How Islamicised is the Pakistan army?

April 23, 2008

File photo of Indian parliamentWhile living in Delhi after 9/11, and in particular after India and Pakistan nearly went to war over an attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, one of the questions that cropped up frequently was about how much the Pakistan army had been permeated by hardline Islamists. In other words, how much sympathy did the army feel for al Qaeda and Taliban militants that then General Pervez Musharraf had pledged to fight?

Several years later, while researching a book on the Siachen war, I had occasion to travel with the Pakistan army and assess the Islamist question up close.  My impression was that the Pakistan army was not driven by religious fanaticism. Yes, it exhorted its soldiers to embrace “shaheed”,  or martyrdom,  in the name of Allah.  But it was otherwise remarkably similar to the Indian army. Both relied on a blend of nationalism and loyalty to their fellow men in the same unit; both found recruits in the mountains and rural villages who could be inculcated with a spirit of “ours not to reason why”; both counted on officers to lead from the front. Men did not go into battle dreaming of death. An officer who thinks only of killing himself is of little use to a professional army, which needs men who are above all sane, who can remain focused and objective, who know the difference between suicide and getting killed.

File photo of Indian soldiers on Siachen/Pawel KopczynskiMy Pakistan army minder on my trip to the Siachen war zone was clearly religious, respected prayer times, and did his best to explain to me the teachings of the Koran. But he probably expended more energy telling me off for smoking –  particularly on the world’s highest battlefield where the air is so thin that it can be difficult to walk — much as my minder during a tour of Siachen on the Indian side had done.

So I thought I had settled the Islamist question — at least in my own mind — until August 2007, when more than 200 Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas were taken captive by Islamist militants without firing a single shot.  During a visit to Delhi shortly afterwards, I discovered that people from the Indian army were as surprised as me — accustomed as they were to seeing their rivals on the Pakistan side at least make a show of fighting. Had the Islamists so permeated the Pakistan army that its soldiers had gone soft? 

Pakistan army expert Brian Cloughley addresses this question in his book ”War, Coups and Terror”, a review of Pakistan since 1971 and due to be published next month.  His conclusions make interesting reading.

While he recognises that the Pakistan army includes “some religious extremists among its officers and soldiers”, he says the promotions system overseen by President Pervez Musharraf made sure that officers were promoted on the basis of professional competence rather than religious devotion.

The rub came in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) next to the Afghanistan border, where religious ideologues had affected the morale and efficiency of the military. ”There is evidence that some soldiers have been so influenced by religiosity as to have doubts about their being regarded as Shaheed in the event of being killed in conflict with fellow Muslims who are held (by extremist clerics) to be engaged in fighting against infidels,” he writes. “This has resulted in incidents of refusal to take part in operations in the tribal areas, which indicate a serious malaise.”

Cloughley quotes the following from a source that he is unwilling to identify, but I think is worth reproducing here:

“Statements [by terrorists captured during an army operation] and [other sources] leads to one inevitable conclusion, that deep in their hearts . . . [some of the] troops have sympathies for AQ/Taliban who, in their perception are fighting a holy war against non-Muslims now occupying  Afghanistan.  This feeling has got further impetus and strength because of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and a partisan approach towards  the Palestinian issue.  Print and electronic media, anti-US sentiments among the general public, bitter criticism by opposition leaders of our government’s policy regarding Afghanistan [and] support to the Coalition (US) forces in combating terrorism . . .  and the anti-Islam propaganda by the west, have further reinforced the perception of the common man that Muslims all over the world are being victimised.  These feelings have obviously . . . penetrated the rank and file of the Army despite our best efforts that whatever we are doing is in the overall best interests of the country.  Having identified this weakness, we now need to apply all our command and leadership skills to educate our troops on the logic and necessity of what we are doing.”

Cloughley tries to take a positive view of this by saying that at least the problem was recognised by those in command and that  action was being taken to address it. US soldier in the mountains of AfghanistanBut he adds that Pashtuns — the ethnic group who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and who make up about a fifth of the regular army – had sometimes shown reluctance to engage militants both out of a disinclination to kill fellow tribesmen and antipathy against fighting fellow Muslims. ”Another factor is the widely-held belief that the counter-insurgency war in FATA … is not being conducted on behalf of Pakistan but is waged at the behest of the United States.”

Cloughley also says that missile attacks blamed on U.S. Predator drones targeting al Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas had further angered the army, since they also killed civilians. Yet at the same time, the army had found itself caught in the middle, facing itself a steep rise in suicide attacks directed against military targets, in retaliation for its operations on the border. Though I have seen only one advance chapter of Cloughley’s book, it makes an interesting read, highlighting as it does one aspect of the phenomenally complex challenges faced by Pakistan in battling Islamist militants.


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