The fifth column

Published 25 Dec, 2017 02:56pm

The creeping coup of conservatism in the Pakistan Army has been the legacy of General Ziaul Haq’s era when state policies centred around Islam. Back in those days, religious sermons by clerics in military units were encouraged and even Tablighi Jamaat members were allowed to preach in the garrisons at will. How this freedom could be exploited by the militant mullahs was not a consideration with the then military leadership. Over time, Islamic sermons became increasingly acceptable in the otherwise disciplined and controlled environment of the military cantonments, indicating a visible shift towards conservatism.

The first realisation of this drift in the army was felt during the second Benazir government in 1995 when a group of army officers, headed by Major General Zaheerul Islam Abbasi, was caught planning to violently overthrow the government and eliminate the military leadership. Though the group’s concept of an armed rebellion appeared rather naïve to many observers, the group itself took the entire affair with dead seriousness, hoping to introduce a ‘pure’ Islamic system of governance under an amirul momineen or commander of the faithful.

Official encouragement of ‘jihadi’ preaching in the garrisons has promoted conservatism in the army.

The investigations that followed revealed how conservatively inclined officers had been encouraging groups of clerics to preach in their units. The fact that some of the visiting clerics used the opportunity to openly propagate their own concept of ‘jihad’ was largely ignored. In fact, Mufti Saeed, a cleric arrested from Rawalpindi at the time, had not only been a regular at some of the garrison dars sessions but was also encouraged by the then commander of the 10-Corps Lieutenant General Malik. Sufi Iqbal, another Islamist who had many followers among senior army officers and was linked to a militant breakaway faction of the Tablighi Jamaat, was also a regular and still remains at large.

With General Jehangir Karamat as the chief of army staff, not only was the officers’ group directly involved in planning an armed rebellion caught and punished, some efforts were also made to cleanse the armed forces of the so-called jihadi elements. During investigations, it was discovered that such tablighi missions had left a comparatively greater impact on some of the non-combatant units of the army and the air force, with a large number of personnel showing a clear bias towards conservatism. The cleansing process could not go on beyond a certain point as militancy was hopelessly intertwined with Islamabad’s military-led Kashmir and Afghanistan policies and any effort to curb it could attract accusations of being anti-Islamic.

It was perhaps in the nature of things, therefore, when a couple of non-commissioned military personnel were arrested in connection with the December 25 attacks on Musharraf 15 months ago. It probably did not come as a great surprise for the military intelligence that ‘jihadi’ militants had penetrated some of the military units with the aim of preaching their brand of jihad and recruiting personnel to bump off none other than the president of Pakistan.

The evidence presented during the field general court martial at Attock Fort reveals that the ‘jihadis’ involved in planning attacks on Musharraf used at least two spots in the garrison limits to preach their message. One place where they apparently made their first known contact was the army stadium in Rawalpindi, where a number of army instructors of martial arts had been preparing themselves for a competition. Even more significant was the visit by Rashid Qureshi, one of the principal accused in the present case, to an otherwise prohibited Special Services Group (SSG) camp in Abbottabad in 2003.

With the help of a co-accused Naik Arshad Mahmood, himself an SSG commando, Qureshi reportedly lectured a group of eight soldiers, first preaching religion, then jihad and later trying to convince the audience that a Saudi mufti had issued a fatwa or decree that Musharraf ought to be killed. Some of the participants of that gathering, in their testimonies at the trial, have reportedly said that they all 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 as Qureshi was allowed to stay overnight at the camp. More importantly, no one from among the group of soldiers that was being asked to rebel against the army chief deemed it necessary to report the matter to their superiors. Observers believe that the military needs to investigate this because nobody knows how many more such incidents have gone unreported. ■

This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2005 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.