June 22, 2021
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Inside The Pakistan Army

Is the Pakistan Army an accomplice with Islamist sympathies and/or out of its depth? The first part of an exclusive two-part extract…

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Inside The Pakistan Army
Inside The Pakistan Army
The Pakistan Paradox: Instability And Resilience
By Christophe Jaffrelot
Vintage Books, Random House India | Pages: 257 | Rs 699

The infiltration of the Pakistani army by Islamists or the officers' sympathies vis-à-vis Islamists are obviously not very well documented. The only conspiracy associating army officers and Islamists that has been publicly acknowledged was the one that targeted Benazir Bhutto in 1995. The "plan was radical, it included the murder of PM Benazir Bhutto, Army Chief Waheed Kakar and some generals, the goal was the establishment of a Pakistan-Afghan caliphate". One of the Islamists involved, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, was a key figure of the Pakistani Jihadi nebula, but on the army side, the most highly placed officers implicated was Major General Zaheer ul-Islam Abbasi, who, as a brigadier had been the ISI-based military attaché in New Delhi.

After the plot was discovered, Abbasi and his accomplices were arrested and condemned by a military court to several years of detention. But they were prematurely released after Musharraf took over in 1999. Qari himself spent only five months in jail in 1995 and probably retained some of his ISI contacts, as mentioned above. In her posthumously published book, Benazir Bhutto, maintained that he was involved in the attempt on her life in Karachi in October 2007. After she was killed the Musharraf regime had no other choice but to detain him. However, he was free again after three months in June 2008, not only because the ISI still "kept faith" in him, according to Owen Bennett-Jones but because he was also protected by politicians.

Indeed, the man "formally responsible for his release, the Punjab Home Minister, Rana Sanaullah, told reporters in Lahore that Akhtar ‘cannot be termed terrorist'". The role of Sanaullah, whose affinities with Sunni sectarian groups will be studied below, suggest that army men and (ex-)ISI officers are not the only ones who collaborate with Islamists. Such a conclusion could already be drawn from the support of a civilian government to the Afghan Taliban in 1994 since "the dubious honour of being their midwife and godfather goes to PM Benazir Bhutto, her husband Asif Zardari and her Minister of Interior Naseerullah Babar".

In fact, civilians, ex-officers and Islamists form sometimes an explicit alliance. The Defense of Pakistan Council is a case in point since the organization founded in November 2001 has been relaunched ten years later in November 2011 in reaction to the killing of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers by a NATO aircraft in Salala near the Durand Line. This Council chaired by Maulana Samiul-Haq, the JUI (S) leader, includes former ISI officials (such as Hamid Gul) and politicians (such as Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed), leaders of Islamic parties such as the JI and the JUP as well as jihadists (including leaders of the Jama'at-ud Dawa, the new name of the LeT).

The presence of members of the Tabligh-i-Jama'at at the top of the military hierarchy has been another sign of infiltrations of the army by Islamist ideas. But, again, civilians were partly responsible for their rise to power. In 1992, for instance, Nawaz Sharif, after becoming Prime Minister for the first time appointed "a born again" Tablighi as DG ISI, Javed Nasir—who had already been the first bearded general of the Pakistani army. The same man became a security advisor of Sharif in 1997 when he returned to power. The religious inclination of Nasir was well in tune with Sharif's plans of amending the Pakistani Constitution in order to make the Shariah the highest law in the country—a change that would have transformed him into the Amir-ul Monimeen, the leader of the faithful.

Indeed, the bill—that was passed by a two thirds majority in the National Assembly in October 1998—"empowered the Prime Minister to enforce what he thought was right and to prohibit what he considered was wrong in Islam and Shariah, irrespective of what the Constitution or any judgement of the court said". But this amendment was never passed by the Senate—because of the opposition of the MQM among others—and this episode exposes the Islamic tendencies of some civilians as much as those of some military officers.

Thirdly, military officers have occasionally expressed ideological sympathies for Islamists in their individual capacity. Hamid Gul is a case in point. Even after he ceased to be DG ISI, in the early 1990s, while he had been transferred to the post of Corps Commander in Multan, he "continued to enjoy a high reputation among the Afghan mujahideen leaders. Many of them came to Multan and reported on the situation in the neighbouring country. Additionally, numerous Pakistani politicians sought his advice, for many of them Gul was still a powerful and influential man". This is an interesting case because after retiring from the army, Gul continued to support Islamic causes. He travelled to Bosnia and "assisted in the training in the HuM camps" and another former DG ISI, Durrani, while he was Ambassador in Germany "coordinated, from Bonn, young Muslims from the Ummah for the Bosnia assignment".

