Encouraging Sunni Militants: The Rise of Shia Iran
There were still other factors in and around Pakistan that contributed to the transformations that Gartenstein-Ross addressed. For instance, the religious radicalisation of Shia Iran under the clerical leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini beginning in 1979 played a significant role in the Pakistani military’s Islamisation. As Dr. Hassan Abbas, a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, points out in his article “The Redefinition of Pakistan Under General Zia” (The Middle East Institute, Viewpoints: Islamization of Pakistan, 1979–2009): “Parallel to the religious transformation imposed on Pakistan by Zia, was the rise of Shi‘ism as a popular religious symbol in Iran under the inspirational leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who significantly influenced Pakistani Shi‘ites. Even some Sunni political forces, such as Jamaat-e Islami, initially supported the revolution in Iran, seeing in it a model for Pakistan and a role for themselves. In contrast, Pakistani Shi‘a initially were reluctant to take a clear position, because historically they had been supportive of the Shah of Iran and were more connected with the Iraqi Shi‘a clerical establishment, who believed in remaining aloof from the political arena. This began to change as the younger Shi‘a generation in Pakistan was galvanized. Young Pakistani Shi‘ites felt empowered by the rise of ‘Shi‘a’ Iran and attracted to the anti-imperialist and revolutionary tone of the movement in Iran.”
“¦Zias aim was to reinvigorate “anti-India nationalism” in Pakistan. The first target was the Indian part of Punjab, bordering J&K, where the Khalistani movement was launched using Sikh religious fanatics and some disgruntled locals.
But the rise of Shia Iran was a matter of concern to a large number of countries, including the West. Western support (especially from the United States and Britain) helped Zia to take on the increasingly aggressive Shias within Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, upset by the “Shia revolution” in Iran, helped to finance the anti-Soviet effort. As a result, the Afghan mujahideen received ample funds to wage their ultimately successful guerrilla war against Soviet forces and some funds were diverted to create murderous Sunni groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who were organised to eliminate the Shia organisations within Pakistan.
In his article, Dr. Hassan Abbas says that with the outbreak of a Saudi-Iran proxy war in Pakistan, sectarian conflict intensified. Shia leaders and activists increasingly became victims of targeted killings, and in a few cases, Pakistani Shia responded in kind. Iranian diplomats in Pakistan also came under attack. The rise in 1985 of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (the army of the companions of the Prophet, or SSP), a rabidly anti-Shia militant group, added fuel to the fire.
The rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba, funded generously by Saudi Arabia, was in many ways a game-changer in Pakistan. General Zia’s role in the rise of SSP widened the sectarian divide and provided the momentum for strengthening the Wahhabi variety of Sunni Islam to become the dominant Islamic face within the country. The rise of the Sunni terrorist groups gave them some “political power.” As Tahir Kamran points out in his article on the SSP (The Middle East Institute, Viewpoints: Islamization of Pakistan, 1979–2009): “The local traders and bazaar merchants who had wealth but no political clout extended unequivocal support and funding to sectarian Sunni organizations such as Sipah-e Sahaba and its offshoot Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LJ).”
“¦argument suited both the Pakistani military and its foreign supporters, such as London and Riyadh, which wanted this dispute to continue in order to undermine India and control the weak Pakistani establishment.
“Like most militant struggles,” Kamran says, “the anti-Shi‘a campaign of the SSP thrived on bloodshed. Sectarian killing began with the murders of Ehsan Ellahi Zaheer in 1987 and Tehreek Nifaz-e Fiqh Jafariya Pakistan (TNFJ) leader Allama Arif ul-Husseini in 1988. On February 22, 1990, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the SSP’s founder, was killed in a retaliatory bomb attack. Following Haq Nawaz’s death, his successors used the cult of the martyr — around which, ironically, Shi‘a theological discourse is structured — to enhance the SSP’s electoral standing and its renown. Scores of martyrs and ongoing sectarian strife afforded the SSP ‘functional utility’ that contributed immensely to perpetuating its hold.
“The SSP’s rhetoric always had been aggressive,” Kamran continues, “but following Haq Nawaz’s death, its deeds matched its words. In 1996, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi emerged as an armed offshoot of SSP. Militancy not only intimidated Shi‘ites, but also increased the SSP’s electoral support. From the outset, the SSP leadership sought influence in the National Assembly in order to amend the Constitution and create a Sunnification of the Pakistani state.
“The SSP expanded beyond its roots in sectarian rivalries and biraderi (brotherhood) politics in Jhang. It organized itself remarkably well at the district and tehsil level. According to one estimate, by the time that the SSP was outlawed in January 2002, it controlled 74 district- and 225 tehsil-level units. In addition, the SSP ran 17 foreign branches, in countries that included Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Canada, and the U.K. With its 6,000 trained and professional cadres and 100,000 registered workers, the SSP was the best-organized Islamic party in Pakistan after Jamaat-e Islami.
