• 05 December, 2022
Geopolitics & National Security.

Pakistan Armed Forces’ Wages of Radicalisation

Nilesh Kunwar
Thu, 03 Dec 2020   |  Reading Time: 11 minutes

The Origins

In his presidential address delivered in March 1940 at Lahore during the Muslim League session,  Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, “They [Hinduism and Islam] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits and is the cause of more of our troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time.”

Asserting that “Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature, Jinnah delivered the ‘coup de grace’ to centuries-old Hindu-Muslim amity that existed in undivided India for centuries by saying “They [Hindus and Muslims] neither intermarry nor inter-dine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions” [Emphasis added].  So, since Pakistan was a product of the ‘two-nation theory’, which propagated that Muslims couldn’t co-exist with Hindus, it was but natural for the founders of ‘Land of the Pure’ to promote this highly flawed sentiment.

Religion and Pakistan Army [1947-1977]

So, even though Islam became the rallying point in Pakistan, the top brass of its newly reorganised army didn’t allow religion to overshadow military ethics. Some contend that this was solely due to ‘colonial hangover’ since the rank and file of newly formed Pakistan army were earlier members of the erstwhile British Indian Army. Whereas this may well be one of the reasons, but it would be unfair to discount the fact that being World War II veterans and many having commanded units with ‘mixed troops’ having both Hindu and Muslim troops, the army’s top brass was aware that beyond a point, use of religion to motivate soldiers could prove counter-productive.

So, when the second Constitution of Pakistan was introduced in 1962, Gen Ayub Khan [who was the then President], ensured that while Islam was given due importance in the new constitution, yet although Pakistan had been created to accommodate Muslims, Islam still wasn’t declared the state religion of Pakistan. It would not be presumptuous to deduce that Gen Ayub had realised the inherent dangers of allowing religion to dominate other constitutional institutions of the state.

However, Gen Ayub was no Angel and he did solicit covert assistance of orthodox clerics to discredit his formidable political opponent Fatima Jinnah during the 1965 elections by trying to spread the canard that it was un-Islamic for a woman to be in politics. But while political expediency may have drawn Gen Ayub towards the clergy, the army’s top brass ensured that while religion was given its due importance in motivating soldiers, parochial and divisive beliefs weren’t allowed to take root within the armed forces. Consequently, professionalism was measured in terms of individual and collective proficiency in battle craft and religious indoctrination was just an ‘add-on’.

Emergence of a “Muslim Army”

However, things changed after the 1977 military coup [‘Operation Fair Play’] in which Gen Zia ul Haq ousted Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and after appointed himself as Chief Martial Law Administrator subsequently became President of Pakistan. Gen Zia’s intense fascination for turning Pakistan into a conservative Islamic country saw the introduction of separate ‘Sharia’ [Islamic law] courts, declaration of new offences like adultery, various types of blasphemy as well as reviving medieval forms of punishments, like, whipping, amputation, and stoning to death!

It was during Gen Zia’s 12-year long rule that the professional ethos of Pakistan Army underwent a sea change; it no more followed the national motto of ‘Iman, Itihhad , Nazm’ [Faith, Unity, Discipline] enunciated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and instead adopted a new one- “Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabeelillah” [Faith, Obedience of God, Struggle in the path of Allah]. Whereas declaring religious edicts as ideals for an army is indeed a noble idea, but the problem that invariably arises in such situations is that it invariably leads to confrontation since interpretation of religious texts varies from person to person and between sects.

An example of differing perceptions on religious issues is evident in a book titled ‘The Quranic Concept of War’ written by Brig SK Malik, a serving Pakistan army officer which was published in 1979 when Gen Zia’s programme to enforce “Nizam-e-Mustafa” [ rule of Prophet Mohammad] was in full swing. As the title suggests, the contents of this book helped in proliferating Islamic influence into the realm of matters military. Many claim that this book was written on the specific directions of Gen Zia, but since there’s no proof of this, debating this issue is akin to flogging a dead horse!

