How serious are Pakistan's latest moves to purge its military of extremists?
Recent arrests of military officials suggest that the Pakistani Army is intensifying its hunt for key officers with possible links to outlawed militant outfits such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The Pakistani Army is interrogating four army majors in connection with a brigadier who was arrested last month for links to the global Islamist party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, highlighting mounting pressure on the military to expel extremists within its ranks.
"They are being questioned in relation to the brigadier case," Military spokesman Major Gen. Athar Abbas told Reuters, referring to the arrest of Brigadier Ali Khan, who worked at the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and was detained on May 6, four days after the Osama bin Laden raid.
According to security analyst and retired brigadier Shaukat Qadir, purging officers with Islamist leanings is nothing new in the Army, though the attack upon a Naval base last month, as well as US suspicions that some within Pakistan's military establishment helped hide Mr. bin Laden, have added fresh impetus to the process.
“We keep looking for them [Islamists, and] they get taken in – at this present juncture the Army is a little more active in the past because there is an apprehension,” he says, adding that the brigadier’s family members who are serving in the military as well as his juniors and associates would “all automatically come under suspicion,” and may be among those who are being questioned.
Former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf embarked upon a purge of officers with Islamist leanings shortly after 9/11, and similar drives occurred after three assassination attempts on him.
In addition to facing external pressure from the United States to prove its sincerity in fighting extremists, Pakistan’s military leadership is thought to have been angered by internal criticism it has faced by some of its mid-level officers for its cooperation with the US, says Abdul Basit, a security analyst at the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad.
The detention also casts fresh light on Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which means Party of Liberation) an international political party whose aims are the establishment of a global Islamic Caliphate. Though banned in Pakistan since 2003, its members hold rallies (which are frequently raided by police) and are active in propagating their message over social media and text messages. Many of its core members and recruiters are expatriate British Pakistanis (the group is legal in Britain, where it is active). A recent propaganda drive called for “loyal Army officers” to overthrow the country’s military leadership for its collusion with the US, though the party denies it believes in violence to accomplish its goals.
Bilal Hashmi, a senior member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Pakistan, told the Monitor that the group would neither confirm nor deny the membership status of the officers. But, he says, “our work is reaching quarters that are shaking the power corridors,” adding that the party wants to hold Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership to account for supporting the US-led war in Afghanistan.
“We are trying to overthrow the government, which furthers the agenda of colonial powers – not by bullets or the ballot but a peaceful transition of power to those sincere enough to Islam,” he says.
According to Basit the analyst, the group targets the elite segments of society in the hope of exerting greatest influence. "They try to reach out to powerful people in the political field and of course in the military, as well as the intelligentsia, students, and industrialists. They try to influence their thinking process,” he says, adding: “People like this Brigadier would be their pillar of strength to topple the current system.”