june issue 2011
In August 2006, 11 members of an outfit of non-commissioned officers in the Lahore garrison were massacred and 64 others were seriously injured. It was an attack in the heart of one of the country’s ostensibly most secure cantonments — but it never made the news.
Understandably: the assailant was not an Al-Qaeda/Tehrik-e-Taliban activist on a suicide mission. He was not a CIA/RAW/Mossad operative. He was a serving jawan, a member of the same military outfit as the victims, who after having spent the evening fraternising with them in the garrison’s recreation area, coolly proceeded, as he walked out, to lob a grenade at those assembled there — and symbolically wave a fist at the myth of the monolithic military.
Suddenly, the sleepy garrison sprang to action on a war footing — not so much to investigate the incident, but to hush it up.
The mess was cleared, the victims’ corpses surreptitiously shipped to their respective homes, the wounded transported to military medical facilities, and witnesses to the carnage hurriedly debriefed. After the big bang, silence.
Subsequent internal investigations into the affair notwithstanding, the brigadier and two lieutenant colonels commanding the garrison were never held accountable — neither for the breach of security, nor, and perhaps far more ominous, for their failure to detect the radicalisation of one of their own men.
Standard operating procedure in the armed forces requires all serving personnel to be interviewed, interrogated and debriefed following furloughs. If there is even a hint of suspicion that a subject is exhibiting any change in his person, overt or otherwise, he is made to undergo psychological assessments and further questioning.
That the obvious changes in the perpetrator’s profile went unnoticed was a deadly sin of omission.
According to a fellow soldier, the man in question was “just a regular guy who wrote and read poetry, enjoyed music, a game of cards and sharing anecdotes with his comrades” — until he went on a month-long furlough to Haripur. Here he came under the sway of a local qari and his staple diet of jihadi diatribe. He returned to base reportedly a changed man; the joie de vivre had been replaced by a spark of another kind and he now sported a beard — and a chilling agenda: carnage.
The incident begs the question: how many other messianic soldiers now occupy the ranks of Pakistan’s armed forces?
That many NCOs and higher ranking officers who sought early retirement from the forces have enlisted with Al-Qaeda and other militant organisations of its ilk and are actively engaged in ‘jihad’ against the allied forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army at home is a well-documented fact. The bigger threat, of course, emanates from those still serving.
A few years ago, at least six serving officers, among them those of the rank of colonel and major, were arrested for alleged links with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In 2003, several low-ranking forces personnel were apprehended and charged for an attempt on General Pervez Musharraf’s life. And based on WikiLeaks disclosures, “As far back as 2006,” Reuters reports, “the US was reporting in diplomatic cables that Pakistani pilots and flight crew were engaging in petty sabotage of American F-16s to prevent them from being used against Taliban militants in the northwest.”
While the attackers of the military bastion, GHQ, Rawalpindi, may not have had inside help, given they failed to eliminate their intended target, General Kayani, the recent PNS Mehran attack was an altogether different and far more disturbing case.
Although a former Pakistan navy commando, who was court-martialled 10 years ago for insubordination to a senior officer, his brother and an associate have been arrested for complicity in the attack, it is the identity of the others involved that is more alarming. This was tacitly acknowledged by Commodore Moazzam Ilyas Shah at a press briefing following the Mehran imbroglio. Said the Commodore, “We are investigating with great care who from within our own ranks aided the terrorists.”
This concession concerning the involvement of serving navy personnel resonated in a report filed by Syed Saleem Shahzad, the murdered Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online and the author of the recently published book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. Shahzad wrote that the attack was carried out “after talks failed between the navy and Al-Qaeda over the release of naval officers arrested on suspicion of Al-Qaeda links.” Two days after filing this report, Shahzad went missing. And two days after his disappearance, his corpse was discovered in the Upper Jhelum Canal, scarred with marks of severe torture. A statement issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) soon thereafter read, “Journalist Saleem Shahzad feared abduction by the ISI and left a statement [saying as much] with the HRW.”
According to HRW Pakistan researcher Ali Dayan, Shahzad had conveyed to him in October that he was summoned to the ISI office and issued a veiled threat, presumably on account of his reports on the rise of militancy in the forces. Reporters without Borders corroborated this by issuing a statement saying, “Experienced journalists in Islamabad said they suspected that Shahzad was kidnapped and executed by the ISI. Sources close to Shahzad said he was getting warnings from the security agencies in the past… This would support the theory that he was kidnapped and killed in connection with his coverage of the attack on the naval base.”
This contention was lent weight by Shahzad’s widow, when she told police that a retired army officer whose help she had elicited to find her husband told her he was in “safe hands” and would be “returned” in 24 hours. This seems a clear indication the officer was in touch with the abductors, even if not apprised of the outcome of the kidnapping.
In his talk show on GEO, author and senior analyst Najam Sethi also inferred that Shahzad’s brutal murder appeared more the handiwork of the ISI than the Taliban — even though he said in his view their intent was more likely threat than murder — and probably owed to Shahzad’s ongoing disclosures about Al-Qaeda sleeper cells in all three defence services.
The ISI responded to the charges levelled against it in a statement which read, “Baseless accusations against the country’s sensitive agencies for their alleged involvement in Shahzad’s murder are totally unfounded … The ISI offers its deepest and heartfelt condolence to the bereaved family and assures them that it will leave no stone unturned in helping to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice … The media should act with responsibiity to avoid any possible legal course. It should refrain from baseless allegations against the ISI that seek to deliberately malign the organisation in the eyes of the people of Pakistan.”
