Trying to join twain that cannot meet

Even as the world watches the unfolding political crisis in Pakistan, a portentous ideological struggle is playing out in its army

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:42 pm IST

Published - June 25, 2012 12:50 am IST

120625 -Lead -Pak Army

120625 -Lead -Pak Army

Late in 2009, Pakistan’s army chief laid out his vision for the nation’s future to an audience of policemen in Peshawar. “Pakistan was founded in the name of Islam by our forefathers,” General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani said, “and each one of us should work for strengthening the country and should make a commitment towards achieving the goal of turning the country into a true Islamic state.” This April, Gen. Kayani had a different message for the nation. “We believe in democracy and its institutions,” he said in a speech delivered at a ceremony to commemorate Pakistan’s fallen soldiers. “Pakistan’s prosperity, progress and independence depend on democracy.”

Even as the world watches events precipitated by the judicial fiat which evicted Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani from office, a portentous power struggle is playing out in the army.

Gen. Kayani has led the army into a surreal game of political football, the team seeking to score in both goals. Ever since 2008, the General has worked to strengthen the despotic ideological state to which his army has a decades-old commitment. Less enthusiastically, perhaps, he has also embraced the new democratic order, hoping it will heal Pakistan’s internal fissures and its relationship with the world.

Choice of consequence

It is unclear, though, how much longer Gen. Kayani can keep the game up. Pakistan’s military has become ideologically divided as never before. The team has to choose which side it wishes to play for: and that choice will have enormous consequences for the country and the region.

Gen. Kayani’s Peshawar speech was made at a time of crisis for Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf, his predecessor, had chosen to back the United States after 9/11 led to a rupture between the army and its historic partners, the jihadists. Faced with a war it did not consider its own, the army became divided. Gen. Kayani moved to rebuild bridges with jihadist groups, signing peace deals with jihadists and appropriating Islamist slogans. But all the while, he allowed the U.S. to pursue covert counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan.

Things didn’t quite work to plan: instead of the fighting winding down, large swathes of territory west of the Indus have been ceded to jihadists and thousands of Pakistani troops killed in combat.

In May 2011, following the raid which claimed Osama bin Laden’s life, Gen. Kayani and other senior officers were barracked by officers angry at the continuing alliance with the U.S. — the source, as many saw it, of their problems. Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior officer who led protests against bin Laden’s killing, is now being tried for links to an alleged plot to bomb the Pakistan army’s headquarters; dozens of serving military personnel have been linked to successful terrorist attacks.

Following a November 2011 NATO airstrike that claimed the lives of 26 Pakistani soldiers, matters came to a head. The powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate warned Gen. Kayani that the failure to retaliate could breed rebellion. Pakistan shut down the land routes that allowed NATO to supply troops in Afghanistan — confident that the U.S. would soon apologise. It proved a bad calculation.

Pakistan’s army leadership has since been seeking to defuse the crisis. The U.S. facilities at the Shahbaz airbase near Jacobabad are still functional; so are on-ground espionage networks needed to plant the electronic chips that guide drone-fired missiles to their targets. In his April speech, notably, Gen. Kayani said he “believes that others should respect our sovereignty, honour and dignity”. He left the door open to the civilian government to reopen NATO’s logistical routes, saying “the army would work in accordance with whatever policy is made”.

Asif Ali Zardari, however, has lobbed the ball back in the army’s court, fearing the electoral costs of being seen as buckling under western pressure — just as the army fears internal tensions if it is seen as caving in.

Even if a way out of this impasse is found, the larger ideological problem within the Pakistan army will have to be resolved by the commanders who succeed Gen. Kayani when he retires in November next year.

Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan, commander of the key Mangla-based 1 corps, leads the pack. Gen. Khan has long been seen as an advocate of a better relationship with the U.S. He participated in the 1991 Iraq war, and was Pakistan’s representative at the U.S. central command in 2004-2005. Later, he commanded an infantry division that hit hard at jihadists in South Waziristan — registering success, but also generating a terrorist backlash.

Caution urged

Last year, when a civil-military crisis erupted in the wake of an ISI campaign targeting former Pakistani diplomat Hussain Haqqani, Gen. Khan and 30 corps commander Lieutenant-General Raheel Sharif urged caution — counselling that precipitating a coup would hurt the army.

Gen. Khan’s vision, though, isn’t uncontested. His key rival is his course-mate, ISI chief Lieutenant-General Zaheer-ul-Islam. Following the Haqqani showdown, President Zardari’s government denied former ISI chief Shuja Pasha — suspected by India of having authorised the 26/11 attacks — an extension. Mr. Pasha had hailed jihadist leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah as “true patriots” for offering to fight India.

His successor, Muhammad Zaheer-ul-Islam, has made no similar public pronouncements, but there are signs his thinking isn’t far different. The ISI’s media and political divisions have been revitalised. Its Kashmir operations division, led by Zaheer-ul-Islam appointee Major-General Isfandiyar Ali Khan Pataudi, is also going through a thorough-going reorganisation. India’s intelligence services fear the organisation could resume more aggressive support for jihadist groups in coming months.

General Zia’s state

History offers some insight into which of these two tendencies might win. Indians — and not a few Pakistanis —harbour the illusion that Pakistan is a secular state besieged by religious extremists. In fact, the Pakistani state’s secularism disintegrated in 1973, a year scholar Ali Eteraz has described as the country’s “Iran moment”. The Constitution brought into force that year decreed that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone.” The state was, among other things, enjoined to promote “observance of the Islamic moral standards”.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler from 1977 to 1988, built the state this Constitution enjoined, placing the army at its core. He left no manifesto, but commended to his officers Brigadier S.K. Malik’s The Quranic Conception of War , noting its contribution to the “understanding that we jointly seek as citizens of an Islamic state”.

The new Islamic state, Brigadier Malik argued, was obligated to engage in jihad; indeed, jihad was its raison d’etre , to be waged until an ultimate triumph. “The term jihad,” he wrote, “so often confused with military strategy is, in fact, the near-equivalent of total or grand strategy or policy in-execution.” Thus, jihad “aims at attaining the overall mission assigned to the Islamic state”.

“Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies”, Brigadier Malik said of this mission, “is not only a means, it is the end in itself. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose upon him”.

Put another way, Zia’s Islamic state was an entity designed for perpetual conflict — a conflict that would ensure the primacy of its praetorian guard.


This vision proved durable. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto chose not to roll back the religious legislation; in 1998, her successor, Nawaz Sharif, even considered legislation that would have declared him the amir ul-momineen , or commander of the faithful — a title used by ancient caliphs, and the Taliban’s commander, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

In the army, too, Zia’s ideas long survived his demise — shaping official discourse all the way to Gen. Kayani. Brigadier Saifi Ahmad Naqvi, writing in Pakistan army’s official Green Book in 1994, argued that “the existence and survival of Pakistan depend upon complete implementation of Islamic ideology in true sense”. That ideology, others went on to claim, precluded an alliance with the West. In 2008, Brigadier Waqar Hassan Khan even claimed the Taliban his comrades were fighting were “a bogey created by RAW, Mossad, and probably the U.S.”

From the work of scholars like C. Christine Fair, we know this: Pakistan’s officer corps is increasingly drawn not from the traditional elite, but from the same social classes behind the country’s resurgent religious right. Though modernist in its embrace of private sector education, women’s literacy and technology, the new middle class which makes up the backbone of the army is also profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic in its politics — using Islam as a language to assert claims to political power, and build the social alliances needed to deliver it.

Little President Zardari’s government has done so far has given reason to hope democratic parties have either the will or vision to resist the rising tides of chauvinism and authoritarianism that now threaten to overwhelm it. The fate of Pakistan’s army will, more likely than not, mirror that of Pakistan’s civil society and politics.

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