This is not a history of Islamism or the role of the ISI and suchlike…this is just Hamid Hussain sahib’s personal observations about religion and religiosity in the Pakistani army, mostly focused on the officers. Since Hamid Hussain is very familiar with a lot of the senior officers, this personal opinion remains of interest..
btw, on a separate note, an old archive article about the staged encounter killing of Riaz Basra, original star of the anti-shia LEJ, and another one about a possible ISI role in his exploits..mostly for people who imagine all this started with the latest American intervention in Afghanistan and (god forbid) drone attacks.
Religion & Pakistan Army
Religious themes and symbols are used by all armies for motivation and in this aspect Pakistan army is no different. Pakistan army inherited its traditions from British Indian army. Colonial army evolved through a unique process where soldiers were encouraged to strictly observe their religious tenets and given full freedom of religious practice. In many cases, army went out of its way to accommodate religious preferences and even prejudices of its soldiers even at the cost of administrative efficiency. Soldiers returned these favors by fighting without any question under colonial flag even against their co-religionists. The prevailing dictum was that ‘we pack our religion in our knapsacks when our colors are unfurled’. Colonial power was judicious enough not to test soldier’s loyalty to the extreme in religious matters. Independent Indian and Pakistani armies incorporated Hindu and Muslim symbols and slogans respectively. Even in twenty first century, both countries name their missiles after their respective military leaders and heroes who fought against each other over five centuries ago.
In the first three decades, Pakistan army maintained its traditions where religion was a private matter. Many non-Muslim officers proudly served the nation. Gradual changes in society regarding religion invariably had an impact on armed forces. The term ‘Islamism’ is now frequently used in the context of Pakistan army. There is genuine concern that rise of extremism in Pakistani society may find its way into armed forces. History of Pakistan’s use of religious based proxy non-state actors in Afghanistan and Kashmir for national security interests is now an albatross around Pakistan’s neck. However, it should be kept in mind that majority of individual officers simply carried the institution’s policy and not necessarily for any personal religious or ideological reasons. Many officers directly involved with such operations were/are thoroughly secular and not religious.
In general, Pakistani society has become more conservative in the last twenty five years and religious symbolism is visible all over the landscape of the country. More people observe religious rituals and look outwardly religious. The negative fall out of this trend is widening sectarian schism among various schools of thought of Islam. Sectarian violence has now spread all over the country and ripping the very fabric of the society. In addition to turn towards the right, a certain amount of ideological confusion, paranoia, deep mistrust of the world in general and rampant conspiracy theories has created such an environment where space for a more rational and logical discussion is severely curtailed. Pakistan army is representative of the nation therefore similar trends are also visible in the army.
Many terms such as ‘Islamist’, ‘secular’, ‘pro-western’, ‘anti-western’ and ‘anti-American’ are liberally and interchangeably used when describing individual officers or discussing Pakistan army. Use of these terms can be very misleading. These terms have changed with time depending on the security paradigm. During cold war, a secular officer could be viewed as anti-western and more dangerously a communist sympathizer. On the contrary, a conservative or Islamist officer could be viewed as pro-western because of his hostility towards communism. Three decades later, now an Islamist officer can be viewed as a potential ‘terrorist sympathizer’ and anti-western while a secular officer viewed more favorably. It is the threat perception that defines these terms.
Anti-Americanism is a separate issue. It affects almost all segments of the society and not limited to Islamists. Majority of Pakistanis express anti-American feelings in terms of American policies towards their own country and Muslim world in general and not only based on religion. However, as far as army is concerned, whenever relations between Pakistan and United States take a nose dive, army leadership comes under intense pressure from inside. Army leadership is forced to consider ripples in right leaning and religious senior officers as well as junior officers and rank and file. In 2011, after Bin Ladin raid in Abbottabad and death of twenty four Pakistani soldiers in a NATO cross border air attack severe strain was quite visible. Many officers and soldiers started to openly question army leadership and army chief visited several garrisons and faced some tough questions. Many in the army feared about collective insubordination during that time. Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani candidly admitted country’s vulnerabilities to his officers and had to pull the plug on many aspects of U.S.-Pakistan relationship to defuse the tension inside his own organization.
Non-Pakistanis view these changes in attitudes towards religion with concern and it has many shades. Some foreign diplomats and defense attaché’s attending functions at Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul and Command and Staff College at Quetta count how many officers are sporting beards. They compare these numbers from previous years and then ring alarm bells in their reports that Pakistan army is going ‘Islamist’. On the other hand, when they interact with officers who enjoy their gin and soda (alcohol is prohibited in Islam), they get a sigh of relief and label them as ‘secular’ or worse ‘pro-western’. These assumptions can lead one to wrong conclusions. Any Pakistani officer whether conservative or liberal, religious or secular will have Pakistan’s interests on his mind. They will look after their own interests although we may not agree with their point of view.
