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Islamization A Catch-22 For Pakistani Military

Pakistani troops walk on a hilltop post near Ladha, a town in the tribal region of South Waziristan in May 2011
Pakistani troops walk on a hilltop post near Ladha, a town in the tribal region of South Waziristan in May 2011
Muhammad Akram Afridi witnessed a transformation during his 28 years in the Pakistani military.
The retired colonel can remember when British imperial forces were emulated to the point that bagpipes, ballrooms, and whiskey went hand in hand with military service. At 64, he can recall when garrison bars were wet, and when they went dry.
Afridi, as a young officer in the 1970s, was surprised to see a small but significant number of his fellow servicemen openly consuming alcohol. After alcohol sales were banned, the practice moved inside private homes.
Religious practices, he says, began to take a more prominent place in military life during General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq's reign as president from 1977 to 1988. "Zia's time came when all the mosques became active," he says.
"Frankly people used to feel ashamed of going to the mosque [before that]. But I think, with Zia coming in, people started feeling proud about going to mosque," Afridi says.
Decades later, many believe the bridges to religious principles built under General Zia ul-Haq's rule has led to the Islamization of the military. The consequence, retired officers warn, is that the government's first line of defense against the threat of militant Islam could be compromised.
High-Profile Arrest

The recent arrest of a high-ranking officer on charges that he consorted with a banned Islamist organization has been held up by many observers as evidence of radicalization within the military's ranks.
Brigadier-General Ali Khan, who was arrested in early May, is accused of having links to the banned pan-Islamist organization Hizb-ut Tahrir. His lawyers have denied the charges and argue that he was arrested for harshly questioning the military's leaders.
Nevertheless, the case has heightened fears over the state of security in the nuclear-armed country, whose military plays a dominant role in political and economic matters.
The military, composed of a 600,000-strong army and other forces accounting for hundreds of thousands of officers, was established on a secular foundation with strong checks and balances intended to maintain discipline.

Retired Brigadier General Asad Munir says these mechanisms continue to alert military intelligence to any developments that could undermine the armed forces. But he also says that these checks and balances have been weakened by the changes ushered in by military dictator General Zia ul-Haq.
Zia ul-Haq's policies were intended to strengthen the Islamic character of Pakistani law and society, but in hindsight helped foster radical Islam. The vast majority of Pakistanis were observant Muslims, but Zia ul-Haq introduced numerous laws regulating public life. He encouraged Islamists from around the world to join the cause of Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet Union, and hosted Afghan mujahedin on Pakistani soil.
Efforts were also made to emphasize the Islamic character of the military, whose motto was changed to "Islamic faith, Piety and Jihad in the Path of Allah." A new bureaucracy was set up to promote religious observance within the military. New mosques were constructed on garrison grounds. The number of clerics serving with the military soared. And while officers and soldiers were discouraged from joining political parties, their adherence to conservative proselytizing Islamic organizations was tolerated.
Munir, who also served in military intelligence, says that the leadership of the armed forces did attempt to roll back Zia ul-Haq's changes. The military, he says, was worried about the radicalization of subordinates equipped with lethal weapons and skilled in the ways of war. But they had no control over the proliferation of private jihadis within Pakistani society.
Retired officers agree that Pakistan is today fighting against a foe it helped create to serve as an extremist proxy. Munir says that since 9/11, Pakistani military leaders have realized the dangers posed by Islamic militants on Pakistani soil and are sincere in their efforts to confront them. "They [the military leaders] now sense that it's not the 1980s or 1990s, and now the whole world is watching Pakistan," he says.
"Whenever a terrorist is arrested anywhere in the world, he is linked to Pakistan. So they cannot continue this policy of [keeping the jihadis as proxies]," Munir adds. "Even if the military wanted to keep them they would be pressured so much internationally that they would have to give in and finish off these elements."
Dancing And Booze

In a country created in the name of Islam, however, drawing such lines is very difficult.
Retired Brigadier-General Akhiyan Gul Khattak counts himself among the generation of officers who were overjoyed to see the Pakistani military's culture Islamize.
"We were not allowed to freely practice Islam in Pakistan, which was created in the name of a homeland for Muslims," he says.
A photograph released by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) in February shows Pakistani army, police, and government officials offering prayers during a funeral service for soldiers

Resentment lingers over how, as a young cadet just a few years after Pakistan gained independence in 1947, he was forced to wear Western-style clothing and was ordered to refrain from discussing politics and religion. But what most offended his conservative worldview was dancing and alcohol -- hallmarks of the officer's life in the British colonial military in which many of Khattak's superior officers were trained.
He concedes that there might be individual extremists in the army today, but says that what outsiders might perceive as rising extremism or radicalization in the military is in fact increasing anti-Americanism.
"We are saying that while America is a superpower, it doesn't mean that it can interfere in Afghanistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia," he says. "In Pakistan they are like a parasitic plant penetrating us."
Former Pakistani Brigadier General Saad Muhammad, however, is not impressed with the idea that radicalization within the military is anti-American at its core.
He says that even anti-American sentiments are rooted in an extremist interpretation of Islam. Muhammad says that some Al-Qaeda leaders have been captured in the homes of Pakistani military officers or their close relatives, which illustrates the extent of radicalization within the security institutions.
Muhammad says that the military cannot insulate itself from the current wave of extremism in Pakistan. "There is no magic wand to end such trends overnight," he says.
He remains optimistic. Muhammad points to the rising public criticism of military's role from its core support base in the eastern Punjab Province, which is also home to most of its officers and soldiers. He says that it might eventually lead to civilian control over the military and all Pakistani institutions working under their respective spheres.
"[Civil and military leaders] cannot reject the popular pressure for a long time. People are now asking questions and they demand answers," he says.
  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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    Abdul Hai Kakar

    Abdul Hai Kakar is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

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