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Military history

Islamists in the ranks

by Shuja Nawaz
Since independence, the armies of India and Pakistan have taken distinctly different roads. The Pakistan army was exposed to religious influence and has often served as a stepping stone to political power. Unlike in India, military rule has undermined development in Pakistan. This essay was written and published before the recent terrorist attacks in Bombay. [ By Shuja Nawaz ]

Pakistan and India emerged from the partition of British India in August 1947. Among the assets of the former imperial power were the armies of the new Dominions of the British Commonwealth.

61 years later, it is often asked, why did the two countries develop in such different ways, and what role did the armies play in this. The short answer is that Pakistan was under direct or indirect military rule for more than half of its existence, and lost a large part of the country (today’s Bangladesh) in 1971 after a civil war and an Indian invasion. India, however, grew into a raucous democracy with firmly established civilian control over the armed forces.

The military-political nexus of both countries presents a contrasting picture. Pakistan emerged out of Partition in 1947 with a brewing conflict. It erupted into war in Kashmir after an adventurist cohort of army officers had supported the invasion of tribal bands from the North West Frontier Province in Indian-occupied Kashmir. That war ended in a stalemate of sorts, and the military men blamed Pakistan’s civilian leadership for not doing enough to win the war. That laid the ground for a first, unsuccessful coup attempt by Major General Akbar Khan in 1951.

In 1958, Field Marshal Ayub Khan successfully staged a coup, which was the first in a series: General A.M. Yahya Khan toppled Ayub Khan in 1969 and stayed in power until 1971. Six years later, General Zia ul Haq staged a coup against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; his rule lasted until 1988. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In every case, the legacy was a stunted public sphere and dysfunctional civil service. Weak elected governments followed extended periods of military rule. In Pakistan’s short history, the army dominated the scene, and when it did not, it often called the shots from behind the scenes.

India never had a military coup. The country did have rumours of coups, but they proved unfounded. One reason was that civil and political institutions gradually grew stronger in India, overcoming the worst colonial legacies. Another reason was that the officer class was more diverse. Under British rule, Punjab had provided 42 % of the intake of the Indian Military Academy. By the early 1980s, that share had dropped to only 10 % in India. In Pakistan, however, the military as a whole is still predominantly Punjabi.

Religious ideology

India is a predominantly Hindu country with an avowedly secular constitution. Pakistan, by definition+, is a Muslim country. So the question arises whether Pakistan’s militaristic leanings are linked to religion. The truth is, that military leaders learned to use the belief system for their purposes.

Pakistan came into being as a state for the Muslims of British India. It was composed of states where the Muslims were the majority. The fledgling nation paid obeisance to Islam in a ritualistic fashion, but its institutions remained colonial in nature. Though the colonial power had left, the internal operations and systems of governance hardly changed.

Some symbols of Islam were used from the start. For instance, the badge of the Pakistan army shows two crossed Islamic swords, a crescent and a five-pointed star before a green background. In a similar vein, the army headquarters’ identification code is “786”, the numerological equivalent of “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim” (In the name of Allah, the most gracious and most compassionate).

Initially, such references were in form only. Pakistan’s first two military rulers, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, showed their dislike for “Mullahs”, though they did take advantage of Islamic parties to boost their own political influence. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Zia ul Haq gave the military a more rigorous Islamic direction. The mosque-military nexus began to haunt Pakistan.

Zia gave the army an Islamic motto, and allowed missionary proselytising within military institutions. Islamic slogans were used. “Jihad” (holy war), for instance, referred to support to Afghan freedom fighters against the Soviet invaders. The Islamists thus gained favour in the army and a firm foothold in the country during that period. An irony of the matter is that Pakistan’s military is today fighting the descendants and successors of those Islamist forces in the border regions, and increasingly in parts of the hinterland too.

For many years, the Pakistan army refused to acknowledge the potential threat from rising Islamism in its ranks. After Zia’s death, his successor as head of the military, General Mirza Aslam Beg, removed some overt elements of Islamism from the army. For example, he dropped all references to officers’ religious behaviour from the Annual Confidential Reports. He promised to ensure that radical Islamists did not make it to the higher ranks of the army. Nonetheless, a number of senior officers openly or secretly exhibited very rigid views of Islam. A prominent example was Lieutenant General Javed Nasir, director general of the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), who supported Jihadists in every corner of the world, though his main focus was India. He was removed after the USA provided evidence of his activities and suggested that he should quit. Another key Islamist who did not parade his views in public was Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed. He launched the coup against Prime Minister Sharif on behalf of Musharraf in 1999. Later, he was made head of the ISI, and held that position in the run-up to the events of 9/11 in 2001 – a time, in which Pakistan was supporting Afghanistan’s Taliban-run government.

Indeed, Ahmed was one of the key interlocutors with Taliban leader Mullah Umar, in the attempt to persuade Afghanistan’s rulers to severe ties with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. He did not pursue that task with determination. Eventually, his recalcitrance was brought to light and he was removed from his position. Nonetheless, Musharraf gave him a senior civilian job after retirement from the military.

The military high command found it difficult to confront rising conservatism and perhaps even Islamists inside its ranks. Today, its leaders argue that they have filtres to prevent radical Islamists from taking command of key elements of the army. Demographic shifts may, militate in a different direction however.

Today, the army is lead by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who received his early training in the United States. His background is rural, and is mindset is not Islamist. However, many of his new brigadiers and generals grew up during Zia’s Islamist rule, when Pakistan and its army was embargoed by the west. In their formative years, many of these officers could not travel and were not exposed to diverging ideas. Moreover, many of them were recruited from cities and towns, representing the conservative and religiously-oriented petit bourgeoisie. To what extent their biographies still shape their thinking will affect Pakistan’s future.

An outlook

India has managed to retain an army that hews strictly to the constitution’s professed secular values. Political unrest is growing, however, fuelled in part by the growing economic deprivation of India’s large Muslim minority. The Government of India’s recent Sachar Commission Report on the state of Muslims in the country painted a woeful picture of missed opportunities and downright anti-Muslim bias in India’s socio-economic system. It is hard to predict how the armed forces will react. The re-emergence of unrest in largely Muslim Kashmir, where more than 500,000 Indian soldiers are deployed to maintain order, is a huge challenge. Muslim representation in India’s military and in the higher command remains abysmally low. There are no attempts to make up for this deficiency.

Both countries take pride in their professional and volunteer armies, boasting large forces relative to their economic status. India has over 1 million troops, and the Pakistan regular army has 484,000. Both countries use a substantial proportion of their economic resources for their armed forces: 3.4 % of GDP in the case of Pakistan and 2.3 % in the case of India.

India has developed a huge force projection capability that is not solely Pakistan-centric in its aims. It aims to dominate the Indian Ocean and its littoral states in years to come.

Pakistan, however, feels pressed to keep up, considering a hegemonic India as its main regional threat, though, in recent years, the focus has been turned to violence inside the country. Religious insurgencies are mounting, and keep the army busy in the North West Frontier Province and along the Afghan border. The challenge remains for the political leadership in both countries to reduce hostility and confrontation, thereby reducing the need for such large and expensive armies. That both nations command nuclear arms, makes the matter particularly urgent.