KARACHI, PAKISTAN — The recent arrests of Pakistani military officers for possible ties to former Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives are the first visible signs of latent support for extremists within the country's military.
The officers hailed mostly from the Northwest Frontier Province, a stronghold of Pakistan's religious parties that are sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. These parties have led a movement to force Pervez Musharraf to give up either his presidency or the post of army chief.
President Musharraf faces a credible threat from Islamic extremists and pockets of their supporters within the army. A high-level military officer privately admits there have been three assassinations attempts by suspected Islamic militants against Musharraf since Pakistan became a US ally in the war against terrorism.
"The arrests show a glimpse of the dark side of the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] and the Pakistan Army," says a Western diplomat in Pakistan. "One side ... is helping the West and the other side is seemingly helping the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
Pakistan's defense analysts believe that Musharraf and his allies are trying to purge the armed forces of extremists.
"There are hard-liners in the Army who still believe in the ideology of hoisting the Islamic flag in Afghanistan with the help of extremists," says defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha. "But they are few in number. There are floating pockets mainly in the low and middle ranks of the military.... Musharraf is trying to get rid of them through a gradual process."
While there have been a number of shakeups in the Pakistani intelligence services since Sept. 11, this is the first time that the military has admitted to the detention of some officers since the nation joined the US-led coalition to fight terrorism.
Without identifying those arrested or the charges against them, a military spokesman revealed last week that three or four officers are under investigation for "possible links with extremist organizations."
Interior Ministry sources say there may have been as many as 10 arrests, taking place over the last several months. The most senior ranking officer among them is believed to be a lieutenant colonel who was posted as a communications officer in the town of Kohat in the Northwest Frontier Province.
"They were very religious persons and expressed their extremist views to other military officers," says a security official.
A Pakistani English newspaper, Daily Times, reported late last month that US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had arrested a Pakistan Army major and three of his subordinates in Afghanistan's Zabul Province. Pakistani officials rejected the report.
If true, the report would bolster claims by Afghan officials that the Taliban are getting military and financial support from Pakistan. Zabul, which borders Pakistan, has been the scene of a major US military operation in the last half month that has left as many as 200 suspected Taliban fighters dead.
Pakistan denies the Afghan allegations, but doubts remain. Pakistan's military had supported Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s - and maintained that support after the Soviets left.
That was supposed to change last year when Musharraf banned extremist groups.
"The U-turn in Islamabad's policy was a one-man [Musharraf] decision. And sudden change does not mean an overall change in the mind-set of the whole armed forces," says retired ISI chief Gen. Hameed Gul. "Some of the military officers who in the past worked closely with the Taliban developed ideological bonding, and now continue to maintain their individual relations."
However, since late 2001, Pakistan's intelligence agencies - working closely with the US - have captured some 500 Al Qaeda suspects, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and Ramzi Binalshibh.
"For Musharraf, this is not just about keeping his commitment to the US; it's also about surviving. He needs the armed forces to remain the monolith on which he stands," says a Western diplomat.