“The SSP’s growing influence was accompanied by an association with violence. While Jhang was the scene of many sectarian killings, they spread to other areas of Punjab and beyond. Although the SSP attempted to distance itself from the activities of its armed offshoot, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, this was never done convincingly. The LJ had links with ‘international terrorist’ movements, which led then-President Pervez Musharraf to ban it and the SSP. The ban merely drove supporters of the SSP and LJ underground.”
The India Factor: Keeping Kashmir in Focus
There is yet another factor in the Islamisation process. And it is the existence of India. Once upon a time, decades ago, in order to wrest the helm of power, the Pakistani military went about ruthlessly undermining the nation’s nascent political system and staked its existence and future on the Kashmir dispute with India. From Ayub Khan in the 1950s to Pervez Musharraf in the post-9/11 days, Pakistan has followed the same refrain: the Pakistani military must remain in power instead of the untrustworthy Pakistani political leaders because it is dedicated to countering India’s inherent design to destroy Pakistan.
Zia concluded that the cheapest and the most convenient way to “bleed” India was to incite a resurgence of Islamist jihadis, especially in the Indian-held part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
That argument suited both the Pakistani military and its foreign supporters, such as London and Riyadh, which wanted this dispute to continue in order to undermine India and control the weak Pakistani establishment. While the British objective was to create an independent Kashmir, independent of both India and Pakistan, the Saudi objective was to spread Wahhabism, the kingdom’s state religion. Through one military coup after another, the dispute over Kashmir was put forth by Islamabad to the hapless Pakistani citizenry as the compelling rationale for the unending military rule.
At the same time, following the resounding Pakistani military defeat in 1971–1972 in what is now Bangladesh, when more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers ended up in Indian POW camps, Islamabad came to realise that a military victory over India to gain control of disputed Kashmir was well-nigh impossible.
Years before the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan in 1989, and the subsequent American disengagement from that country, Pakistan’s president Zia ul-Haq had come to realise that an armed conflict with India to annex Kashmir was a nonstarter. After three wars with India, despite what London said or the amount of arms Washington sold to Pakistan, it finally dawned on Rawalpindi that the Indian military is fully capable of crippling its Pakistani counterpart. At that point, Zia concluded that the cheapest and the most convenient way to “bleed” India was to incite a resurgence of Islamist jihadis, especially in the Indian-held part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. During the mid-1980s, when the Soviet army was still in Afghanistan, it was General Zia ul-Haq, with the help of his Islamist military officers and various Sunni terrorist groups, who unleashed a well-organised operation to infiltrate India and promote religious extremism inside it. More important than annexing Kashmir, Zia’s aim was to reinvigorate “anti-India nationalism” in Pakistan. The first target was the Indian part of Punjab, bordering J&K, where the Khalistani movement was launched using Sikh religious fanatics and some disgruntled locals.
Meanwhile, though the violence in the India-held part of Jammu and Kashmir made the headlines, violence also occurred in the Pakistan-held part. The Pakistan side, which had been broken up into Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, was largely inhabited by Shias. In 1948, Shias and Ismailis, two of the many branches of the Shiite hierarchy, constituted 95 percent of the population. Now, reports indicate that the Shias and Ismailis represent only 53 percent of the population there and that the Wahhabis now constitute 42 percent. In other words, to facilitate his operation to “bleed” India, Zia unleashed a violent anti-Shia movement on the Pakistani side to bring in the Sunnis, with their Wahhabi-like orthodoxy and their virulent anti-India zeal.
All material and military assistance was provided to Kashmiri militants by Pakistan. As a result, over the years, intimidated Kashmiri Hindus have left the valley en masse, making the valley almost 100 percent Muslim-inhabited today.
At a seminar in New Delhi in 1999, Indian security analyst Major General Afsir Karim pointed out that the covert campaign to introduce fundamentalist Islam in Kashmir was designed to alienate Kashmiri Muslims and create a communal divide between Hindus and Muslims. Muslims were urged to overthrow the regime and demand separation from India. All material and military assistance was provided to Kashmiri militants by Pakistan. As a result, over the years, intimidated Kashmiri Hindus have left the valley en masse, making the valley almost 100 percent Muslim-inhabited today.
Under the influence of Pakistan’s only national institution—the army—the Pakistani elite tolerated this approach for a number of reasons. To begin with, the 1972 separation of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, was widely acclaimed within Pakistan as the handiwork of India. Any effort to take over the Muslim-majority Kashmir from India is, therefore, considered a valid retaliatory action. In addition, democratic forces within Pakistan failed to gain traction and remained submissive to the armed forces because the raison d’être for the power of the Pakistani military was the projected threat from India to dismember the country. If Pakistan had abandoned its “bleed India” policy then and put a halt to supporting the anti-India terrorists and other dissidents, it is not altogether unlikely that India would have pulled a majority of its troops from the Pakistan border, thus reducing the threat of an Indian attack. That would, no doubt, have undermined the Pakistan army’s claim that it should be in control of Islamabad.