Yet, what stands out in Brig Malik’s work is that some Quranic verses have either been quoted out of context or misinterpreted to justify certain convoluted beliefs. Some examples- by saying “the Quranic military strategy thus enjoins us to prepare ourselves for war to the utmost to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies, known or hidden,” [Emphasis added] Malik seeks to accord religion to the sanctioned use of terror. Similarly, by contending that “It [the Quran] gives a strategy of war that penetrates deep down to destroy the opponents’ faith and render his physical and mental faculties ineffective,” he gives warfare a communal angle.

Malik cites the inevitability of a communal war between ‘Dar-ul-Islam’ [the abode of those who believe in Islam] and ‘Dar-ul-Harb’ [ house of those who remain defiant of Allah and Islam]. The author also promotes religious supremacy by defending ‘jizya’ [poll tax levied on non-Muslims] to allow them to practice their respective religions] and making ‘kafirs’ [‘non- believers’] accepting ‘dhimmitude’ [servitude to Islam]. Needless to say, being very emotive and contentious issues, any attempt to justify the use of coercion and violence by suggesting that it has a religious sanction, invariably ends up sowing seeds of radicalisation.

Yet, Gen Zia agreed to not only pen down the preface of Brig SK Malik’s palpably subjective treatise but while doing so he wrote that “The professional soldier in a Muslim army, pursuing the goals of a Muslim state, CANNOT become ‘professional’ if in all his activities he does not take on the colour of Allah [emphasis added]. While Gen Zia’s religious beliefs and convictions deserve to be respected, but for someone with an army background to completely discount the importance of time- tested military attributes of soldiering as an indicator of professionalism and instead replace it with the degree of religious fervour a soldier has, is, to say the least, perplexing!

It may not have been Gen Zia’s intention to see Pakistan Army so deeply radicalised as it is today.  But by encouraging military recruitment directly from madrassas [institutions teaching Islamic theology and religious law] as well as ultra-conservative Islamic groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, he created a pool of soldiers who were extremely vulnerable to radicalisation. By introducing religious evaluation in performance reports of officers at every level, and with military garrisons organising weekly sermons by preachers of Tableeghi Jamaat [an ultra-conservative religious group] a fertile environment for radicalisation was created and the seeds of extremism sown by Gen Zia within the armed forces of Pakistan quickly took root.

This was also the time when the Pakistan Army was using radical interpretations of Islamic teachings to indoctrinate ‘mujahideen’ who acting as proxies of Washington to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This fact has been accepted by none other than Pakistan’s ex-President and former army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf himself when he boasted of how “…In 1979, we had introduced religious militancy in Afghanistan to benefit Pakistan and to push Soviet out of the country. We brought Mujahideen from all over the world, we trained them, supplied weapons” [Emphasis added]. But as it always happens, these radical religious thoughts meant to indoctrinate ‘mujahideen’ also found widespread acceptance within Pakistan Army- not only in lower echelons but even amongst numerous officers holding very senior ranks.

Radicalisation of Army’s Top Brass

In 1995, Maj Gen Zaheer-ul Islam Abbasi and Brig Mustansir Billa planned a military coup to overthrow the Benazir Bhutto government and Keesing’s Record of World Events mentions that its objective was to “impose strict Islamic law (sharia).” The fact that the Maj Gen Abbasi and Brig Billa were tried and sentenced to serve a seven and 14-year jail sentence respectively provide an insight into radicalism prevailing even amongst high-ranking officers of Pakistan army.

An example of extreme radicalisation in the top echelons of Pakistan army is that of Lt Gen [Retd] Shahid Aziz who held several important and extremely sensitive appointments like Director General Military Operations, Chief of General Staff and Commander of Lahore based IV Corps. As Director of ISI’s Analysis Wing, he was one of the masterminds who planned and executed the 1999 Kargil intrusions and after his retirement, President Musharraf rewarded him with the chairman post of the powerful National Accountability Bureau, a post he held till 2007. While releasing his book, ‘Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak: Ek Sipahi ki Dastan-e-Ishq-o-Junoon [How Long This Silence: A Soldier’s Saga of Passion and Madness], in 2013, Lt Gen Aziz admitted being guilty of self-deception while serving in the army and was speaking up now out of fear of the ‘Day of Judgment’, which may be odd but is certainly not something weird.

