From Notoriety to Damnation

Originally published in TehelkaDotCom in the June 18, 2011 issue


Relatives and members of the media carry the coffin of Syed Saleem Shahzad at Karachi airport on 1 June Photo: AF

THE MURDER of Asia Times bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad on 31 May left Pakistanis in utter shock and horror. It was the third instance in a month when the people of this country were robbed of any trace of trust in the State’s ability to ensure security of the people and the sovereignty of the nation. What was chilling was not only the incompetence and resultant failure of security agencies but the terrifying thought of possible complicity of our own guards.

The month started with a shameful blow smack on the face of the country’s security apparatus that had failed terribly in its job. Pakistan was embarrassed by the revelations that the country had been continually compromised by the world’s most wanted terrorist for the past five years without our expensively-kept spy network even in the know of it. Our nervous system had not even come to terms with this episode that another deadly jolt — the militant attack on PNS Mehran, the Pakistan Navy base in Karachi and the subsequent 17-hour shootout — shook the nation. The security agencies were the butt of unprecedented criticism for their incompetence and failure to perform their duties.

Shahzad had reported on strong militant inroads within the Pakistan Navy and the al Qaeda’s reach within the rank and file. The fact that the navy was in negotiations with the militant group — for the release of the latter’s recruits arrested by authorities — gave new direction to the investigations. Following his report, Shahzad was ‘lifted’ in broad daylight from a busy locality in Islamabad. Someone who didn’t like the report was obviously disturbed by Shahzad’s continuing fearlessness and refusal to pay heed to regular warnings from what Human Rights Watch (HRW) suspects is the State’s premier spy agency. This claim is substantiated by the email exchange between late Shahzad and Ali Dayan Hasan of HRW in which Shahzad clearly apprehended such a step from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency.

While some may continue to write ‘balanced’ and ‘careful’ op-ed pieces in the national and international press, the fact remains that the ISI has lost so much credibility over the years that people would believe HRW’s take, backed by the deceased’s own account and by Hameed Haroon, president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), who had been in touch with Shahzad in recent years. This time it’s much more than just another incidence of abduction and killing that routinely goes uninvestigated and unpunished. The onus lies on the ISI to come clean about the mess, which might or might not be the agency’s fault alone.

Shahzad’s is not the only case where the spy network of Pakistan is being accused of highhandedness. According to reports by the Associated Press and other international news agencies, on the basis of leaked documents, the Guantanamo Bay authorities named ISI a terrorist organisation along with Hamas and other international militant networks. Another case recently heard in a Chicago court has already put this agency under strong suspicions of patronising and possibly organising terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. ISI’s links with factions of the Taliban and other terrorist groups who continue to target not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan, the US, India, Iran and even China, is the buzzword in international media. Consistent shelter available to these terrorist groups on Pakistan’s soil is a big question not only for the ISI but for every Pakistani as well. The time had never been as ripe as it is now for the ISI to defend itself instead of taking shelter behind poorly drafted denials by unnamed officials.

The madness seems to be unending. It is not just the media that has been the target of this bloodthirsty network of terrorists and State agencies. A day after Shahzad’s body was identified, a Baloch nationalist academician was shot dead in an instance of targeted killing in Quetta. The list of missing persons is swelling, as is the list of bodies found in every nook and cranny of Balochistan. Shias and Parachanars are being targeted every day. The road to Parachanar remains blocked, with neither common people nor state officials daring to set foot on it. Terrorists perpetrating these crimes against the State and the people remain at large while those who unveil them are picked up and killed.

As Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US puts it: “Pakistan has taken a policy U-turn after 9/11. International actors need to support Pakistan complete this U-turn in a way that minimises destruction. It was our partnership with the US that led us to fight with the godless Soviet Union and in this course, we with the help of Muslim brothers in the Middle East, fanned religious sentiments. The sentiments led to a distorted version of jihadthat imploded in security agencies and the armed forces. After 9/11, when we got pricked with the needle we had been preparing for so long, it occurred to us that we have to work together to curb the menace thus created. It had, unfortunately, become difficult by then to even detect the extent to which the phenomenon has infused into the fabric of our security apparatus. What (Pervez) Musharraf did in his bid to deal with this U-turn led to a further deterioration of the situation.”

After the US attacked Afghanistan and Pakistan ‘decided’ to become the frontline ally in the “War on Terror”, it was necessary to make at least cosmetic changes in the structure and functions of how security agencies worked during the jihad years and a decade after. By closing down the Afghan desk and downsizing Directorate S, Musharraf thought he had countered the radical character of this agency. But the way Directorate S was designed to function allows little or no control by the army leadership or even the ISI itself. Recruitment of highly-trained civilians and former ISI officials makes it difficult to track what the Directorate has been doing lately. When the civilian government came to power in 2008, it initiated reforms within security agencies by introducing basic steps like bringing the ISI under the prime minister’s control. Needless to say, this decision was roundly attacked by the media and ISI supporters in the political arena.

IT IS high time we understand that reform strengthens institutions. It’s a pity that people in Pakistan are either dying at the hands of terrorists or the counter-terrorism effort. When the citizenry is not safe from the insurgent and those who are supposed to deal with the insurgents (the security apparatus), it’s time to take firm and maybe unpopular decisions — and this should be done before Pakistan’s common citizens start fearing these security agencies as if they were as much the enemy as terrorists, someone sitting in a palatial building in Islamabad needs to stand his ground. ISI has to overhaul itself, purging the elements that have been earning it this disgust. Military and civilian authorities need to ensure a speedy and transparent investigation into the three blows that left the ISI reeling last month.