On the night he declared the emergency, General Musharraf released 28 Taliban prisoners; according to news reports, one was serving a sentence of 24 years for transporting two suicide bombers’ jackets, the only fashion accessory allowed in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled areas. These are the kind of people who on their off days like to burn down video stores and harass barbers for giving shaves and head massages.More proof that the military is at loggerheads with democracy and secularism, especially when it has better relations with the Taliban, their purported enemy, then their own citizens. If what this writer says is true, then what effect can Musharraf and the military have in combating Islamic militants in the tribal areas when much of its mid-level officer corp is sympathetic to them, and many of the rank-and-file soldiers, so ill-equipped and so demoralized, are surrendering to them in droves?
In what can be seen only as a reciprocal gesture, the Taliban released a group of army soldiers it had held hostage — according to the BBC, each soldier was given 500 rupees for good behavior.
Why do General Musharraf and his army feel a sense of kinship with the very people they are supposed to be fighting against? Why are he and his army scared of liberal lawyers and teachers but happy to deal with Islamist Pashtuns in the tribal areas?
The reasons can be traced back to the 1980s, when another military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, launched a broad campaign to Islamicize Pakistani society and the armed forces in particular. Back then, I was a cadet at Pakistan’s Air Force Academy, where I witnessed, along with hundreds of other aghast cadets, a remarkable scene in which a new recruit, out of religious conviction, refused to shave his beard. (Like most military training institutes in the world, the academy’s first right of passage was to turn the civilian recruits into clean-shaven jarheads.)
The issue was eventually referred to the Army high command in Islamabad, and as a result procedures for training institutes were amended — the boy was allowed to keep his beard and wear his uniform. The academy barber never recovered from the shock.
Within months there were other changes: evenings socializing to music and mocktails were replaced by Koran study sessions. Buses were provided for cadets who wanted to attend civilian religious congregations. Within months, our rather depressing but secular academy was turned into a zealous, thriving madrassa where missing your daily prayers was a crime far worse than missing the morning drill.
It is this crop of military officers that now runs the country. General Musharraf heads this army, and is very reluctant to let go.