news and engineered alternate narratives with the aim to manipulate opinions, perceptions and buy influence in an adversary country. 

In hybrid warfare, a state usually tries to use “all instruments of power at its command to target perceived specific vulnerabilities of the enemy state. The elements of ambiguity”, non-linearity, surprise, cognitive skills of warfare and secrecy normally help achieve the desired objectives without fear of retaliation.[2] 

NATO defines it “as a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures […] employed in a highly integrated design”.[3] It is a war that is “waged everywhere but nowhere to be seen, by anyone at once with all or some tools of state power with a synchronized action to influence societal weakening or collapse in a targeted country. 

The idea of a hybrid war seems to spring from conflicting interests of states such as the US, China, India, Pakistan and Russia. Their divergent views and mutual threat perceptions, provide at least the theoretical context to strategies and tactics that are meanwhile called the tools of hybrid war i.e. moves that may inflict harm on the enemy state, without leaving any footprint of the mastermind, whereby each one of these powers wants to enforce a rebalance (of its choice) onto the region. [4] 

The dynamics of evolving warfare have not only kept the spectre of decades-old instability alive in South Asia but also entrapped Afghanistan-Pakistan-India in an unending vicious cycle of animosity and brinkmanship.

 “The post-Cold War new technologies and shifting alliances have failed to diffuse the tensions created by history” rather they have further added more dangerous twists such as terrorism. Indeed, new alliances and rivalries coloured by hybrid warfare have reduced the prospect of already distant economic prosperity in South Asia.[5]       

Weeks of angry and violent protests in Hong Kong are another case in point. Unlike the majority of Hong Kong residents, a minority held the city-state hostage, paralysing parts of it – including the airport – for weeks. The demonstrations cost the government billions of dollars in three months, following the closure of the airport as well as disruption in businesses. In this particular case, a law-fare was used to mobilise anti-government protests; the point of contention was a new law that paved the way for the extradition of suspects of crime or terror to mainland China. 

The Hong Kong government eventually caved into demands and announced on September 4 to withdraw the extradition law.

Chinese officials denounced the protests as a violent attempt for “a colour revolution” in direct reference to changes through protests in the Baltic states of Ukraine and Georgia.[6]

One of the most striking examples of hybrid warfare in action has been Russia’s activities in Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described Russia’s actions as: “[using] proxy soldiers, unmarked Special Forces, intimidation and propaganda, all to lay a thick fog of confusion; to obscure its true purpose in Ukraine; and to attempt deniability.” [7] 

Moscow, on the other hand, accused the US and other NATO members of using “proxies” to damage the Russian interests in these states.

Pakistan’s context

In Pakistan’s context, violent movements by Baloch separatist groups, the helter-skelter governance of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) of the 1980s/90s in Karachi and the Pashtoon Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) (2018/19) in Khyber Pakthunkhwa could qualify as components of hybrid warfare. They are all, among others, also rooted in bad governance and neglect of the common man. This essentially means exploiting socio-political vulnerabilities of the target state through non-conventional means in a cost-effective, clandestine but deniable way without launching a physical military assault. 

Who to assign the responsibility for the deterioration in public service delivery? Riots over water and power shortages, obsolete leaking gas and water distribution systems, discontent over garbage disposal, cratered roads and dysfunction public health system are just a few manifestations of public services. All this happened despite under the rule of the meanwhile fragmented MQM in the last three decades. The party exercised absolute control over the city of Karachi and ran it like a personal fiefdom, as an ATM for its leaders. Its extortionist rule hollowed it out from within instead of developing it into a modern prosperous city. 

This also filters through revelations made by several MQM activists and leaders to Joint Interrogation Teams (JITs) point. 

Pakistan is certainly facing various manifestations of hybrid warfare. Generally, the notion of an imposed hybrid war is taken as synonymous to an India-led concerted multi-dimensional subversive and destabilisation campaign inside and outside Pakistan. Continued India opposition to Pakistan at all international forums, including the United Nations and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), are a case in point.

On August 23, for instance, the entire Indian electronic media began screaming that the Asia Pacific Group (APG), a regional arm of FATF, had placed Pakistan on the organization’s blacklist. This was nothing less than a motivated, slanderous campaign based possibly on a leak by Indian officials attending the APG meeting in Paris. In the first place, APG has no mandate to decide on the listing. The decision on the grey or blacklisting rests with the FATF Plenary (which was due in October 2019), and not by the APG. Secondly, even if (if) APG recommended blacklisting, it had not issued its official communique on the latest meeting.

Thirdly, the official press release said it had accepted the Pakistani report for review.

The exclusion of Pakistani sportsmen or artists from events in India, or the Indian refusal to attend similar events in Pakistan are all extensions of this Indian campaign to isolate or paint Pakistan negatively wherever possible. Officials in Islamabad, nevertheless believe such tactics cannot inflict harm on Pakistan. They point to the country’s armed forces and the nuclear arsenal as the ultimate defence against India. The armed forces no doubt constitute the bulwark against external aggression but there is a caveat to it; perceptions of a country in the world today are tied more to its economic outlook than to the physical security infrastructure. 

Pakistan’s Challenge 

Hybrid war can be both a blessing or a bane but for Pakistan, it represents an opportunity to correct historical mistakes, and address systemic shortcomings that provide the enemy with the exploitative or manipulative tools. 

Former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is another case in point. For near 70 years, it remained neglected until the emergence of the Pashtoon Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). This so-called movement gave expression to various latent grievances that resulted not only from successive military operations but were directly related to the absence of governance tools and the law of the land.  

