ALL BETS ARE ALREADY OFF
Published: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 07:44 Updated: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 09:16
With civil society unable to fight the tide of Islamic radicalism, and a military establishment battling itself, Pakistan stands at crossroads it has seldom seen before
Suhasini Haider Delhi
A cartoon in an Urdu daily in Pakistan last month said it best. It showed a puzzled Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari scratching his head and saying, “So much has gone wrong, and no one is blaming me for it, hain?” In Pakistan’s disastrous month of May, that is perhaps what has stood out the most. Through everything — from the embarrassing discovery of Osama bin Laden to the Mehran Base attack, to the brutal killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, to the growing rift with the US, continuing drone attacks, and even the economic crisis — the anger of the ordinary Pakistani has been pointed at its most revered institution, the army, and not its most reviled one, the political establishment.
“They’ve starved us all these years in the interest of national security,” said one angry shopkeeper. “Where was all their fancy equipment when the Americans sneaked in and killed Osama?” Another crossed a busy Islamabad thoroughfare to confront us. “I see you criticise the politicians all the time, and that’s fine,” he said, clearly mistaking us for Pakistani journalists, “but why don’t you talk about the army?” On television talk shows, in protest rallies, the mood is of anger at the world for pushing Pakistan into a corner, but also one of having been betrayed by the army and its agencies.
The heat on Pakistan’s streets, however, is not General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s biggest worry today. Nor is it the assertive mood of the politicians, who for the first time summoned both the army chief and ISI chief Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha to the National Assembly to explain the Abbottabad operation. It isn’t the media, which continues to demand answers from the ISI about the torture and murder of Saleem Shahzad. And it isn’t even the angry noises from Washington, where officials who once praised Kayani’s leadership skills are today threatening to cut off military aid to Pakistan.
Kayani’s real worry is the mood of the men in uniform — his own men, who have in the past month become an increasing source of concern. For the past few years, the rising rage in Pakistan over continued drone attacks has been expressed by people across the board — those in the military and their families have not been immune to the consequent anti-American feeling. Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan’s recent rallies against drone attacks and the blockade of NATO trucks are widely held to have the military establishment’s support, for example. In his largely sympathetic book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, author Anatol Lieven says the most dangerous trend so far has been the dip in army morale over helping the US in its war on terror. Particularly in the villages of NWFP, he writes, it is getting increasingly difficult for soldiers’ families to find brides, because of the perception that they are ‘American slaves’.
Perhaps recognising that anger, General Kayani undertook a tour of a dozen garrison towns last month, meeting with soldiers and officers in ‘townhall’ style sessions to talk about the Abbottabad operation. At one such session in Rawalpindi, he was reportedly accosted by Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior officer in the recruitment ‘regulation’ department, who was upset with Pakistan’s submission to the US. Two months short of his retirement, Brig Khan was an unlikely candidate for unruly insubordination to his seniors. His father was an officer before him, his sons followed him in joining the army.
As Military Intelligence (MI) and ISI closed in on him last month, they found much more stuff to worry — Brigadier Ali was arrested for links with banned extremist organisation Hizb-ul-Tahrir. Four Majors have now been questioned for links with Ali — the taint of radicalisation in Pakistan’s army has reached its highest rank yet.
Worries of the jehadi virus run deep and wide. Earlier this year, WikiLeak-ed cables showed the leadership’s concerns over Pakistan airmen who were allegedly sabotaging F-16s, so they couldn’t be used to aid US operations in the FATA province. One of the five men arrested for the Mehran naval base attack was a former naval commando, and more ‘insiders’ are suspected to have helped in the raid.
On May 24, 2011, General Kayani decided to pass an edict, banning the presence of all Tablighi Jamaat preachers from cantonment areas across Pakistan.
It was General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, who, in his effort to build ‘Allah’s Army’, had introduced preachers of this very austere and strict form of Islam into his garrisons for weekly sermons. After his death, the then army chief of staff General Asif Nawaz stopped the mandatory sermons for soldiers, but preachers were given easy access to those who wanted religious indoctrination. Kayani’s ban followed the discovery this year that many men had taken leave of upto a year on the pretext of religious study, but were found instead training militants at camps in Waziristan. In the airforce, army and navy, from high ranking officers to footsoldiers, Pakistan’s military is coming to terms with the dangerous legacy of its past.
Army officials say weeding out radical elements from within the armed forces is now a high priority. It’s ironic that the same leadership that turned a blind eye as intelligence officers helped set up and trained the Taliban in the 1980s, and Kashmiri militant groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad in the 1990s, is now having to crack down on its men who are using the same tactics to build a militant fifth column within the services.
Asia Times reporter Saleem Shahzad was one of the few people to interview many of these militants with links to Pakistani intelligence — including Baitullah Mehsud, Ilyas Kashmiri and Sirajuddin Haqqani — and even met once with Osama bin Laden. Saleem regularly maintained that support for these leaders essentially came from rogue ISI officers, and not from the very top. In an interview to CNN-IBN, he said that post 9/11, and then post the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, many inside the establishment had turned away from the policy of ‘proxy war’, but many remained committed to the jehadi ideology that was also on the rise in ordinary Pakistani society. Three weeks after that interview, Syed Saleem Shahzad was dead — tortured and beaten to death by abductors widely believed to belong to the intelligence agencies.
The ideology Saleem referred to now rules Pakistani discourse. Very few question the religious Right, especially after the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti over the blasphemy issue. The only large demonstrations that came out at the time were in favour of their killers.
Journalist and author Ayesha Siddiqua conducted a poll this year which confirmed that even the younger generation in Pakistan is growing more religiously conservative. In the survey conducted at Pakistan’s top colleges in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, a large majority voted in favour of madrasa education, the sharia, and supported Pakistan’s continuance as an Islamic, not secular State. “When it comes to the role of religion,” Siddiqua concluded, “there is little difference between the attitude of most students at elite schools, and at madrasas.”
With civil society increasingly unwilling or unable to fight the tide of radicalism, and a military establishment battling itself, Pakistan stands at crossroads it has seldom seen before. Unlike in the past, this is a crisis that can’t be papered over by a large commitment of aid from the US, nor would a conflict with India help resolve it. Toppling the government in a coup does not seem to be an option either, aside from Kayani’s obvious reluctance.
Thus, it falls on the same government pilloried for corruption and hated for ineffectiveness in pulling Pakistan back from the perilous situation it finds itself in. British journalist Jeffery Barnard once said, “The best way to stop a runaway horse is to bet on it.” In Pakistan’s case, unfortunately, all bets are already off.
Based in Delhi, Suhasini Haider is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN