Pakistan’s nuclear-armed army faces its sternest test yet

By Rahul Bedi, IANS

As Pakistan slips further into anarchy, it is its omnipotent 500,000-strong army that deserves attention as it remains the only institution, however imperfect, capable of providing a modicum of stability amidst grave turbulence.

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Events on the ground, however, indicate that like Pakistan’s politics, its judiciary and civil society, disturbing cracks are also emerging in its nuclear-armed army that has directly or indirectly ruled the country for most of the country’s 60 years.

And, as it increasingly engages jehadis in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan who are worryingly on the ascendant and swiftly seizing vast swathes of territory in places like the Swat region within sight of the capital Islamabad, the Pakistan military’s normally robust command and control system appears wobbly.

The writ of the Pakistani state, brutally enforced by the army previously, is fast receding in these regions to be replaced by armed and organized jehadis enforcing a strict Islamic code that is opposed to all forms of modernity.

Over the past week, jehadis have successfully pushed into Shangla, east of Swat, where indigenous and foreign militants have established their hold. They took Shangla’s administrative headquarters of Alpuri without a fight despite the prevailing state of emergency enforced by the army.

In their areas of control, they operate parallel administrations dispensing summary justice, regulating traffic and patrolling villages and small townships.

Western diplomats in Islamabad said a government briefing on Nov 15 to convince foreign countries about the efficacy of the army’s anti-insurgency operations was, sadly, counter-productive. It merely ended up drawing attention to the army’s inability in fight 400 militants in the Swat area.

Over 2,000 soldiers were deployed to NWFP in July, but have remained largely inactive, unsettled by the militants ability to easily capture them. Within hours of imposing the emergency in Pakistan on Nov 3, President Pervez Musharraf ordered the release of 25 militants captured in August in return for 213 soldiers captured by the warlord Baitullah Mehsud in FATA.

Adding to the soldiers’ problems in NWFP are virulent radio broadcasts by the popular Maulana Fazlullah who heads the banned Tehrik-e-Shariar-e-Mohammad or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Shariat and the radical Black Turbans insurgent group.

Better known as ‘Maulana Radio’ the silver tongued 32-year old cleric daily urges Swat’s 1.6 million residents to impose Islamic Shariat, fight the army and re-establish Islam.

Many Pakistanis are privately concerned that as the seemingly un-winnable war of attrition against the Taliban and their associated Islamist cohorts unfolds, the apocalyptic apprehensions about not only the army’s professionalism but its cohesiveness could fast become a reality.

It is often jocularly said that all countries have a military, but that the Pakistani military has a country.

“It is a very prickly situation at the moment,” Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant generalt and popular TV commentator, declared recently in reference to the prevailing state of the army he was once a part.

Consider the disturbing, but telling facts.

Since 2005, over 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have died in firefights with militants or in ambushes and suicide bombings; another 400, including officers, face disciplinary proceedings for refusing to engage their “Muslim brethren”; while some 500 others had surrendered to Taliban cadres and other jehadi groups without a fight.

There have also been distressing reports from Pakistan that the predominantly Shia Northern Light Infantry (NLI) recruited and largely based in the disputed Northern Areas has been inducted into Waziristan following the refusal of the majority Sunni units to fight fellow Muslim jehadi’s.

All military officers concede that no professional army, especially one fighting insurgents, has ever been known to so abjectly surrender to the opposition and survive. Such a state of affairs is distressing, at the very least.

The largely Sunni insurgents have further magnified sectarian differences in the army by selectively beheading only Shia soldiers, but only capturing Sunnni troops.

At independence in 1947, Pakistan like India inherited a professional army from the colonial rulers that was honourably blooded in World War II and broadly centred round regimental traditions and an abiding espirt d’corps.

This largely survived the three wars with India in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 that eventually led to the formation of Bangladesh alongside the ignominious surrender of some 90,000 Pakistani troops to the Indian Army.

But things changed drastically after the 1977 coup by Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, who assiduously launched the army’s Islamisation. He also institutionalized its strategic relationship with the mullahs that till now had been a loose relationship since independence.

The Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan two years later in 1979 greatly helped in this endeavour.

Having launched the jehad in Afghanistan, Zia set out to legitimise his military dictatorship in the name of Islam by creating a theocracy and nurturing Muslim fundamentalist groups. He cultivated and strengthened Islamist elements in his pursuit of establishing a Nizam-I-Mustafa (The system of the Prophet) across Pakistan, concentrating largely on the force he knew well – the army.

Under Zia’s rule the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party (JEI) took firm root within the army and the omnipotent Inter-Services Intelligence that ran the Afghan campaign against the Soviet army and thereafter in 1989 began fuelling Kashmir’s insurgency by infiltrating Muslim insurgents into the disputed state.

The JEI – now significantly bolstered by similarly inclined Islamist parties under Musharraf’s patronage to form the all-powerful Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA – decrees that Islam is not only the way of life but a complete system of politics, economics and culture. It remains virulently opposed to secular democracy and socialist doctrines.

Consequently, the majority of officers recruited during Zia’s tenure that ended somewhat abruptly with his assassination in 1988 – many of whom have achieved senior positions of brigadier and above – became fundamentalist in outlook, nurturing visions of a pan-Islamic homeland. For them this was centred on Pakistan and included Kashmir, Afghanistan and parts of the Central Asian republics.

What now remains to be seen is whether the Pakistani Army can stay resilient in the face of the tremendous pulls and counter-pulls it has to face. The chances are that it would be an extremely difficult task, made all the more stark by the fact that it is nuclear-armed.

(Rahul Bedi is a commentator on military and strategic affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected])