By Irfan Hussain
In his forthcoming book Blood Money, David Ignatius, the well-known Washington Post columnist, writes about the deceit the ISI is built on while describing the fictional head of the agency: “His lies could be tucked into the bags under his eyes, or hidden in the fold of the flesh below his chin.” (Quoted in the Economist in its recent review of the book.)
Most countries have intelligence agencies that often operate in the shadows, use deception, even break the law. But although they perform many shady tasks, they usually do so at the behest of their political leaders. At the end of the day, they are accountable to their paymasters. Not so the ISI.
Over the years, the ISI has built a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness among political opponents, as well as for deadly efficiency. The latter was dented beyond repair last month when Osama Bin Laden was found to be living under its nose in Abbottabad for years. And it now under suspicion by large sections of the public of having a hand in the murder of Saleem Shahzad, the courageous, well-informed investigative reporter.
Over my years of observing and writing about national affairs, I have never seen the level of anger towards the military and the intelligence that is presently evident in the media and on the Internet. Indeed, since the US raid that rid the world of Osama Bin Laden, my inbox has been full of blogs and emails railing against Pakistan’s defence establishment.
Normally, this is Pakistan’s holiest of sacred cows. However, in a recent broadcast, I saw Kamran Khan, the popular TV host otherwise seen as sympathetic to the military establishment, hold forth about the recent terrorist attack at the Mehran naval base in Karachi.
After describing the event, he went on to remind the military of the sacrifices Pakistan had made to keep senior officers comfortable, detailing the plots they received, as well as their value. He also showed viewers a shot of the bullet-proof BMW Series 7 limousine at the navy chief’s disposal. According to him, the car is worth Rs500m to Rs600m. Similar models have been handed out to all corps commanders.
Although Pakistanis and their elected representatives have never been given any details, at least we know that the military budget for 2011-2012 will be around Rs500bn, an increase of some 11 per cent over last year.
We have absolutely no idea about how much the ISI or Military Intelligence (MI) spend, and nor do our MNAs seem very concerned. This total lack of accountability has led to the perception that these agencies can run rogue operations of the kind the ISI has been accused of at the Chicago trial of Tahawwur Rana.
Here, the chief (and not wholly reliable) witness, David Headley, has charged that he was instructed by a ‘Major Iqbal’ of the ISI. Even though the agency’s top leaders have not been accused of complicity, it appears that the Lashkar-i-Taiba was not alone in planning and executing the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Over the last few years, hundreds of suspected Baloch nationalists have been picked up, tortured and killed, allegedly by intelligence agencies. Indeed, the modus operandi of these crimes is disturbingly similar to Saleem Shahzad’s murder.
Time and again, human rights activists and organisations have accused the state of being behind these ‘black ops’. Scores, perhaps hundreds, remain imprisoned in safe houses across the country. Some of those who, like journalist Umar Cheema, were fortunate enough to survive have recounted dark stories of torture. Others are too frightened to speak out.
Of late, there has been a string of incidents that have put the military establishment in a poor light. Increasingly, the army appears to be losing the public support it once took for granted. And while it retains the services and loyalty of a section of the media, even these journalists can’t afford to be too far out of step with the public mood without losing all credibility.
While Osama Bin Laden’s presence and death could be explained away by a few judiciously planted conspiracy theories, the Mehran attack was simply too brazen to blame on some mysterious hidden hand. However, Rehman Malik, our comical interior minister, did have a try when he said the attackers were dressed in black like characters from Star Wars, implying their attack was too sophisticated for our forces to resist.
Perhaps the most ferocious attack on the army came from Asma Jahangir, the gutsy lawyer and human rights activist. In a TV chat show, she demanded that the generals (whom she called duffers) return to the barracks. Referring to the plots they had grabbed, she went on to accuse them of being a ‘qabza group’ that had been exploiting Pakistan for years.
It is high time that Gen Kayani and his colleagues understand that business as usual — sab theek hai! — is no longer an option.
Years of terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets have taken their toll on pubic confidence. And the knowledge that the groups behind this terror campaign were originally created by the military establishment has not added to our sense of security.
For decades, economic, social and political development has been sacrificed at the altar of national security as defined by the army. And yet we are in greater danger than ever before. Hardly a day passes without news of some attack in one part of the country or another. These incessant hammer blows are sapping the resolve and morale of the people. To make things worse, the army has no plan and no strategy to face and defeat the menace of extremist terror.
It is pointless blaming the civilian government because we all know that it has no control over the military. In matters relating to security, GHQ rules unchallenged. So it is natural that when security lapses and terrorist attacks occur — as they do all too often — it is the army that will get blamed.
Against this backdrop of flagging confidence, the military needs to reach out and reassure the people who pay for its BMWs.Saleem Shahzad’s murder will not help restore trust.