Pak military's turn towards religiosity
The ascendancy of religious extremism, bigotry, and hatred has been officially sanctified and legitimised by the Pakistani military’s active and open co-option.
Pakistani Military is the sixth largest standing force in the world (the largest, and the only nuclear power amongst Islamic countries). Pew polls conducted showed that the institution was "overwhelmingly popular" amongst the Pakistani mainstream, despite the fact that it routinely interfered in the democratic processes – it has imposed official dictatorship four times i.e. 1958, 1969, 1978, and 1999, besides displacing popularly elected governments in 1990, 1993 and 1996. The Pakistani Military Chiefs have frequently extended their stay at the "Army House" (India has had 29 Chiefs since Independence, while Pakistan only 16). The official ranking of the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff is in "Article 6" of the official Pakistani Warrant of Precedence – yet, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff virtually decides the budgetary allocations, the contours of the foreign policy, internal affairs etc., even when the ostensible civilian government, like now, is in place. Despite its repeated failures in all its wars (1965, 1971, Kargil), the Pakistani Military remains the most popular and credible institution that shares an uncomfortable and suspicious equation with the discredited politicos, clergy, and the judiciary. Besides portents of internal-accountability with the spectre of speedy justice via military courts, it is seen as the rare institution that is beyond sectarianism, regional-ethnic divides and extreme religiosity that seems to have gripped the nation and the other governance arms.
General Zia-ul-Haq's pernicious policy of injecting religion across the Pakistani narrative (1978-1988), nearly consumed the Pakistani Military also, however, the sudden death of Zia-ul-Haq in a mysterious air crash, stalled the overt 'Islamisation' of the Pakistani military. However, the Pakistani military has always selectively and cleverly pandered to Islamist parties for their own partisan ends and projected their own religious identity against a 'Hindu State' aggressor – these tactical dalliances with religiosity-within-limits, has allowed it the plausible opportunity to deny or decry the overtly-religious regressions, as and whenever necessary e.g. to projects its progressive-secular credentials to the outside world. At times the Pakistani military has also been forced to take on the elements of religious extremism in dedicated military operations like Zarb-e-Azb, whenever its progenitors have exceeded their brief or spiraled out of control. This entire framework of a carefully cultivated image of a "non-sectarian" and "moderate" force has been threatened with the necessities and urgencies of the evolving geopolitical narrative in the Middle East, and indeed the mounting assertions and acceptance of the religious right in the political thinking, within Pakistani society.
The debilitating sit-in drama, recently witnessed in Islamabad involving three religious parties i.e. Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST), was indicative of both the increasing powers of the religious parties in the Pakistani system, as indeed to the interference, accommodation and arrangement of the Pakistani Military, in civilian affairs. The impasse ended with the humiliating capitulation of the Pakistani state with the forced resignation of the Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid, aided and facilitated by the Pakistani Military leadership! Rubbing salt into the wounds of a disempowered civilian government was the statement of the TLY leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi who said, "We are thankful to him [Gen Bajwa – The current Pakistani Military Chief] for saving the nation from a big catastrophe" and thanked the military for their "special efforts". The Pakistani military involvement in the protracted negotiations have managed to give it the upper-hand in the ongoing turf war with the civilian politicians – however, its inability and reluctance to forcibly end the sit-in drama of the protesting zealots have also dented its image of religious "moderation", and set a dangerous precedent for the future. Even the Judge at the Islamabad High Court slammed the Pakistani military with an open query, "Who is the army to adopt a mediator's role?" The ascendancy of religious extremism, bigotry, and hatred has been officially sanctified and legitimised by the Pakistani military's active and open co-option.
Secondly, owing to its own sectarian faultlines and vulnerabilities, the Pakistanis had been walking a tightrope in the brewing Middle Eastern conflict, by avoiding taking a hard position on Iran, Yemen and even Qatar, as the sectarian-shadow-boxing between the Saudi-led consortium and the Iranian-bloc, was escalating. Despite the earlier appointment of the former Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, as the Head of Saudi-led 41 nation IMCTC (Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which does not include the Shia-ruled countries like Iran, Iraq or Syria), the Pakistani military had desisted from actively partaking military operations as it could inflame the tense Sunni-Shia relations at home.
Today, the Pakistani military is potentially throwing caution to the wind and acceding to the call of belligerence and aggression as trumpeted by the young and reckless, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The IMCTC is in the process of getting operational (the inaugural meeting was held under the theme 'Allied against Terrorism' – the subtext of which is unmistakably pointing towards Iran), wherein, Iran and its proxies like Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon are expected to be the default targets. The sectarian war could easily spill into Pakistan with an estimated population base of 20 per cent Shia and other minorities, who are perennially susceptible to a supremacist and revivalist forces within Pakistan, like the parties that held-up Islamabad in the three-week-long siege. The military mandate of IMCTC is to, "mobilise and coordinate the use of resources, facilitate the exchange of information and help member countries build their own counter-terrorism capacity", the practical play and impact of the same could be devastating for the Pakistani militaries "non-sectarian" credentials, as indeed in the tinderbox-like situation in Pakistan.
These recent developments concerning the Pakistani military's evolution, internal involvements, and pusillanimous engagements with the extremist political parties and the potential military participations in the overtly sectarian conflicts abroad, could rip apart the only vanguard of control, legitimacy and order within Pakistan. The turn towards political-religiosity may result in temporary one-upmanship vis-à-vis the civilian politicians and secure invaluable "Petro-dollars" from the Saudis, however, it is laced with explosive portents given the tempestuousness and fragility of Pakistan.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.