FIVE army officers, including a brigadier, have been court-martialled and handed down prison sentences for their links to an extremist organisation, Hizbut Tahrir. Whenever the subject of religious extremism within the army’s officer corps and its rank and file comes up, opinion tends to break down into two extremes. One side argues that it points to some sort of creeping coup, a pernicious radicalisation of the armed forces that threatens Pakistani state and society given the army’s influence over national security and foreign policy. The other side argues that whatever instances of radicalised officers have come to the fore, they are isolated incidents and dealt with professionally and quickly and as such pose no threat to discipline and unity of command in the armed forces. Arguably, neither side is right.
Policy choices aside, the armed forces are relatively well-disciplined and internal checks and controls are fairly strong. While it is an insular institution, there is reason to believe that neither is a serious rebellion inspired by Islamist causes likely, nor would it succeed were a small group of officers to attempt one. Hysterical opinion and analysis in the international media that appear occasionally and decry the imminent takeover of Pakistan by radical Islamists directly or by proxy via its armed forces is just that: hysterical and far removed from reality.
But that does not mean the armed forces do not have a very real problem within their ranks. While information is tightly controlled, there are enough dots to connect that paint a picture that is reasonably worrying: be it numerous refusals by soldiers to fight militants and terrorists in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or regular investigations and arrests of officers suspected of extremist affiliations or intermittent plots to launch attacks against the army leadership that were foiled before or during execution, the Pakistan armed forces do have an extremism problem. Unpalatable as the suggestion may be for its leadership, it is more than likely that the army’s security paradigm has helped create a problem within its own ranks. When patronage of or sympathy towards militant Islamist groups is part of the army high command’s strategy for protecting this country from perceived external threats, it is almost inevitable that what is embraced as a hard-nosed policy by some will be embraced by others for the ideology that keeps the fires of hate burning. And then there are the effects on wider society — from where the next generations of army officers have been recruited — which is increasingly susceptible to right-wing and extremist rhetoric and propaganda. Acknowledging the problem is the first step towards addressing it. Denial could sink the armed forces, and the country too.