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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I have been fascinated by the history of this region for atleast the past 40 years. I discovered that Pakistan is the only nation in the world where the religion of Islam is the source of the primary rights of the people of Pakistan with the added fluff of western democratic ideals thrown in only tobe used against the opponents of the moment.

Unlike the western view of the predominant western religion of Christianity as being a voluntary faith, almost every other religion is really a way of life for its adherents. It naturally follows that other ways of life are “wrong” and the people of other faiths are “infidels”. When one considers this way of life, it is not difficult to see the whys and wherefores of the constant underlying animosity that exists, even between the minimally different denominations of the same faiths. If we in the west are honest, we are suffering from this very same problem except that we have become more apathetic about our faith and have found the religion of “secularism”.

It would be much easier to understand antipathy towards us in the west by others once we realize that this is the way things are and go on to try to solve the problems arising from this situation which has been in existence since the dawn of human origin.

Posted by ClementW | Report as abusive

I would be very careful in making assumptions about the Pakistani Army based on surrenders by the Frontier Corps. That said, I agree that the degree of ‘Islamicization’ of the Army is a fascinating question, and one with real significance. Good article.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

The writer’s information regarding Pakistan Army giving up without firing a single shot is not correct. Writer, here, fails to understand the difference between, Army, Para Military forces and militia.

One has to understand Pakistan Army will never go and start shooting blindly at its fellow citizens that it took oath to protect. The only people it needs to shoot and kill are the foreigner’s. Who do not by means represent Muslims or Pakistanis.

if any one with experience of Living among these great people of FATA for at least 18 years and in west, will come to understand that fight against terrorism needs to be fought as per the Three Prong Policy already given by H.E President Pervez Musharraf.

Leaving Politics aside, its only the will of the people, no force which will stop any of these suicide attacks.

The Write also fails to understand, Pakistan is called, Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Every soldier in Pakistan army, if Muslim is islamicised by faith, if not muslim than they are Pakistanised. Even the Members of National and Provincial Assemblies, Ministers, PM, President Muslims or Non Muslim, when take Oath, confirms to protect Pakistan’s Islamic Ideology on which it was formed.

W.r.t to authors comments regarding Pakistan Army regarding giving up without one shot are totally based on misinformation. The group of 200 People who gave up , were Frontier constabulary’s which is some where between police and militia made up local people to petrol the area runned by maliks (local heads) who support government. The only reason these heavily out numbered gave up, was, that they couldn’t shoot their own people.

My Question here is, when one can talk and solve problems why to shoot and kill. I would also like to take the liberty here to say, that the author needs to Learn about Islam as much as these uneducated, brain washed terrorists needs to learn.

Just to add a little information, the weapons should be picked up against -Al Qaida (meaning organization) not some Taliban (meaning student). Where Islam dose not allow any one, to attack, harass or kill any one, it believe that killing one innocent person means killing the whole humanity.

Posted by Pak1stan | Report as abusive

I guess the answer is somewhere in the middle. On the whole, I think the constituents of the army view Islam positively, but for a variety of reasons that are non-exclusive (e.g. piety, ideology, utility, an Islam-infused nationalism). This is in contrast to the Turkish Army, which — like many in the Pakistani army — sees itself as the ‘guardians of the nation’, but is fairly hostile toward Islam.

There have been purges of Islamists in the army since 9/11. Some of these officers were friends of Pervez Musharraf, whose penchant for liquor is well known, and helped him with his coup.

So in the end, it shows that the army isn’t necessarily divided on lines of religiosity. Islam, in its varying colors, is an important factor, but only one of many.

Posted by Arif Rafiq | Report as abusive

[…] Source: Reuters […]

Posted by How Islamicised is the Pakistan army? – | Report as abusive

The 200 “soldiers” who surrendered in Waziristan belonged to the Frontier Corp, not the Army. The Frontier Corp is part of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for law enforcement. The FC is basically a paramilitary police force, and its men are Pashtun tribesmen recruited from the frontier tribal areas. Its culture and standards are very different from that of the Pakistani Army.

It’s surprising that the writer apparently did not know this basic fact.

Posted by Syed | Report as abusive

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Posted by How Islamicised is the Pakistan army? « Asian Window | Report as abusive

I have to disagree with your correspondent Mr Syed about the composition of the 200+ soldiers taken prisoner in Waziristan. About half were regular army. And all officers of the Frontier Corps are regulars, seconded from the army.

This was acknowleged somewhat later by President Musharraf who was then Army Chief. Further, I know about the parents of one of the army officers, via a mutual friend. They were distraught. No wonder. He survived, thanks be; but three captive soldiers of a different Islamic persuasion to their captors were murdered.

Let’s try not to deny fact. Some things may be unpalatable. But we won’t change reality by wishful thinking.

And I don’t know how a “penchant for liquor” helped President Musharraf “with his coup”, as Mr Arif Rafaq writes. How on earth could tolerance for Scotch (or whatever) possibly assist a coup? (Remember that the attempted coup in Russia in 1991 failed mainly because all the generals were drunk.) And Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was far from being an abstainer from alcohol, a family inclination that may have moved sideways to the connections of his late (distinguished and much lamented) daughter.

It is most unfortunate that US troops in Afghanistan conducted an illegal (in International Law) incursion into the Bajaur Agency of Pakistan on 23 April, killing a soldier of the Frontier Corps.

This will hardly make the tribes in FATA – or any other Pakistani – supportive of America. And it will reinforce the widely-held belief in Pakistan that Bush Washington cares nothing for stability in the country. It is this type of idiot ignorant aggression that fuels extremism.

It takes one aggression to feed another.

Posted by beecee | Report as abusive

I didn’t write that a penchant for liquor helped Musharraf with his coup. I wrote that the more religious officers helped him, despite his more “penchant for liquor.”

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