Another DG ISI, Mahmood Ahmed, showed sympathies for the Islamists ten years after Gul, not only for ideological reasons, but also because of religious affinities. Ahmed had been appointed DG ISI by Musharraf immediately after the 1999 coup (to which he had contributed). He then became a "born again Muslim" and criticized actively the army officers who "were not good Muslims". After 9/11, the profile of Ahmed became very problematic. He was sent by Musharraf to Mollah Omar for asking the Taliban chief to extradite Ben Laden, as demanded by the US. But in his discussion with Omar, he "advised against it", and Musharraf had to send him into retirement.

Other individual trajectories suggest that sympathies of soldiers for the Islamists—and more precisely for Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba—might have widespread after 9/11. The story of Captain Khurram revealed by Syed Saleem Shahzad is a case in point. Unlike Hamid Gul or other former officers, he was not a personality who publicly defended the Islamist cause but a sort of double agent clandestinely providing his experience of soldiering to jihadist groups. Captain Khurram was assault commander of a unit in the Pakistan Army's Special Service Group (SSG), an elite commando, when the 11 September 2001 attacks occurred. In an email message to Shahzad he recounts that as a consequence of the event, he was "struck by the Jihadi waves and joined Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir."

His elder brother, Major Haroon, who had taken part in the Kargil operation in 1999, did likewise after taking early retirement. This decision may be partly explained by their family's Salafist loyalties and their Kashmiri origins, but the American offensive in the fall of 2001 in Afghanistan was the real catalyst for this turn to jihadism. Like in the case of Mohsin Hamid's "reluctant fundamentalist", the promotion of Islam as religion is here a less determining factor in the choice of a career in the jihad than defending a country, albeit a Muslim one. Another major, Abdul Rahman, joined the two brothers. But they were disappointed in the LeT, according to Khurram, due to "the extreme hypocrisy, luxuries, and evils of these so called mujahideen leaders", a remark that the followers of the "fighting mullah" would not quarrel with. Khurram and Rahman thus joined the jihad in Afghanistan where Khurram would die "as a martyr" in 2007.

After his brother's death, Major Haroon reactivated his contacts within the LeT better to serve the jihadist cause. He journeyed frequently to North Waziristan, using his military past to impress the LeT (whose admiration for Pakistani officers, it seems, is on a par with the contempt the latter have for that party), and to mix with his former comrades. Shahzad thus reports that during his travels, "When night fell, he stayed in army messes in the countryside. Being an ex-army officer he was allowed this facility. He always kept his army revolver on him with lots of bullets in case he was obstructed at any checkpoint, but his imposing bearing and unmistakable military accent in both English and Urdu always prevented this from happening."

By mixing with the military, Major Haroon was better able to spy on the army than anyone else. This is how he reached the conviction that some Pakistani military were about to give in to American pressure to the point of lastingly damaging national sovereignty. He thus concocted a plan "to make a horrible example of them to deter others from joining the United States". He set his sights on a retired officer, an easier though no less appropriate target: Rtd. Major General Ameer Faisal Alvi had commanded SSG operations in Angoor Ada in October 2003, during an operation that targeted Bin Laden himself.

The operation did not achieve its goal but eight Al Qaeda cadres were killed (including Abdur Rehman Khadar, a Canadianborn Egyptian, and Hassan Maksum, a Uighur considered by the Chinese to be a "top terrorist". Major Haroon murdered Alvi with his army revolver on 19 November 2008, thus showing officers still serving—he hoped—that one day they would also retire and could very well suffer the same fate. Ilyas Kashmiri was allegedly behind this crime and paid Haroon 150,000 rupees to carry it out.

Major Haroon then went back to his former LeT comrades, especially commander Abu Hamza, to suggest a plan that the ISI had conceived but was in the process of discarding: an attack on symbolic locations in Mumbai. Major Rahman was involved, as he had often visited Mumbai and had brought back photographs of the targets in question. Hamza presented the plan to Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, who approved it. It is probably around that time that Headley was sent to Mumbai "to conduct surveillance". What followed were the 26 November 2008 attacks, by which their masterminds intended to provoke a war between India and Pakistan, thereby shifting the priority for military operations away from the Pashtun areas—such as after the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. India did not go to war but mustered thousands of soldiers at the Pakistani border, forcing Islamabad to withdraw troops from the western front, giving the Islamist groups there new room to manoeuvre.

(The second part of this extract will appear tomorrow)

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