Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

South Asia

Musharraf's army breaking ranks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Ever since its creation in 1947, Pakistan's political landscape has been characterized by the military's deep involvement, be it through direct intervention and the imposition of martial law, or through behind-the-scenes manipulation of civilian governments.

The present administration is no exception. President General Pervez Musharraf came to power in October 1999 through a bloodless coup that deposed the elected government of Nawaz  Sharif. National elections have subsequently been held, although Musharraf effectively still wields power through his presidency and as chief of army staff.

However, the army's role in politics has been dramatically shaped by the unprecedented events of September 11, 2001. The army under Musharraf has been forced, because of the global fallout from the terrorist attacks on the United States, to make decisions that have seriously split the armed forces.

Well-placed sources within the army have revealed to Asia Times Online that recently several top officers have been arrested. These arrests have been kept secret as no charges have been laid. The officers, according to the sources, were seized after being fingered by agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as probably having links with international Islamic militants.

The FBI has been given a free hand to interrogate the officers at its cell in the capital, Islamabad, or at any other location of its choosing in order to establish ties between the officers and militant networks.

Asia Times Online investigations have established the names of two of those arrested: Assistant Adjutant-General and Quartermaster-General, Lieutenant-Colonel Khalid Abbassi (posted in Kohat, North-West Frontier Province) and one Major Atta.

The investigations show that neither the family of the officers nor their subordinates know where they are being detained. Senior officers in the army, when contacted by this correspondent, remained tight lipped and their advice was, "stay away from this matter".

Further investigations reveal that Abbassi is a widely-respected officer in signals, and that he is also a very religious person. Apparently, he delivered lessons from the Koran every day to his junior officers, a trend that was encouraged by former dictator General Zia ul-Haq in the army, and which is still common nowadays.

The army's about-turn
The Pakistani army, largely through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as part of its strategic vision for the region actively supported and promoted the Taliban in its formation and ultimate seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1996. As a result, many of Pakistan's top brass are familiar with senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. Notably, the former director general of the ISI, Lieutenant-General (retired) Mehmood Ahmed, was close to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Mehmood Ahmed is now managing director of Fauji Fertilizers Company, where a number of former army officers also work.

It is an open secret in Washington now that a delegation of senior Pakistani army officers, sent to Afghanistan prior to the US invasion ostensibly to convince the Taliban to step down, actually spent their time instructing the Taliban on how to protect their weapons from the impending US aerial bombing.

With the rapid retreat of the Taliban from Afghanistan, though, and in the face of tough Washington pressure to join in the global "war on terror", Musharraf had little choice but to throw in his hat as an ally of the US. This had two immediate effects: it disenchanted a large section of the military-security apparatus, and it paved the way for US intelligence to muscle into internal Pakistani affairs, which further upset those within the military-security establishment.

Initially, the FBI was allowed to set up small cells in the operations offices of the ISI, and ISI officials were attached to these cells. However, the FBI was able to decide on its own targets, and it delegated specific assignments to ISI officials, but under FBI surveillance.

Lately, the FBI has been given separate premises all over the country, and its own separate teams of officers, who, with the best bugging devices in the world, now have maximum access to Pakistan's telecommunications system.

This kind of access means that the FBI is now privy to much of the information that the Pakistan army has, which has led to the Americans being able to nip in the bud a number of attempts by the ISI to re-establish its presence in Afghanistan through local commanders of the Hezb-I-Islami of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key player in the Afghan resistance movement.

Call to prayer
When General Zia ul-Haq was president and the chief of army staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he encouraged his officers to say their prayers five times a day (as is customary in Muslim society), and those who did so were looked on favorably when promotion time came around. Indeed, it became essential that anyone seeking a top position in the army or the ISI displayed the appropriate religious fervor.

Even better would be if an officer had a background in the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the premier fundamentalist party). Such a connection led to the emergence of the likes of Lieutenant-General Hameed Gul, Brigadier Imtiaz and dozens of others who made their names in political operations in favor of Islamic parties or in launching conspiracies to unseat secular parties, such as the Pakistan People's Party of twice premier Benazir Bhutto.

Even after his death in an airplane crash on August 17, 1988, people have been careful to at least pay lip service to Zia's legacy. Musharraf himself, a relative liberal compared to the former dictator, commented in an interview a few years ago in which he praised Zia's policies that, "He was a patriot and was a very God-fearing person."

But times have changed. After taking over from Sharif, Musharraf placed a team of religious zealots in all prominent positions. Now he is reversing that trend and is ditching many stalwarts in favor of new, more flexible, faces - faces that are presumably more acceptable to the US.

This has not been without severe backlash. Three known assassination plots have been hatched against the general, but he has remained undeterred; in fact, moves to rid the services of religious-minded officers have gathered pace, and many have been given their marching orders or passed over for promotion.

It is no coincidence, then, that the Jamaat-i-Islami is championing, with grim determination, a drive to have Musharraf step down as head of the army. With its historically close connections to so many within the forces, Jamaat's move can only be seen as a signal from within the now bitterly divided armed forces.

And the latest news of Musharraf's willingness to send 10,000 troops to northern Iraq (the Kurdish regions only) further aggravates the situation, as this is strongly opposed by many within the army who foresee Pakistanis as being used as cannon fodder by the US.

The actual departure of the troops, then, could be the final straw for Musharraf, who has earned vengeful and powerful enemies in uniforms as a result of forcing the army to march to his own beat.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Aug 30, 2003

US support emboldens Musharraf
(Jun 3, '03)

Payback time for Musharraf
(May 10, '03)

Musharraf tightens his grip
(Mar 13, '03)
Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong