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Islamisation in Pakistan army

By R Banerji

11 November 2010

The threat of Islamic militancy is very serious in Pakistan today. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has radically altered the nature of Pashtun nationalism, bringing about a synthesis of old tribal conventions of ‘Pashtoonwali’ with Salafi-tainted tenets of Sharia. In the process, radical Islam has transformed into an instrument of global jihad.

The writ of the state does not run effectively in large swathes of territory, particularly in the North West Frontier Province (recently re-named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) despite the large army and Frontier Corps presence there of over 1,20,000 troops — one full corps plus excess of two infantry divisions. Uniformed personnel have not displayed either the courage or will to take on their ‘Islamised’ brethren in sustained ground combat since the beginning of Operation ‘Al Mizan’ in 2003-04.

Though ‘cleansing operations’ have been going on in these areas, prominent militant leaders often managed to escape the dragnet and have retreated to remote locations near the border or into neighboring Afghanistan. Many areas claimed to have been cleared in ‘successful’ operations have seen resurgence in militant reprisals in the absence of a ‘holding presence’ of troops. Desertions were common in the earlier phase of military operations. Entire villages turned hostile while receiving ‘body bags’ of ‘martyred’ soldiers. Reporting of such incidents was suppressed. In later phases of operations, the Pakistan Army has much preferred the aerial artillery bombardment or drone operations option despite the taint of bowing to American pressure.

Though religion has always been very important in Pakistani civil society, having been cited in almost any crisis as the very raison d’être for the creation of the state, in practice consumerism has dominated the day-to-day life of Muslim elites.

The feudal or landed class built alliances of convenience with the army and bureaucracy. Together this elite group used Islamic parties as a crutch to seek legitimacy for regimes emerging from coup d’état. Both have partaken generously of the spoils of governance, leaving the bulk of disenfranchised rural population in abject poverty. Islam in its radicalised form affected these elements much more.

The February 2008 national elections were surprisingly free and fair but they saw weak civilian governments coming to power, with fractured mandates both at the Centre and in the provinces. They have failed to tackle the problem politically. No national level political parties, except the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM) in Sindh and the Awami National Party (ANP) in KP have had the courage to condemn this radicalisation. Ironically, their supporters engage in daily bloodbaths in Karachi even as Pashtun ghettos there get more radicalised.

While the Pakistan Peoples Party has been content to occasionally issue strongly worded condemnations of terrorist actions, the other major mainstream party — the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Nawaz) has been reluctant to outrightly criticise or confront the terrorists. Former president Musharraf recently referred to Nawaz Sharif as a ‘closet Taliban’.

The vote share of religious or Islamic parties in previous elections in Pakistan has traditionally been low. In 1997, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JuI-Fazlur Rehman-F) won only two seats with 1.6 per cent of votes. Islamic parties thrived in elections only when patronised by the army. In what was a deft conjuring act by the Musharraf regime, the 2002 elections saw the alliance of rightist Islamic parties — the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal winning 52 seats, with 11  per cent votes but in 2008 the normal voting pattern was repeated .The JuI(F) could win only seven seats with only two per cent of the votes. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which can boast of cadre-based urban pockets of strength, cried off elections in 2008, fearing erosion in grassroot support.

Though Pakistani civil society is not comfortable with this creeping Islamisation, with the elite not wanting to give up its ostentatious lifestyle, the army’s response has been ambiguous. In the past, it often turned a ‘blind eye’ because it was using some of these groups selectively to sponsor low grade trans-border insurgency movements. However, the utility of such tactics started being questioned when Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants from FATA and their adjuncts form Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammed in south Punjab demonstrated a capability to strike at core targets of the establishment — a mosque near Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi frequented by senior army officers, Special Services Group and Police Training institutions, buses carrying air force or nuclear unit personnel. Even Pashtun Army officers at senior management levels questioned the wisdom of lukewarm battle tactics in counterinsurgency operations and reliance on outdated doctrinal inhibitions dependent on deployment of large formations to face the Indian threat from the East. They advocated a more classical military response, with strength in numbers to tame the Islamic genie.

At the same time, the senior army leadership has been hemmed down by the compulsion of maintaining the army’s image as ‘defender of Islam’, to ensure it is not seen as fighting its own ‘fraternal brethren’ at Western behest. This dichotomy continues to plague the Pakistani counterinsurgency response in North Waziristan.

Assessments about the extent of Islamisation within the army vary. Conservative estimates indicate sympathy for Islamic radicals among 15-20 per cent of Army Other Ranks and officers who have come up from junior commissioned ranks. Islamisation of officers, JCOs during the Zia years (1977-88) did adversely affect professionalism in the army but a screening or weeding out of such indoctrinated elements has been discreetly and progressively undertaken by all subsequent army chiefs as a necessary self-preservation corrective, to maintain and improve the army’s professionalism.

The full impact of these decontamination drives has not been statistically assessed. Nevertheless, it would be safe to say that the majority of Pakistani army personnel — officers as well as other ranks — do not sympathise with the war on terror. They do not participate whole-heartedly in counterinsurgency ground combat.

At a crunch, the army can control or curb this Islamic resurgence if it wants to. Only, it will have to shed its selectivity in disciplining some and not other Islamic groups. Questions remain unanswered though about the timing and scale of such correctives and its sincerity of intent.

About the author: R Banerji is a retired special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

Source: Express