But in 2016, when Lt Gen Aziz suddenly disappeared from public view there were strong rumours that overcome by guilt for having aided the US army in its war against Islamist terror groups, he had decided to recompense by going to Afghanistan and offering his services to some terrorist group. During an interview in 2018, Gen Musharraf disclosed having learnt that Lt Gen Aziz “had lost his mind, grown a beard, and gone to Syria” where he had been killed. But his family members denied this, and maintained that he “lives a very private life and does not want public appearances or information regarding his travels/Tableegh [religious preaching]”.

Expect for his family and friends, whether Lt Gen Aziz dead or alive is immaterial but if what Gen Musharraf had said was true, then his having joined terrorists and having been killed in an anti-terrorist operation merits attention. With ‘Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad’ [Voice of Afghan Jihad], the official magazine of Al Qaida Indian subcontinent [AQIS] chapter also confirming his death one thing is certain- this retired Lt Gen of Pakistan army was so radicalised that instead of expiating for his self-confessed wrongdoings by penance or charity work, he sought to earn divine pardon in the twilight years of his life by joining Al Qaida!

Other many Pakistan army officers openly flaunted their association with proscribed terrorist groups. In the early 90s, Lt Gen Javed Nasir, who was the then DGISI, secretly supplied anti-tank missiles to Bosnian Muslims fighters in complete violation of UN arms embargo placed on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact that the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia formally asked Pakistan to hand over Lt Gen Nasir to it for his involvement in arming Muslim Bosnian fighters fighting the Serbian army confirms that this three-star Pakistan army General was radicalised to the extent that he even disregarded the UN sanction regime to help a proscribed group!

Rise of Radicalism within Armed Forces

Rather than improving, the situation as regards radicalisation within Pakistan Army worsened after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. In a comprehensive news report [“Whose side is Pakistan on?” The Guardian, May 12, 2011], noted Journalist Declan Walsh [who was based in Pakistan since 2004 and was expelled in 2014], writes, “With the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the CIA largely abandoned Pakistan. But the spirit of “jihad”-fighters imbued with Islamist vim- lived on in the ISI. Pakistani officers, having imbibed too much of their ideology, transformed the spy agency.” [Emphasis added]

He goes on to explain that the ISI “… started to support Islamist groups across Asia – Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Burma, India-and the US placed Pakistan on a terrorist watch list. In 1993, Javed Ashraf Qazi, a secular-minded general officer, was sent in to clean up the mess. “I was shocked at what I found,” he tells me. Senior ISI officers had jettisoned their uniforms for shalwar kameez; their subordinates would disappear off to the mosque for hours on end. The ISI had bought a hotel in Bangkok, probably to facilitate gun-running. The outgoing spy chief, Javed Nasir, was a playboy turned zealot who had grown a scraggly beard and refused to shake women’s hands. On his first day in the office, Qazi found him running out of the door to a Muslim missionary conference. “When people say the ISI is a rogue agency, it was true in those days,” he says.” [emphasis added]

Then there’s the 2012 case of Brig Ali Khan serving in GHQ Rawalpindi, who was found guilty of maintaining links with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a terrorist group proscribed by the Government of Pakistan in 2004. Since Brig Khan had joined the army in 1979 and was young and in an impressionable age when ‘jihad’ [Holy War] sponsored by Pakistan army against Soviet troops in Afghanistan was in full swing, his radicalisation could be attributed to the jihadist propaganda being rampantly spewed by ISI at that time. Yet, the very thought of such a senior serving army officer being radicalised is extremely disturbing. But the fact that four young officers [of Major rank] were also found guilty along with the Brig is even more unnerving because it proves that radicalisation within the Pakistan army, which started during Gen Zia’s time, still endures!

Wages of Radicalism

Perhaps the most telling proof of the unbelievingly deep inroads which radicalism has made into the Pakistani armed forces is the 2011 PNS Mehran terror attack that left 18 security force personnel dead and 16 seriously injured. Investigative Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad who had some very reliable sources within Al Qaida and was in contact with Ilyas ‘Kashmir’ [a former ISI protégé heading a terrorist group called ‘313 Brigade’ fighting in J&K, who turned rogue and along with his outfit joined Al Qaida] made a very disturbing revelation.