Over the years, the myth of a potential Indian invasion has been created through a sustained campaign and accepted as a self-evident truth by the Pakistani citizenry. In the forefront of the campaign is the Pakistan military, backed by London and Riyadh, and often by a few in Washington, as well. According to this myth, resolution of the Kashmir dispute is the only way to usher in a durable peace between India and Pakistan. The fact remains, however, that while a judicious resolution of the Kashmir dispute, brought about by Islamabad and New Delhi in collaboration with Kashmiris residing on both sides of the disputed Line of Control, would certainly help the Kashmiri Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists who have resided in J&K for decades, it would do little to improve India-Pakistan relations.
Throughout the 1980s, when Pakistan was flooded by jihadis, criminals from Arabia, Maghreb Africa and elsewhere, arms from the West and money from Arabia flooded Pakistan.
This is because the terrorist-fundamentalist projects nurtured by the Saudi-funded orthodox Sunni Pakistani military officers to “bleed” India and to wage sectarian war against the minority Shias, though ostensibly conducted to gain a tactical advantage in dealing with India and the region, have “blown back” on Pakistan itself in the form, among other things, of further Islamisation of the military and the creation of what is virtually a state of civil war within the country.
The Direct Saudi Role
Under the watchful eyes of both Britain and the United States, the Saudi-Pakistan transactional relationship goes back more than four decades. From the outset, the transactional part of the relationship revolved around Pakistan providing physical security to the Saudi royal household and the Emirates and, in return, oil-rich Riyadh supplying Pakistan with cash and cheaper oil. Later, the Saudis extended their part of the deal by financing new mosques and thousands of madrassas in Pakistan, where the Saudi Arabia’s national religion, Wahhabism, was spread.
By supporting this Saudi-Pakistan arrangement, both Britain and the United States were serving their own geopolitical interests. To begin with, both Britain and the United States maintained a strong form of hostility toward Shia Iran. Other than Saudi Arabia, no other nation was as appreciative of the Western nations’ animosity to Muslim Iran. Also, both Britain and the United States, among other Western nations, were hell-bent on dismantling the “Godless” Soviet Union. This obsession was exploited to the hilt by the Islamic nations, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Abul Hasaan points out, the Pakistani army and air force personnel had also trained Saudi forces in the 1970s and the 1980s.
The enormous international diplomatic boost that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoyed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was an indicator of the Saudi-Pakistan transactional relationship. Throughout the 1980s, when Pakistan was flooded by jihadis, criminals from Arabia, Maghreb Africa and elsewhere, arms from the West and money from Arabia flooded Pakistan. It was also the decade when professional Pakistani military officers began close working relations with the criminals and jihadis battling the Soviets to achieve what the Western countries, and some of the Islamic nations, wanted.
In an article “Wahabization-Salafization of Pakistan and the Muslim World,” posted on www.islamicsupremecounci.com on 23 October 2009, Abul Hasaan, gives a clear picture of the steady growth of the Salafis in Pakistan. Beginning in the early 1970s, a large number of Pakistanis started going to Saudi Arabia as contract labourers. However, during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq, Salafism/Wahhabism started penetrating the armed forces of Pakistan. At that time, the Afghan jihad had begun. With the American weapons and Saudi petrodollars, the Salafi/Wahhabi ideology indoctrinated the minds of hundreds of Muslims, Hasaan says.
“¦during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq, Salafism/Wahhabism started penetrating the armed forces of Pakistan. At that time, the Afghan jihad had begun.
There is a long history of security relations between Pakistan and several Arab countries. For instance, in 1969, a Pakistani military training mission was sent to Jordan to assess the state of Jordanian forces in the aftermath of their 1967 defeat in the war against Israel and train them. Pakistani military officers from different departments (e.g., infantry, armour and artillery) of the army and air force were part of this mission. While the Pakistani officers were training their Jordanian counterparts, simmering tensions between Jordanians and Palestinians broke open. This resulted in a September 1970 showdown when King Hussain ordered Jordanian forces to stop the Jordan-based Palestinians from overthrowing the Hashemite kingdom. There were reports circulated by Palestinian sympathisers indicating that Pakistani troops had helped Jordanian forces to quell that uprising.
At about the same time, a number of Pakistan army and air force personnel were deputed to several countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. A much smaller number of naval officers also served in the UAE, training local naval forces. The main role of the Pakistani officers was in training local security forces, although they also manned complicated equipment such as radars.
Beyond the security cooperation, Hasaan provides a picture of the growing impact of Saudi money in changing the religious/social face of Pakistan.
As Abul Hasaan points out, the Pakistani army and air force personnel had also trained Saudi forces in the 1970s and the 1980s. “The Iran-Iraq war changed the Saudi security environment, and both countries started to negotiate about limited Pakistani troop deployment. After prolonged negotiations, it was agreed to deploy a limited Pakistani contingent on Saudi soil. The delay in negotiations was partly due to differences among Saudi decision makers. Debate among Saudis was on the issues of a larger foreign contingent (about two-division strength), expansion of the Saudi army, and the balance between the army and the Saudi Arabian National Guards (SANG). Finally, a negotiated middle ground agreed on a much smaller foreign contingent that consisted of only a reinforced brigade-strength,” reports Hasaan.
“In 1982, a formal agreement was signed and the Saudi Pakistan Armed Forces Organization (SPAFO) headquarters was established at Riyadh. Pakistani troops were stationed at Tabuk and Khamis Mushayet. An armored brigade group was stationed at Tabuk from 1982 to 1988. It was a complete formation deputed for three years, and two brigades rotated in 1982-1985 and 1985-1988. Initially, Major General Shamsur Rahman Kallu (later Lieutenant General) was appointed to the SPFAO headquarters, but he never took charge, and the contingent was headed by a Brigadier-rank officer. The first commander was Brigadier Mehboob Alam (later Major General), who served from 1982-1985, and under him Colonel (later Brigadier) Saeed Ismat served as GSO-1Operations and Training. From 1985 to 1988, the Pakistani armored brigade was commanded by Brigadier Jahangir Karamat (later General and Pakistan army Chief).” By the time the 1990s rolled in, Hasaan notes, protection by Pakistani troops became redundant in view of the presence of a large number of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1993.
According to Hasaan, the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades. During and in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the main focus of cooperation shifted to dealing with the Arab extremists and Saudi militants who shuttled between Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But details of this cooperation were kept largely under wraps.
In addition, many Pakistanis, among other foreigners, served in Bahrain’s police, National Guard and armed forces. Recently in Bahrain, when large-scale protests against the ruling Sunni dynasty in a Shia-majority nation broke open, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, approved the dispatch of some 4,000 soldiers, mostly from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain. Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid Bin Ahmed al Khalifa, visited Islamabad in March 2011, and the commander of Bahrain’s National Guards, Lieutenant General Sheikh Mohammad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, visited Pakistan in December 2010 and June 2011. Defence cooperation between the two countries was the main subject during the talks. According to Abul Hasaan, no exact data is available, but some estimate that a few thousand Pakistanis are now serving in Bahrain’s police, National Guards and armed forces. A small Pakistani contingent (about the strength of a battalion) was already serving in Bahrain long before the protests started.
A small Pakistani contingent was already serving in Bahrain long before the protests started.
Beyond the security cooperation, Hasaan provides a picture of the growing impact of Saudi money in changing the religious/social face of Pakistan. Until the late 1970s, in Sind, Punjab and Azad Kashmir, 70 percent of the mosques belonged to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t (Sufis), 21 percent belonged to the Deobandi sect, 7 percent belonged to the Shias, and just 1 percent belonged to the Salafis. The rest were of other Islamic sects. In Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, 52 percent of the mosques belonged to the Deobandi sect, 40 percent belonged to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t, 6 percent belonged to the Shias, 1 percent belonged to the Salafis, and the rest belonged to other sects.
“The demography of mosques within Pakistan has changed significantly since then,” Hasaan explains. “Currently, in Sind, Punjab, and Azad Kashmir, more than 55 percent of the mosques belong to the Deobandi, 30 percent belong to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t, 6 percent belong to Salafis, and 8 percent belong to the Shi’a. In the Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, 60 percent of the mosques belong to the Deobandi, 20 percent belong to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t, 10 percent belong to Salafis, 8 percent belong to Shi’a and the rest belong to others.
“Until the late 1970s, the mosques located at the armed forces bases (i.e., Army, Air Force and Navy) were 90 percent Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t (Sufi), 8 percent Deobandi, and 0 percent Salafi. Currently, 85 percent of the mosques are Deobandi or Salafi, and less than 10 percent are Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t,” states Hasaan. “This dramatic shift in mosque affiliations occurred due to the huge financial backing by the Wahhabi/Salafi organizations, the Government of Saudi Arabia and escalated propaganda by the Saudi government institutions against the beliefs of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’t. When Muslims go to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, they are brainwashed by the employees of the Saudi government, who openly preach and force Wahhabi/Salafi beliefs on pilgrims. They spend millions of dollars on the distribution of Salafi/Wahhabi literature around the globe.