A Coup That Wasn’t ….. A Threat That Remains

Article by Col Sushil Tanwar

(Col Sushil Tanwar is a well decorated officer serving in the Indian Army)

On a dreary September afternoon in 1995, the Customs officials manning the Check post near Attock waved at a Pakistan Army Staff car coming from Peshawar and brought it to a grinding halt. While it is not clear whether they did it out of mere curiosity or suspicion, Brigadier Mustansar Billah, Deputy Military Secretary at the General Head Quarters (GHQ) who was one of the travelers certainly didn’t expect to be searched by the lowly custom officials.

Despite his stiff resistance, it didn’t take much time for the officials to recover the huge cache of Arms and Ammunition, bought by the Brigadier from the famous Datta Khel Market and carefully stacked in the Car. His driver, turned out to be Qari Saifullah, a local commander of the terrorist outfit Harkat Ul Ansar.  

A team of Military Intelligence swiftly reached the spot and took Brig Mustansar under arrest. Initially, the episode appeared to be yet another case of Pakistan Army officers exceeding their brief in zeal to contribute to the Jihad in Kashmir. However what was unraveled in the interrogation and subsequent Investigations blew the lid off one of the most sordid chapters in the history of the Pakistan Army.

Rebels with a Cause

Over next one month, more than fifty persons including forty one Army officers and ten civilians were arrested for planning an “Islamic revolution”. The plot allegedly involved the overthrow of Benazir Government and assassination of some senior army officers during the forthcoming Corps Commanders Conference.  They also firmly believed that an enhanced assistance to the ‘Jihadis’ along with military intervention was required to liberate Kashmir.

Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi of Baluch Regiment and then Director General of Infantry was the senior most officer arrested. He had an extraordinary, albeit controversial, career profile. His tenure as the Military Attaché at the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi was cut short on 01 December 1988 when Delhi police arrested Brigadier Abbasi while he was handing over a packet to his Indian contact in a restaurant. He was declared as ‘Persona Non Grata’ and expelled from India. He was also removed from the command of FCNA in 1992 when he attempted to capture some key posts in Siachen Sector against the orders of then Army Chief General Asif Nawaz.

Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi

While Pakistan Government played down the ‘threat of Coup’ in public, strict disciplinary proceedings were initiated against the conspirators.  A jail term of Seven years was awarded to General Abbasi by the Field General Court Marshal (FGCM) while Brigadier Mustansir was handed a fourteen year jail sentence.

Major General Zaheer Abbasi was however given a fresh lease of life by Pervez Musharraf when he set Abbasi after taking over the country as the ‘Chief Executive’’ .In 2001, Abbasi announced the formation of Hizb Allah a “political and religious party which would endeavour to establish an religious system of justice, economics and public welfare’.  He was however barred from participating in the October 2002 parliamentary elections.

The fate of others involved in the attempted uprising also makes for interesting study and exemplifies the overwhelming presence of religious clerics with in the national polity in Pakistan.

Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the arrested HUJI commander turned an approver and was not convicted as a part of the deal with the government. He later went for Jihad in Afghanistan and reportedly established a terrorist training camp in Rishkor. In 2004, he was arrested from UAE and handed over to Pakistan. He was subsequently released but was rearrested in Feb 2008 for his alleged involvement in an attempt to assassinate Benazir Bhutto in Oct 2007, during her homecoming procession in Karachi.

One amongst the arrested was a wealthy Islamic scholar Mufti Saeed. He was also released subsequently but came into public prominence when he reportedly conducted the Nikah Ceremony of Current PM Imran Khan.

In May 1993 Chief of the Army Staff General  Abdul  Waheed Kakar removed Lt Gen Javed Nasir, then  ISI chief holding him responsible for providing covert military support to extremist groups in different countries.

A Chequered Legacy 

Military takeovers have been frequent in Pakistan and as a consequence of the four successful coups (in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999), the Army has directly ruled the country for over twenty five years. However, there have been many more failed attempts that are seldom mentioned in public discourse.

In 1951, Major-General Akbar Khan attempted to overthrow the civilian regime of PM Liaquat Ali.  The “Rawalpindi Conspiracy” as it was called, had its roots in  “the dissatisfaction with the moral and material support that the government had provided to the Pakistani fighters when violence had broken out in Kashmir after Independence”. The bid was foiled with the arrest of eleven officers and four civilians, including the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

In 1973, a coup attempt was foiled against the Bhutto government. The conspirators led by Brigadier F B. Ali were arrested, court martialed and jailed. One of the officers instructed to resign after the trials was Major General Tajammul Hussain Malik. Ironically, the military tribunal was headed by Zia ul Haq who in 1977overthrew the Bhutto Government.

Brigadier F B. Ali

Seven years after his resignation, General Malik gathered the support of more than twenty middle rung officers, including his son, and planned to assassinate Zia during the Pakistan Day parade on March 23, 1980. The plan, which failed due to a timely tip off received by the Intelligence agencies, was aimed to install a radical military regime which would replace Zia’s ‘fake Islamic regime’ with ‘a genuine one’.

Major General Tajammul Hussain Malik

In 1984, General Zia soon faced another coup attempt. The origin of the plot was traced to Lahore where Major Aftab along with his colleague had met Marxist ideologue & lawyer Raza Kazim and sought his help in mobilizing Anti Zia protests. Pakistani Government later claimed that more than thirty officers were investigated and alleged an Indian connection to the failed conspiracy.

In August 2012, military authorities arrested Brigadier Ali Khan who was posted in GHQ Rawalpindi along with four more officers (Major Sohail Akbar, Major Iftikhar , Major Jawad Baseer and Major Inayat Aziz) and claimed to have foiled the plans of   fundamentalist  organisation Hizb-ut- Tahrir to orchestrate a Egypt-style uprising in Pakistan and  overthrow the government with the help of sympathetic officers in the Pakistan Military.

There is thus a long history of frustration with national leadership in Pakistan which has resulted in attempts to seize power by officers of Pakistan Armed forces. However what is remarkable is that such attempts have succeeded only when a collective institutional action based on the directions of Army Chief has been taken.

Lt Gen Shahid Aziz is believed to have been killed in 2018 while fighting in Syria.

An Enemy With in – Dangers of Radicalisation

Although the Pakistan Army inherited the traditions of British Indian Army, its professional ethos underwent a fundamental change during Gen Zia’s rule. The adoption of a new motto – “Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabeelillah” [Faith, Obedience of God, Struggle in the path of Allah] was in sharp contrast to the more inclusive national motto of ‘Iman, Itihhad , Nazm’ [Faith, Unity, Discipline] enunciated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The Army went from being the guardians of territorial front to self-styled custodians of ideological frontiers and started placing additional emphasis on using religion as the ultimate tool of motivation.

The role of Pakistan ,particularly  its Inter-Services Intelligence agency  (ISI) in  arming and training  “Mujahideen “ in Afghanistan led to a further increase in the influence of extremist groups amongst its rank and file.

Encouraged by its success in Afghanistan, ISI has strengthened its linkages, and even patronised, a large number of terrorist organisations such as Lashkar e Toiba & Jaish e Mohammed. It is also known to have encouraged fundamentalist parties like Jamaat E Islami & Tableghi Jamaat.

In May 1993, alarmed by the rising fundamentalist influence, Chief of the Army Staff General  Abdul  Waheed Kakar  removed Lt Gen  Javed Nasir, then  ISI chief holding him responsible for providing covert military support to extremist groups  in many  countries including  Bangladesh, Uzbekistan &  Burma  besides  supplying  anti-tank missiles and other weaponry  to Bosnian Muslims fighters. This was a brazen violation of UN arms embargo placed on Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a major embarrassment to Pakistan Army, International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia formally asked Pakistan to hand over Lt Gen Nasir for his involvement in arming Bosnian fighters fighting the Serbian army.

The fears of penetration of  extremists in Pakistan’s military have also been vindicated by the actions of many Army officers including a large number of serving and retired Generals.  Lt Gen Hamid Gul as the DG ISI played a key role in Afghanistan and even after retirement continued to support violent causes. He maintained close relations with many Kashmir based terrorist organisations like HuM and reportedly even travelled to Bosnia.

Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed who was appointed as DG ISI by Musharraf after the 1999 Coup was also deeply sympathetic towards extremists groups. He was sent into retirement when he after being dispatched by Musharraf as an emissary to Mullah Omar with a request to extradite Osama Bin Laden, instead advised Mullah Omar, not to betray Bin Laden.

Lt Gen Shahid Aziz who after his retirement authored , in self-repentance , the 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] is believed to have been killed in 2018 while fighting in Syria. The General had commanded Lahore based IV Corps and held several important appointments including Director General Military Operations and Chief of General Staff.

Lt Gen Shahid Aziz

The story of Captain Khurram of Special Service Group (SSG) and his elder brother Major Haroon points to the dangers of religious fanaticism. Captain Khurram was demoralised by the counter terrorist operations launched by the Pakistan Army and  deserted  the service  to join jihad in Afghanistan where he was killed in 2007. His brother who had reportedly participated in the Kargil operation took retirement and along with another officer Major Abdul Rehman joined Lashkar e Toiba.

On 19 November 2008, Major Haroon shot dead retired Major General Ameer Faisal Alvi who had commanded SSG operations against terrorist groups in Angoor Ada in October 2003.  Meanwhile, Major Abdul Rehman along with Lashkar Commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was preparing for a major terrorist strike – On Mumbai.

Officers and soldiers in Pakistan Military have always displayed ideological sympathies for Fundamentalist organisations. Encouraged by such show of support, many radical outfits have attempted to penetrate in to military ranks. In 2003, Hizb-ul-Tahrir managed to recruit thirteen soldiers of the elite Special Services Group (SSG). Unsurprisingly, the attack on Pakistan Navy’s ‘Mehran Base’ by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in May 2011 and the attack on PAF ‘Minhas Air Base’ in Aug 2012 had strong insider links with men in uniform.

An Uncertain Future

There is no doubt Pakistan Army is a professionally efficient institution and exercises a disproportionate influence in the National policy making. It sees itself as a guarantor of stability in a nation beset with multiple fault lines.

GHQ has also realised that unlike the twentieth century when military take overs were common, the era of military coups is almost over now. It has therefore perfected the art of playing ‘King maker’ and running a’ hybrid regime’ as is evident in the installation of the current PTI government.

However, the incidents narrated above demonstrate the dangers of use of religion as a motivation tool. Although Pakistan Army is a disciplined organisation, it has not remained immune to the virus of fundamentalism.  

A perceived victory in Afghanistan, and growing disillusionment with political establishment, will certainly encourage the radical organisations within Pakistan such as TLP and since many military officers and soldiers have ideological leanings towards such organisations, Military authorities will have to look within and closely monitor any signs of disquiet.  

Read other articles by Col Sushil Tanwar here

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