In fact, outsiders have found that so called ‘secular’ Pakistani officer is more nationalistic and demands interaction on equal basis. In September 2010, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopters mistakenly fired at a Frontier Corps (FC) post killing two Pakistani soldiers. One so called ‘secular’ senior officer Major General (now Lieutenant General) Tariq Khan forced the decision of closing the border and demanding a joint inquiry. Director of Air Plans for ISAF in Kabul Brigadier General (now Major General) Timothy Zadalis of U.S. Air Force and Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of FC Brigadier Usman Khattak conducted a joint inquiry. ISAF admitted its mistake and ISAF commander General David Petraeus publicly apologized to Pakistan.
There is general impression among the population that this is not Pakistan’s war and soldiers have their own concerns and questions. This is the dilemma faced by the society when soldiers operate in their own territory against their own people. Pakistan has deployed over 150’000 soldiers in troubled areas and not more than few dozen soldiers and officers have refused to serve in operations. Main objection was on religious grounds of fighting against fellow Muslims. From 2003-08, there were 3,000 desertions from the paramilitary organization Frontier Corps of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa. Surely, there were some questions on soldiers mind but it was mainly due to collapse of the organization that was ill equipped and ill prepared for the task. Militants abducted and killed many soldiers and fear and abandonment was the main cause of desertion. Religion, ideology or ethnicity was not main factor. Once the organization was properly equipped, trained and led by some fine officers, it gave the militants run for their money. It was the same organization fighting the same adversary in the same terrain but desertion dropped to less than fifty.
Militants have declared an open war and taken the battle to the army. They have launched several high profile attacks on military installations including military headquarters. They have also targeted many senior officers and so far successfully assassinated one Lieutenant General, two Major Generals and one Brigadier. Unsuccessful attempts include attacks on army Chief and a Corps Commander. There is a certain amount of confusion about the crisis. Some officers now view extremist threat as existential and argue that if we have to take care of this threat then better do it today than tomorrow as every passing day will increase the cost in blood and treasure. On the other hand, many officers (majority of them religious) argue that Pakistan is in this mess due to United States and hold a simplistic view that if Pakistan severs relations with Americans, Pakistan can talk its way out of this crisis.
Views expressed by some retired senior Pakistani officers in English language laced with vague Islamist slogans and conspiracy theories adds to the fears both inside Pakistan and especially outside world. It is worse if you listen to or read the views expressed by some senior officers in local Urdu language. Pakistani officers who interact with their foreign counterparts try to allay these fears. They point to the discipline and professionalism of the armed forces and stress that a mid level coup has never been successful in Pakistan. Ironically, even a significant segment of Pakistani society is suspicious about the role of their own military and intelligence apparatus accusing them of still classifying militants into good and bad.
Islamic slogans and symbols have been used by army leadership for motivation throughout the history of Pakistan. In personal life, some army officers are observant and devout Muslims while others not very particular about rituals. However, looks can be quite deceiving. There are many officers who are devout Muslims but have no political affiliations. Many Majors, Colonels and Brigadiers are deeply religious and sport long flowing beards; however, this has not affected army discipline. Many of these officers have led scores of successful operations against militants as they see religious extremism as existential threat to Pakistan. However, too much of religion in the society and armed forces has its own pitfalls especially sectarian forces making inroads in the armed forces and threatening the cohesion and discipline of the institution.
There is a wide range of spectrum of Pakistani officers who are overtly religious. The first trend towards this direction started after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. Around 40’000 personnel of armed forces and paramilitary forces returned from prisoner of war camps in India after successful secession of eastern wing of the country. This trauma ignited an identity crisis and many turned towards religion. Some joined spiritual Sufi orders for solace. A little known head of a Sufi order Naqshbandia Owaisia Maulana Muhammad Akram Khan attracted many of these retired officers. A small number of serving officers followed and he later named his organization Tanzeem -ul- Ikhwan in 1990s. However, this organization never gained any traction and now almost faded away.
In 1980s and 90s, a number of officers joined non-political proselytizing Tableeghi Jamaat. The poster child of this group was Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DGISI) Lieutenant General Javed Nasir. Majority of officers consider his tenure at ISI as disastrous. A large number of officers have a very low opinion about brother officers who are members of Tableeghi Jamaat. They are of the view that these officers cover their professional incompetence with religiosity. These officers are also considered very opinionated with patronizing and pontificating attitude that at times can become intolerable.