Shahzad disclosed that shortly before the PNS Mehran attack, Pakistani naval intelligence had unearthed a network of Al Qaida sympathisers serving in the PNS Mehran naval base and had arrested at least 10 of them. The Al Qaida demanded their immediate release and surprisingly, Pakistani naval authorities even held secret meetings with Al Qaida representatives to amicably resolve this issue. But when the navy showed some hesitation in unconditionally releasing those arrested, Al Qaida withdrew from the talks and tasked Ilyas Kashmiri to use his cadres to execute the PNS Mehran attack.

Al Qaida sympathisers within the PNS Mehran establishment [who had not been identified] provided maps showing the layout of PNS Mehran along with other classified security-related information to the attackers that facilitated the terrorist attack. It was because of this ‘inside information’ that the attackers were able to inflict such heavy casualties and cause humongous material damage by destroying two 2 P3C Orion aircraft and herein lies the real tragedy-a grossly misplaced sense of religious obligation amongst some naval personnel prompted them to betray their comrades-in-arms, whom they lived with and may have even broken bread on the night of the attack itself!.

But then, such dreadful things are bound to happen when minds of soldiers get radicalised!

Credibility Crisis

Whereas Gen Zia is certainly guilty for having institutionalised religious radicalisation within the armed forces, but his legacy wouldn’t have thrived the way it has if successive army chiefs hadn’t wholeheartedly endorsed this unhealthy and self-debilitating trend. Pakistan Army’s credibility has hit new lows today with its seven decades old ‘holy cow’ image taking a direct hit and listed below are just a few examples:

  • Despite claiming that it’s Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] is the world’s best intelligence agency, Rawalpindi still hasn’t been able to explain why this numero uno outfit had no inkling whatsoever that the world’s most wanted terrorist [Al Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden] was blissfully enjoying a comfortable life with his family and children in Abbottabad, which is just a stone’s throw from the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy?
  • After the 2019 Pulwama suicide car bomb attack on a transit bus that killed 40 CRPF jawans, a video of its perpetrator admitting being a member of Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad [JeM] terrorist group headed by UN designated ‘global terrorist’ Masood Azhar surfaced on social media. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi admitted that “He [Azar] is in Pakistan, according to my information. He is very unwell. He is unwell to the extent that he cannot leave his house because he is unwell.” But by saying “Jaish-e-Muhammed does not exist in Pakistan,” Rawalpindi not only ‘disappeared’ the JeM founder but his entire outfit as well in a clumsy effort to conceal the army-terrorist nexus in Pakistan.
  • Pakistan army proudly flaunts ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’ as the biggest anti-terrorist operation in history and keeps waxing eloquent on how the army was “going after terrorists of all hue and colour.”But how does Rawalpindi explain that out of the more than 3,500 terrorists that it claims to have neutralised and over 1,000 terrorists that it supposedly apprehended during this two-year-long ant-terrorism operation in the Tribal Areas, not a single terrorist belonging to the Haqqani network was killed or arrested?


Last month, a news report [“Indian military becoming radicalised: FO,Dawn, Nov 7, 2020] mentioned that “The Foreign Office [FO] on Friday warned that Indian military was increasingly getting radicalised, a worrisome scenario that could potentially have serious implications for regional peace and security.” With no evidence to support its bizarre claim, Islamabad’s allegations regarding ‘radicalisation’ of Indian Army is so puerile and that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal- and perhaps that’s why New Delhi rightly decided to give it a pass.

However, Pakistan FO’s concerns that a radicalised army “could potentially have serious implications for regional peace and security” are certainly valid, but rather than pointing a finger at the Indian armed forces, Islamabad would do well for Pakistan if it can get Rawalpindi to end disturbing regional peace and security by nurturing terrorist groups as ‘strategic assets’ and then brazenly using them to wage proxy wars against its neighbours! After all, it’s not for nothing that the then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to abandon all diplomatic niceties during her 2011 Islamabad visit and squarely remind Rawalpindi that “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours”!


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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Dec 28, 2021
Gaurav Arya sir love from Germany ❤️


Sep 20, 2021
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Dec 05, 2020
Nilesh..👍 Well researched, hard hitting and well penned article. We must be wary about politician getting inroads into our Armed Forces...the last bastion to protect the radicalised enemies both within and across the borders. It will be a sad future for our Nation if politicians succeed in their efforts ,,🤔

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