May 042008

Shuja Nawaz

Although the Muslim way of life was a motive behind the call for the creation of Pakistan, its early political leadership did not provide an Islamic blueprint for its political development or goals. In fact, the movement for Pakistan was not an Islamic movement as much as it was a movement by Indian Muslims to seek greater social and economic opportunities for themselves. Indeed, according to one view, it was the movement of the salaried classes and hence was not supported either by the Islamist parties or by the rural masses in the Muslim-majority provinces.

The Pakistan Army too, the largely Muslim rump of the British Indian Army, was saddled at birth with this paradoxical identity: the symbols of Islam but the substance of a colonial force, quite distant from the body politic of the fledgling state.

One symbol of Islam was a set of numbers: 786. These three numbers represent the numerical equivalent of letters of the opening sentence of the Holy Quran, Bismillah irRehman irRahim (In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Beneficent), the words that all Muslims intone before the start of anything worthwhile in their lives. 786 became the identification number for the General Headquarters of the new Pakistan Army when it took over the operations and offices of the British North Command in India in Rawalpindi after independence. This numerical coda was emblazoned on all gateposts and vehicles, as a reminder that this was the army of a Muslim country. But the Islamic identity was only in name at that stage. The senior echelons were still British officers who had opted to stay on, and they were in turn succeeded by their native clones, men who saw the army as a unique institution, separate and apart from the rest of civil society and authority. This was the dominant cultural ethos of the army at the time. And as the country grew in age, this initial schism between the cantonment (military reservation) and the city pervaded the army’s thought processes and seemed to guide as well as bedevil the military’s relationship with the civilian sector in Pakistan. The army initially retained its largely moderate and secular nature.

As Pakistan moved from being a newly post-colonial state (in the latter days of President Muhammad Ayub Khan’s rule) which represented a hybrid of the British Raj and Pakistan but in which Pakistan was an ally of the United States, to being a true post-colonial state (under President Zia-ul-Haq) which saw an attempt at forging a new national identity through forced Islamisation of the army and state. It is still searching for its identity as a nation. Zia, for better or worse, tried to give it an autonomous identity based on his idea of Islam. The key factors at play in the country’s history eventually became three, sometimes conflicting, entities: the Army, America, and, more recently, Allah.

Contrary to the more recent view of an ancient nexus between the army and Islamist groups that has become fashionable especially in the West and among scholars pandering to the worst fears of the West about Pakistan, the Pakistan Army has not had a close relationship with Islamic parties in the past, except in certain instances when the army tried to use these groups to undermine populist opposition parties in what was once East Pakistan and in certain areas of West Pakistan. Indeed, under the first military ruler, General (later Field Marshal) M. Ayub Khan, there was rank antipathy toward the mullahs. As Ayub Khan noted in his diary in 1967: “The fight with the mullah is political. It started from the time of Sir Syed. The mullah regards the educated Muslims as his deadliest enemy and the rival for power. That is why several of them opposed Pakistan and sided with the Congress. They felt that with the help of the Hindus they will be able to keep educated Muslims out of power. So we have got to take on all those who are political mischief-makers. This battle, though unpleasant, is unavoidable. It has to be waged sometime or the other in the interest of a strong progressive Pakistan.”

It was only during the regime of General Ziaul Haq that the military-mullah nexus was formed, first for the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and then to help the Kashmiris against the Indian army. Ironically, the United States fostered the military-mullah alliance since the alliance was directed against its archrival, the Soviet Union. The military-mullah alliance continued in one form or another till an electoral alliance, a real deal with the MMA under which the mullahs supported Musharraf in his bid to remain chief of the army staff and president concurrently. While this relationship broke later, this deal allowed the mullahs to gain political traction on the national scene for the first time ever. They took over the government of the volatile North-West Frontier province, the scene of much fighting recently and allowed the forces of radical Islam to assert themselves in Pakistani society: banning clean-shaven men, video and CD shops, and generally trying to introduce other antediluvian laws in the areas they controlled.

The US-Pakistan relationship, which is a recurring theme in my new book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008), can be described as a roller-coaster relationship. It has had its cyclical ups and downs. Yet, the ties have remained unbroken. Unlike US ties with, say, Iran, the relationship has been kept alive with Pakistan even when one side or the other drew back. But it became almost predictable, as US interest shifted across the globe and Pakistan’s internal situation changed over time.

Early last year the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Pakistan Army reportedly prepared a long-term analysis of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, charting its cyclical ups and down over the decades. It deduced that a downturn was expected in 2007, as the US prepared to ease out of its dominant role in Afghanistan. After that Pakistan would be left holding the bag yet again and having to cope with rising internal Talibanisation and trouble on its western frontier. This assessment may well have been behind General Pervez Musharraf’s moves to clear out his moderate and judicial opponents in a self-inflicted coup against his own Supreme Court and heavily amended Constitution. The assumption was that the US would not react strongly; since it badly needed the Pakistan Army to seal the border with Afghanistan and that the only alternative to Musharraf was the spectre of Islamist radicals controlling Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In selling this line, Musharraf was one in a long line of Pakistani strongmen and dictators, who milked the United States for military support and financial assistance to keep themselves in power, all in the name of preserving Pakistan’s integrity. On his part, in buying this line, President George W Bush and his team also were working from an old Cold War playbook. As always, the US found itself between the rock of support for a freedom agenda and the hard place of support that only a military strongman could provide. As a result, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte spoke in the House Foreign Relations Committee on Nov 7, 2007, of supporting the “people of Pakistan” but came out on the side of the autocratic President of Pakistan whom Negroponte called an “indispensable” ally.

To the people of Pakistan, it was a case of déjà vu all over again. With minor adjustments, history appeared to be repeating itself.

(To be continued)

The writer is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within which will be released in Pakistan this month by Oxford University Press. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and can be reached at
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 Posted by at 8:01 am

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