A small group of officers who worked with Afghan and Kashmiri militants over a long period of time became influenced by the ideology of these groups. This group can be classified as ‘reverse indoctrinated’. Two most famous representatives of this group were late Colonel ® Sultan Amir Tarar (better known by his Nome de Guerre Colonel Imam) and late Squadron Leader ® Khalid Khawaja. Sultan; a Special Services Group (SSG) officer has been involved in training Afghans since 1974 and ended his career as Pakistan’s liaison with Taliban government and Consul General of Herat. Khalid worked only for a short period of time with Afghans officially but after retirement continued to interact with Afghans and at times used as a conduit by ISI. Ironically, both officers were accused by Pakistani Taliban as spies and executed by them in 2010-11. There is suspicion that some of these ‘reverse indoctrinated’ soldiers may have provided inside information to militants in their attacks on military installations but nothing has been made public by military authorities.
Another group of officers is the one which tries to find the solution of all the problems in religion. It includes both serving and retired officers. Most of these officers only talk about the subject but hesitate to articulate any practical steps. However, some in these efforts cross the military discipline red line. In 1976, when Major General Tajjamul Hussain was superseded and retired, he unsuccessfully tried to bring ‘Islamic Revolution’ through a coup. He was later convicted and sentenced to prison term. In 1995, Major General Zaheer ul Islam was also arrested, faced court martial and sentenced to prison term for an ‘Islamist coup’ attempt. In both cases, there was no coherent plan and professed leader could not recruit even half a dozen officers for the cause. These attempts were never viewed as a serious threat to the institution and considered as individual aberrations.
One group of mainly retired senior officer’s simply express general ideas about Islamic system; a thought process that is prevalent in the society at large. Former army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg from time to time writes about the subject but he is not taken seriously due to his own checkered past. Former DGISI Lieutenant General ® Hamid Gul is a poster child of this group and over the last few years visible on the screens of electronic media. Recently former Chief of General Staff (CGS) and Corps Commander Lieutenant General ® Shahid Aziz has also ‘come out’ of the closet advocating that ‘Islamic system’ is the solution to country’s problems. In early part of their careers, these officers were respected for their professionalism and clean record. However, majority of officers have very low opinion about them now. They are sometimes ridiculed as ‘retired revolutionaries’, ‘keeping their mouths shut to advance their careers when in uniform and then finding their brains and balls after hanging their uniforms’, ‘usual suspects now trying the last refuge’, ‘using religiosity and anti-American rhetoric to cover their own acts of omissions and commissions’ and ‘when inside the tent smiling nodders to advance career and once outside the tent feeling free to piss any amount inside the tent’.
Everybody understands constraints of army discipline and no one thinks that a dissenting officer can behave like a free lance journalist or raise the flag of mutiny on every disagreement while wearing uniform. There is almost unanimous opinion that for an upright officer the best course is to candidly express his opinion and if a decision is made with which he strongly disagrees either on professional or moral grounds then the only honorable way is to resign or asked to be relieved. Anything else is hogwash plain and simple. Most officers are of the view that after enjoying all the perks and privileges of high office and occupying dizzying heights during times when crucial decisions were made, these officers are now trying to wash their own hands of any responsibility and want to rewrite history. There is general agreement even among officers who are religious that overt religiosity has brought a certain amount of hypocrisy in the institution.
Some Islamist parties are not trying to gain general popular acceptance. They resemble communist model of running a tightly knit and well organized organization. They attempt to penetrate key power centers including armed forces and civilian bureaucracy with the hope of trying to take control of the state. Jamaat-e-Islami has tried for over three decades to gain some influence among officer corps but with very little success. Now, London based Hizb ul Tahrir has opened up a shop in Pakistan and for the last few years trying to penetrate officer corps. They claim to be non-violent and striving to establish a global Islamic caliphate resembling the political power structure of early Islam about fourteen hundred years ago; a Muslim version of kingdom of heaven on earth. Members of this organization are highly educated and many spent their lives in western countries. They are focusing on educated and highly successful individuals in Pakistan including attempts to make inroads in the army. Recently, a superseded Brigadier Ali Khan was convicted by a court martial for links with Hizb ul Tahrir. Army’s own internal surveillance system is focusing on these groups and interestingly many Pakistani officers are of the view that Hizb ul Tahrir is the fishing rod of British intelligence agencies to fish in the troubled waters of Pakistan.
Rising extremism in society, poor law and order situation, weak central government and presence of nuclear weapons makes Pakistan a unique case. Although it is not mentioned in polite conversations especially when dealing with Pakistanis but concerns about Pakistani nuclear weapons is now universal including friends and foes. Pakistan has a good command and control system regarding the security of their strategic weapons but they have not been able to convince the world in view of entrenchment of extremist groups on its territory and deteriorating law and order situation. The nightmare scenario for outsiders no matter how unlikely is the fear that some extremist elements may run away with Pakistan’s ‘crown jewels’ or an Islamist group of officers can launch a coup. Only a stable and peaceful Pakistan at peace with itself and with the region can give some comfort and allay these fears. This is Pakistan’s challenge for the decades to come.
Note: This piece is based on author’s own work on Pakistan army over the last several years. Main source is off the record conversations with dozens of serving and retired officers of different ranks.
February 10, 2013