Baloch nationalists also became instruments of a proxy war, raised on weaknesses of governance and short-sighted political approaches adopted by the Center. This provided the enemy – if one were to assume there is an external force behind it – entry points for engagement with groups who are ready to resist and fight the state for their own vested interests.


Given the present geopolitical circumstances, and the string of actions India continues to undertake at regional and international level and well as its reported contacts with the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) it is safe to assume security strategists in New Delhi may be using these groups to bruise and bleed Pakistan. 

Regionally, too, this war may further intensify and serve as a big psychological barrier to the vision and plans of regional connectivity through trade and energy projects. Yet, there is a lesson to learn from China; it has progressed at an astronomical pace in the last four decades, despite challenges that could be called instruments of hybrid warfare; the continued contentious issue of Taiwan, which China claims but is honoured by the United States as an independent country. 

China responded to externally-driven hybrid warfare in its north-western territories i.e. Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions – with good governance and exceptional service delivery. Despite separatist opposition movements – disproportionately magnified by the western media, Beijing exclusively focused on infrastructure development and peoples’ welfare.

Beijing views entities such as East Turkestan Movement (ETIM), which publicly vows to hurt Chinese interests, as terrorist organizations and instruments of internal destabilization. Laddakh, the western edge of the greater Tibetan region under the control of India, represents another headache for Beijing; both India and the US-led West adore and Dalai Lama, the Buddhists spiritual leader because he campaigns against China. But unfazed by the massive information machinery that both countries use to pick on, the Chinese leadership has developed Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital and its ancient city Kashgar as modern, bustling cities.[8]

For centuries the Lama followers lived in absolute poverty in extreme climatic conditions and poverty until 1951 when the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) brought the region under its control. The current Dalai Lama -14th in number – refused to live under Chinese political control and fled to India. 

The new spiritual leader of Tibet – the Communist Party of Chinese (CPC), on the contrary – chose to lift Dalai Lama’s followers out poverty and give them a respectable living.

The monstrous Inter-Continental Hotel off the main town Lhasa, for example, is a manifestation of the CPC to mainstream Tibetans through a sustained socio-economic development plan that has seen Lhasa swell into a modern city with immaculate infrastructure. With the growing population, a Lhasa New City too has emerged with numerous high-rise commercial, official and apartment buildings.

And herein lies a lesson for Pakistan on how to respond to the threats of hybrid war that originate from poor governance and deficit law enforcement; fix the obsolete governance regime and focus on peoples’ welfare. This will serve as the wall against all manifestations of hybrid war.

Regardless of how you name these manifestations of unrest and opposition, they never distracted Beijing from a relentless people-centric good governance and inclusive development. 

As long as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence remains credible, Pakistan can militarily withstand the Indian coercive diplomacy and “can prevent adversary (India) from gaining escalation dominance, employment of coercive tactics in a crisis or to attain power at its expense.” [9]

But we must recall, the nuclear arsenal is no guarantee for medium-term survival. This capability couldn’t prevent the former Soviet Union from disintegration. Nor will help Pakistan survive and thrive economically. Given global, geopolitical alignments, the Indian coercive diplomacy coupled with various elements of hybrid war has its own limitations, yet the most enduring insulation against all negative external influences will come only if the political economy is radically reformed from within to make Pakistan financially solvent.

Ultimately a country has to fight its own survival battles, pursue its own strategic options in a complicated and challenging environment and assert its own strategic autonomy, says Mian Sanaullah, a former ambassador. Unless Pakistan swiftly and efficiently addresses issues such as,

a) Inequitable resource distribution

b) fast deteriorating climate, including depleting water resources

c) burgeoning youth unemployment  

d) ailing state-enterprises (SE) 

e) profusely bleeding public financial sector, and 

f) the skewed privileges architecture that favours a handful mighty ones to the disadvantage of the majority of nearly 220 million Pakistanis,

Pakistan will remain vulnerable to external pressures, and our ruling elites will keep deflecting from the real issues under one pretext or the other, describing them as consequences of an externally-imposed war on Pakistan. Repeated political compromises, continued apathy to peoples’ plight, the unending propensity among the elites to thrive off public resources and an incompetent, self-serving bureaucracy are the actual instruments of hybrid warfare. Refusal to reform the obsolete governance regime, police, criminal justice systems, will keep exposing the country to vulnerabilities – which are easier to fuel from abroad.  Through their tardy, exclusive decision-making – which generates discontent, fuels anger and also delays service delivery – the bureaucrats as well as politicians willing or unknowingly become pawns of the hybrid war. 


 [1] This paper also draws on – for some primary literature –  a paper by Ambassador Mian Sanaullah in Strategic Thought,, a  journal of International Affairs magazine at the National Defense University (NDU), Volume 1 Spring 2009, ISSN 2073-0926

 [2] Daniel H. Abbott, The Handbook of Fifth-Generation Warfare (5gw), Nimble Books, September 2010

 [3] “NATO countering the hybrid threat”, NATO ACT, September 23, 2011. Available at  

[4] Robert Einhorn, W.P.S. Sidhu, “The Strategic Chain Linking Pakistan, India, China, and the United States”, The Brooking Institute, March 2017. Available at

 [5] Seminar “Understanding Strategic Coercion in the Realm of Gray Hybrid Conflict: Implications for Pakistan”, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, February 11, 2019)

[6] Author’s discussions with officials in Beijing, August ,2019

[7] Bachman, Dr Sasca. “The Emergence of Hybrid Warfare.” The emergence of hybrid warfare | Bournemouth University. Bournemouth University. Accessed August 30, 2019.

[8] Based on author’s visits to Xinjiang (December 2018), and Tibet (August 2019)

[9] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: WW Norton & Co, 2001, p.139

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