This statement notwithstanding, the facts speak for themselves. Shahzad’s coverage of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had, four years ago, led to his abduction by jihadi elements from Afghanistan where he had gone on assignment. He was taken to Waziristan, but freed after six months. But, this time around, the stakes were clearly much higher: he was increasingly making the connect between the strong links of cadres within the ISI and the armed forces with assorted terror networks. Said a friend, Shahzad was exploring “militant infiltration in the lower ranks of the defence forces.” That apparently cost him his life.
The one that got away from the long arm of the local intelligence agencies but was apprehended in the US for involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and subsequently turned approver, Richard Headley, in his testimony in a US court exonerated the top echelons of the ISI from involvement in the Indian terror excursion, but tellingly added that “no more than a handful” of lower agency operatives were probably culpable in varying degrees, and “one colonel may have known” what was to transpire. This, in conjunction with Pakistan’s official acknowledgement that the ISI’s role in Mumbai was limited to “rogue elements,” is hardly comforting.
Armed forces’ officers, as expected, refute reports of either jihadi infiltration or the build-up of a militant mindset in their ranks. But a senior serving naval officer conceded that a “mass internal crackdown on Al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy” is currently underway.
A retired general shared his misgivings on the subject. Although he maintained that the chain of command in the army remains unbroken and dismissed notions of any sea change in the mindset of forces’ personnel, he nonetheless expressed concern about a “possible colonels’ coup” in the foreseeable future, orchestrated “by Islamist officers agitating not so much against their chief, but against the progressive, pro-West orientation of the armed forces.”
Retired major and defence analyst Ikram Sehgal was less pessimistic in his assessment of the force he served and continues to hold in high esteem. Said Sehgal, “The army is welded together.” While conceding that “the servicemen’s morale has been shaken” in the aftermath of the brazen attacks on the country’s security apparatus and key installations, and that the army’s inbuilt screening mechanism to root out aberrant behaviours “may have been circumvented to some extent because of the ideological leanings of the forces’ personnel due to their revulsion of the [collateral damage on account of] the US-led war on terror,” Sehgal contended that the system remains very much in place.
Furthermore, the distaste for the war, Sehgal said, is matched by the growing hatred of the soldiers for the jihadis they are battling. Said Sehgal, “When my battalion, which is currently engaged in operations in South Waziristan came home on their first leave in four months, I noticed a huge change in them. They were vituperative about the jihadis. They found improvised explosive devices (IEDs) concealed in Qurans alongside a trove of pornographic material in the jihadis’ lairs, which they said horribly defiled Islam. That to them is unacceptable, so there is a new-found vigour in the war they are waging against the militants.”
Author and senior journalist Zahid Hussain concurs with the almost dichotomous response of serving forces personnel to the ongoing war against extremism and militancy. Says Hussain, “While there is a sizeable section of junior officers and soldiers who actually support jihadism, there are other, right-wing Islamists and ultra nationalists who are willing combatants in the fight against militancy, but are also simultaneously actively anti-American.”
This is a perception shared by Dr Stephen Philip Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. In an interview, Cohen maintained that today “some sections of the army are even more anti-American than they are anti-India.” While that anti-Americanism does not necessarily translate into militancy and jihad, that the Pakistan army often works in collaboration with Islamic radicals is an increasingly widespread perception at home and internationally.
Cohen traced the Pakistan army’s collaboration with Islamic militants “back to the Bangladesh separatist movement when the army recruited people for al-Badar and death squads.” This collaboration, he contended, “became more specialised during Zia’s government, both in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Now it is a full-fledged strategic alliance for the Pakistan military.”
Against this backdrop, radicalisation in the ranks is almost an inevitability, says Hussain. “When the state adopts a policy of using militancy as a tool for [formulating and implementing] policy, it will obviously have a huge effect on the military. Over the years army personnel have grown up in an almost jihadi culture and so now there is a huge crop of jihadist soldiers and officers coming up,” he maintains.
And while there is a general consensus among analysts that the top brass of the military is still very disciplined, the recent and ongoing attacks on key military and security installations, the blitzkrieg raid to get Osama bin Laden and the resulting humiliation from both have left armed forces personnel increasingly frustrated. Add to that the unarguable links between the country’s intelligence agencies and militants in pursuit of long-entrenched agendas of strategic depth and the conquest of Kashmir, and the very tangible anger among the general populace and the soldier alike at the government’s compliance with the incessant drone strikes and resulting civilian casualties, and the rage could well turn inwards. Says Hussain, “It’s about shame, like the Pakistan army felt in 1971. The situation may not implode yet, but who knows what could happen if there are any more incidents that humiliate the forces.”
Perhaps most dangerous is the prospect of the jihadists within the forces gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Reuters recently noted, “While most experts believe Pakistan’s strategic nuclear arsenal is safe, items such as low-yield, mobile nuclear delivery systems … could be highly vunerable … the monitoring of nuclear weapons appears insufficient.”
It is certainly a time of reckoning. There is as much a need for Pakistan to fight foreign and home-grown terrorism of all persuasions as there is to battle the jihad within. And it would do well to begin with the armed forces and their agencies — the custodians of our security and the self-appointed, de facto shapers of policy and our destiny. If the fissures within are not sealed, prospects for the very existence of the state will continue to dim.