The recent arrest of officers for their alleged links to Al Qaeda and other extremist militant organisations has brought to the fore the raging ideological conflict and internecine rivalry within the Pakistani army. The resentment is reportedly simmering at two levels: among junior officers who are opposed to President Pervez Musharraf's attempts at getting the army to combat rather than abet Islamist militancy. And at the higher echelons, where the Pakistani president finds himself pitted against Gen Aziz Khan, chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee, and Gen Muhammad Yusuf, vice-chief of army staff, both considered anti-US figures.
But first, a little on the arrest of the army officials. It was a Hong Kong-based web newspaper that, on August 30, reported the arrest of several army officers, claiming they were conspiring to stage a coup against Musharraf. As other Pakistani newspapers began to speculate on the number of officers arrested—and the conspiracy they were involved in—the normally reticent Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Department, which handles the media and the army, issued a brief statement on August 31: "Three to four army officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and below are under investigation for possible link with some extremist organisations." ISPR director-general Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan also remarked, "There is no senior officer among them."
Sensational though the story sounds, nothing substantial is known about it. Senior defence ministry officials told this correspondent that a dozen army personnel have been arrested. Two lines of investigations are reportedly being pursued: one, the connection between the incarcerated officials and extremist organisations; two, and quite incredibly, a possible link between some of them and India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). (New Delhi has rubbished such claims). Defence sources say those being investigated for their RAW connections belong to the ranks of non-commissioned officers.
It's the group allegedly connected to Al Qaeda which poses an ideological challenge to Musharraf. Sources say the provenance of the current crackdown goes back to March 15, 2003, when top Al Qaeda leader Khaled Sheikh Mohammad was nabbed from the Rawalpindi residence of a Jamaat-e-Islami office-bearer, Ahmed Quddus. Subsequently, under FBI pressure, Pakistani authorities arrested Quddus' uncle, Major Adil Quddus, from Kohat in the NWFP a day later.
The next round of arrests was made in August. Their names were not revealed to the media, nor have their families been informed about the location where they were interrogated. Defence sources provided three names to this correspondent—Assistant Adjutant-General Lt Col Khalid Abbasi, Quarter Master-General Major Mohammad Atta, and Ahsan Aziz, an army engineer and resident of the Kashmir province. Lt Col Abbasi, of the Signals in Kohat, is a religious-minded person who used to deliver daily lessons from the Quran to junior officers, a practice Gen Zia had introduced in the army.
Currently, the interrogators are trying to ascertain whether or not Lt Col Abbasi was connected to Major Adil Quddus, whose house in the Kohat Cantonment was thoroughly searched by army officials before his arrest—in a sequence of rapid events set off by the capture of the FBI's Most Wanted, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad. Those who interrogated Khaled Sheikh feel he might have shifted from his Karachi hideout to Rawalpindi in order to facilitate an assassination attempt on Gen Musharraf. Such perceptions are largely inferential: most Al Qaeda activists are hard nuts to crack, and it is difficult to tell whether they're telling the truth or deliberately misleading their interrogators.
The assassination theory, however, received a fresh boost through an audio tape Al Qaeda released on the second anniversary of 9/11.In it, Osama bin Laden's deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahri exhorted Pakistanis, "We ask our Muslim brethren in Pakistan: till when will you put up with the traitor Musharraf, who sold Muslims' blood in Afghanistan and handed over Arab mujahideen to crusader America? The officers and soldiers of the Pakistani army should realise that Musharraf will hand them over as prisoners to the Indians...." He then went on to add, "Act, O Muslims in Pakistan before you wake up from your slumber to find Hindu soldiers raiding your homes in complicity with the Americans."
Zawahri's tape has, predictably, fanned suspicions in the Pakistan army, prompting Musharraf to tell the BBC that "he has the full support of the armed forces of Pakistan. There should be no such misconception that anyone is against me".
But says Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi, who has authored The Role of Military in Pakistan Politics, "The Pakistan army is apparently divided into two groups today—the Islamic fundamentalist generals and the relatively more liberal ones. The split has sharpened because of Gen Musharraf's attempts to give the army a liberal outlook acceptable to the West. There is no concrete evidence suggesting that the ISI as a state-entity has helped the Taliban or Al Qaeda after November 2001, but the possibility of some persons in the army or the ISI expressing sympathy for the Taliban or Al Qaeda in their individual capacity cannot be ruled out."
Rizvi also says the rogue elements in the army are an unfortunate consequence of covert operations; no army in the world involved in such operations over an extended period of time remains immune from reverse indoctrination. But what is unique to Pakistani officers, he says, is they have been taught, from the time of Gen Zia, that Islam is integral to the ideology of the army.
Such 'religious-minded' (pro-jehad) officers already inhabit the top echelons of the Pakistan army. Among them are the duo, Gen Aziz Khan and Gen Muhammad Yusuf. They have been portrayed as fanatics bitterly opposed to Musharraf's pro-US tilt. Both are also due to retire in October 2004. Analysts have linked this fact to Musharraf's repeated assertions that he wants to continue as chief of army staff (COAS) and president for at least one more year. Should Musharraf quit as COAS now, Yusuf or Aziz would succeed him, consequently strengthening the Islamic fundamentalist group in the army, and weakening Musharraf's grip over power and undermining his pro-US policy. A wait till October 2004 could allow Musharraf to appoint a trusted, liberal general as COAS.
Military sources say Gen Aziz has, at times, dared to openly differ with Gen Musharraf on important policy matters. Perceived to be a hardliner because of his Kargil association and his pro-Jamaat-e-Islami leanings, Gen Aziz was, post-9/11, promoted to the powerless post of chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee, from the influential corps commander, Lahore. There hadn't been much protest because Musharraf had successfully portrayed himself as a liberal out to save Pakistan from Taliban-like fundamentalists, as also from the wrath of a vengeful US bleeding from terrorist attacks. In other words, the moment had been opportune to marginalise a 'religious-minded' general.
Lately, though, Gen Aziz has found a voice and becoming active too. Accompanied by Maj Gen (retd) Anwar Khan, president, Azad Kashmir (PoK), he has been travelling there and in the NWFP, addressing military officers and villagers in the inaccessible tribal belt. Not only has he been critical of India and Hinduism, he has subtly also criticised Musharraf for functioning as both president and COAS. His most audacious remarks were at a public gathering in the Rawalakot district of Azad Kashmir, in June, at the time Musharraf was away in Washington—"America is the No.1 enemy of the Muslim world and is conspiring against Muslim nations all over the world."
Gen Aziz also offered his take on why jehadi movements had failed. "All the defects and setbacks that the Islamic world has suffered have been due to disunity and splits in Muslim ranks besides the presence of and tolerance shown to hypocrites within. It was because of the machinations of these elements that most of 'our' (jehadi) movements came to naught. We would, therefore, have to tackle and put an end to such elements to be able to engage and face the mightiest (America) of the world powers."
Believing his audience might have not understood the subtext of his speech, or the person against whom he was railing, the general added for good measure, "Politics should not be done in uniform." It was an obvious reference to Musharraf that nobody could have missed.
So stunned were the newsmen covering the event that they jointly decided to file a single report; in the event of a denial, they could stand together. However, much to their surprise, their version was also filed by the government agency, Associated Press of Pakistan (APP). An alarmed ISPR approached the editors to ensure that the sensitive parts of the speech were edited out.
In Washington, Gen Aziz's statement prompted Musharraf to remark at his press conference, "If I had not been confident, I would not have left the capital for 20 days. I don't see any threat to my power." Amen, those on Musharraf's side would want to add.
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