October 27, 2020
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Uniform Subversion

The silent tug of war between Islamists and Reformists in the Pakistan army reaches a boiling point as a hapless Musharraf's enlightened moderation yields way to extreme measures.

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Uniform Subversion
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The notion that all is not well in the Pakistan Army has been reinforced with the unprecedented execution on August 20, 2005, of Abdul Islam Siddiqui, a member of the armed forces, on charges of plotting to assassinate President General Pervez Musharraf in collaboration with the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)

The Military Court documents identify the executed soldier as Abdul Islam Siddiqui (Army No. 8831068) of the Defence Services Guard Company attached to the Punjab Regiment, who was found involved in a conspiracy to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf by blowing up the Jhanda Chichi Bridge near the 10-Corps Headquarters in Rawalpindi with the help of C-4 explosives on December 14, 2003.  Musharraf, however, survived the attempt, apparently due to the signal jamming device that prevented the remote control triggers from blowing up the dynamited bridge when his motorcade passed over it. The bridge blew up less than a minute after the presidential motorcade had gone by, and Musharraf had a new lease of life.

The other charges against Siddiqui include abetting mutiny against Musharraf and attempting to persuade a person in the military to rebel against the Government. Siddiqui was also charged with receiving terrorism training at Bhimber in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) during August 2002 at a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp. He further defied military orders to fight in South Waziristan against fellow tribal citizens. The prosecution alleged that the soldier improperly remained associated with the Shuhada Foundation, an organization of the Pakistan armed forces (PAF), several of whose officer-bearers wanted to kill Musharraf. The Foundation was actually created by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to support bereaved families of those from the Pakistan Army who fight the Indian troops in J&K. Siddiqui was finally handed down a death sentence in mid-May 2005. He made a mercy petition to President Musharraf, which was turned down in June 2005, and the soldier was finally hanged in August.

Besides indicating the growing influence of several militant groups in the Army, the execution demonstrated that the Islamists from within were not exactly in step with Musharraf, and that something may be brewing in this most-disciplined Force, which might not be the sort of beverage Pakistan's first commando President would care for. The chasm has deepened continuously in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks because of Musharraf's half-hearted attempts to give the Army a liberal outlook, acceptable to the United States. A serious problem has, indeed, been simmering, and Musharraf had himself admitted, after the two failed attempts on his life in December 2003 in Rawalpindi, that Army officials were involved in the conspiracy.

Evidence of trouble within the forces has been trickling out in the form of several judicial decisions. In January 2005, after court martial proceedings, a military court headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Sultan Noor Ali Khan of 96 Medium Air Defence Regiment, sentenced three officers of Pakistan Air Force to terms ranging from two to nine years for alleged links with the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Nauman Khattak, 18, and Saeed Alam, 19, were sentenced to two years in prison, while the third airman, Munir Ahmed, was awarded a nine-year sentence.

Three months later, in March 2005, the trial court handed down a death sentence [in absentia] to another accused in the conspiracy to assassinate General Musharraf, Naik Arshad Mahmood of the Special Services Group (SSG) of the Army and others, including Havaldar Mohammad Younis of the 98 Air Defence Regiment of the Army, who was awarded 10 years hard labour, and Lance Naik Zafar Iqbal Dogar of the SSG, who abandoned the mission halfway and became a key state witness at the Attock trial.

Six months later, on September 18, 2005, another military court comprising Major General Ahmad Nawaz and Brigadier Mumtaz Iqbal, sentenced Major Adil Qudoos to 10 years in prison, Colonel Abdul Ghaffar to three years and Colonel Khalid Abbasi to six months. Major Attaullah, Major Faraz and Captain Zafar were dismissed from service. These sentences were handed down a couple of weeks after the execution of Abdul Islam Siddiqui, who was executed after being tried in a closed-door Field General Court Martial, headed by a Major General of the Army.

Again, on October 4, 2005, another military trial court awarded a death sentence to four junior employees of the Pakistan Air Force allegedly involved in a failed assassination attempt on Musharraf at the Jhanda Chichi Bridge on December 14, 2003.

As things stand, the silent tug of war between Islamists and Reformists appears to have reached a boiling point. Despite Musharraf's much-trumpeted efforts in recent years to purge the military of jehadis and Islamists, many renegades have worked their way to the top echelons of the armed forces. Many of these deeply resent Musharraf's siding with the United States in its war on terror and Pakistan's subsequent strategic losses in Afghanistan. Many of them criticise their ambitious chief - albeit, in private - for wearing the two hats that he currently dons: military (Army Chief) and civilian (President). For the first time in the country's history, the intra-Army ideological and individual differences are being made public by the anti-Musharraf elements.

These fissures, though, rarely spilled out in the open through whispers in the corridors of power or hints in newspaper articles. All this changed in August 2003 following the arrest of a group of officers from the Pakistan Army for their alleged links to al-Qaeda and other extremist militant groups. These arrests were followed by the release of a letter in October 2003, allegedly by renegades within the Force, written on a GHQ letterhead and sporting the monogram of the Pakistan Army. The letter, which launched a scathing attack against Musharraf for his pro-American policies, literally brought to the fore the raging ideological conflict and internecine rivalry within the Pakistani Army. Addressed to the "national leadership", the letter described Musharraf and his cabal as national criminals who helped the Americans, Jews and Christians to kill Afghans: "Pervez Musharraf has turned Pakistan - the fort of Islam - into a slaughterhouse of the Muslims". It stated further,

We, on behalf of the Pakistan Army, assure the nation that it is your Army - the army of Islam and Pakistan, and we expect every member of the Parliament, from whichever party he belongs, to work for the sovereignty of the Parliament.

The creeping coup of conservatism in the Army is a legacy of the country's third military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, under whose command the state policies were centered on Islam; religious sermons by fanatic mullahs in military units were encouraged and even Tableeghi Jamaat members were allowed to preach in the garrisons at will. Zia was the first Army Chief to attend the annual congregation of the Tableeghi Jamaat at Raiwind. Encouraged, many of the officers began to openly associate with the Tableeghi Jamaat, and to demonstrate their religiosity through act and visible symbol, something Army personnel had avoided in the past. That this freedom could be exploited by militant mullahs was not a consideration with the then military leadership, which had US blessings for waging the so-called Afghan jehad.

Even after Zia's death on August 17, 1988, people remained careful to pay at least lip service to his legacy. Musharraf himself, now a vocal proponent of enlightened moderation, praised Zia, and on the latter's death anniversary in August 2004 declared: "He was a patriot and a very God-fearing person". He proved his affection for Zia further by inducting the latter's elder son [Ejazul Haq] in the Federal Cabinet in 2004 as Minister for Religious Affairs. Even after Zia's death, the Army, largely as part of its strategic vision for the region, actively supported and promoted the Taliban in its formation and ultimate seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1996. The external factor contributing to this trend was Pakistan's active involvement with the Afghan resistance against Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and the subsequent activism of the Afghan mujahideen.

The struggle against Soviet troops in Afghanistan enabled conservative Islamic groups to obtain acceptability as well as material and military resources. The ISI's active role in supporting the Afghan resistance brought Pakistan Army personnel and officers in contact with conservative Islamic groups who were engaged in the Afghan jehad. The decade-long ISI-sponsored Islamic militancy was bound to have implications for the Army, whose personnel were directly exposed to propaganda by Islamist groups and their demand for a 'genuinely Islamic order' for Pakistan. All this eventually led to a visible shift towards conservatism within the Pakistan Army.

This drift within the Army was first and dramatically revealed during Benazir Bhutto's second tenure as Prime Minister in 1995, when a group of senior Army officers headed by a Major General was caught planning to topple the Government and to eliminate the existing Army leadership. The arrest of dozens of commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Army and the Air Force in connection with the December 2003 suicide attacks on Musharraf in Rawalpindi did not, consequently, come as a great surprise to many. And it probably did not surprise the military leadership that militants had penetrated the Army and Air Force units to preach their brand of jehad and recruit personnel to assassinate none other than their own Chief of Army Staff.

Interestingly, the evidence presented against the arrested Army officers during the Field General Court Martial at Attock Fort revealed that the jehadis involved in planning the suicide attacks on Musharraf used at least two locations within the garrison limits to preach their message. The first of these, where they apparently made their first known contact, was the Army Stadium, Rawalpindi, where a number of martial arts' Army instructors were preparing themselves for a competition. More significant was the visit by Rashid Qureshi, one of the principal accused in the failed assassination attempts, to an otherwise prohibited SSG camp in Abottabad in 2003.

With the help of a co-accused Arshad Mahmood, an SSG commando, Rashid Qureshi lectured a group of soldiers, first preaching religion, then jehad, and later trying to convince them that a Saudi mufti had issued a fatwa for Musharraf's killing. Some of the participants of that gathering, in their testimonies at the trial, have reportedly said they got furious on hearing such things against their Army Chief and asked the cleric to leave. One even said that he wanted to throw Qureshi out. But these claims may not be entirely true, since Qureshi was allowed to stay overnight at the SSG camp. More importantly, no one from the group of soldiers who were subjected to this incitement to rebel against the Army Chief deemed it necessary to report the matter to their superiors.

As things stand, several in-camera military trials are underway at the sixteenth-century Attock Fort, a part of which has been converted into a "maximum security detention centre". Several military courts are trying prisoners accused of planning and attempting to assassinate General Musharraf. The trials were ordered after an investigating team of the Army put together a body of evidence collated from a number of sources, seeking to demonstrate that the twin attacks on Musharraf were the handiwork of 'some misguided Islamic warriors' and 'a bunch of low ranking Army and Air Force personnel'. Over 40 Army and Air Force officers are currently locked behind the iron curtain of the Attock Fort, while 20 others are facing court martial proceedings at Kharian and Pannu Aqil Army Cantonments. In addition, a number of civilians, including members of several militant groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al Islami (HuJI), have also been charged with aiding, assisting and collaborating with the accused officers, to carry out the attacks.

While the August 20, 2005, execution of Sepoy Abdul Islam Siddiqui demonstrates General Musharraf's keen desire to send a clear message to extremist elements within the armed forces that the days of the jehadis are over and that all those who have sympathies with jehadi groups would be booted out, his critics warn that such extreme measures could backfire and inflame further resentment against him within the forces.


Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist affiliated with Karachi-based Monthly, Newsline. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.


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