By Paul Mcgeough for The City Weekly
Search for a firm footing in Pakistan and there is none – all is quicksand … strategically, politically, morally.
Here in south Asia, strategically sandwiched between failing Afghanistan and the China and India powerhouses, is a country in which journalists are abducted in the night by agents of the state and murdered; in which the only advance after a decade in which Washington has tried to buy friendship with cheques for more than $20 billion, is the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal – which is on the verge of surpassing Britain’s as the fifth biggest in the world.
In Pakistan, a 50-year-old woman is sentenced to death on a dubious blasphemy charge – and politicians who dare to speak in her defence are gunned down; and a woman is gang-raped and paraded naked through her village on the orders of a local council, over bogus claims that her 12-year-old brother has offended a 20-year-old woman from the clan of the men who defiled her.
But that’s village life. In the leafy garrison town of Abbottabad, an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001, was able to hide in plain sight for years. The location of his fortified bunker, a stone’s throw from a prestigious military academy, made it harder to give any credence to the generals’ repeated denials that significant elements of Pakistan’s extensive security apparatus sheltered the al-Qaeda chief and continue to give succour to the Taliban and other insurgency and terrorist movements.
In the south-west, in the wilds of provincial Baluchistan, there have been 150 ”kill and dump” operations this year. Most of the victims are Baluch nationalist rebels. Their killers are the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and other elements of Pakistan’s national security forces – driven to brutality by a belief, which could be correct, that Pakistan’s arch foe, India, stirs the local nationalist pot. In turn, the Baluch nationalists are accused of running their own death squads – their victims are Punjabi ”settlers”, government workers brought in from other parts of the country.
Baluchistan is half Pashtun, which also makes it a sanctuary for the Taliban from adjoining Afghanistan, where Washington and the world still struggle, with little success, to impose a semblance of democracy on the bones of a fracturing, failing state. Here then is another of the ironies that puts a serious question mark over the bona fides of the Pakistani security forces: the leadership of the Afghanistan Taliban sequesters in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, but the various Pakistani security services are so busy putting the Baluch nationalists through the mincer they don’t have time to take down the Taliban command-and-control centre. Instead, they reportedly socialise with the Taliban and sit in on their strategy meetings.
West from Baluchistan is the sprawling port city of Karachi, where the spiralling death toll in renewed ethnic turf-wars gives raw meaning to what local novelist Kamila Shamsie broaches obliquely, recounting how the city ”winks” at her. “Yes, the city said, I am a breeding ground for monsters, ” she writes, “but don’t think that is the full measure of what I am.”
This drab, chaotic home to 18 million people who account for 65 per cent of Pakistan’s economy is being carved up by bullets that this year have accounted for as many as 1000 ”wrong place, wrong time” deaths as gunmen randomly select their targets – sending messages to whole communities, not the individuals with whose blood they paint the rough pavements. As the suburbs seethe, police do little, because they are cowed by the systematic elimination of those in their ranks who intervened in the last iteration of these ethnic wars. Provincial and federal governments and the security forces only wring their hands.
In Karachi everyone lies. No one denies turf wars are being waged. They simply blame everyone else – all the political parties deny any links to the militias that prosecute their bloody agendas and to the crime, drug and land-development mafias that prosper in their wake. And the city’s once-dominant Urdu-speaking Mohajirs fight to maintain their control of corrupted city politics, amid an influx of Pashtuns fleeing upheavals along the Afghan border.
“Tension rises, we see killings and then scores must be settled,” an adviser to the provincial governor says. “We are at war – the political parties say they are not involved, but the mafias take shelter from the parties as they exploit the situation.”
In Islamabad, enter any of the city’s newsrooms, and see fear in the eyes of journalists who risk death and torture for going about assignments. Consider the words of their Karachi colleague Madiha Sattar – “a growth of intolerance has forged an extreme, murderous antipathy to freedom of expression.”
Most shocking in this campaign of fear and intimidation against one of the pillars of democracy was the disappearance in late May of Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative reporter for the respected, Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online. Two days after his abduction, Shahzad’s battered body was found at Mandi Bahauddin, 130 kilometres south-east of the capital. The reporter left detailed accounts of the threats he had received from the ISI; in Washington, senior officials unflinchingly confirming that Shahzad’s death had been ”sanctioned” by the Pakistani government.
Umar Cheema might just as easily have been their victim. Behind a door marked ”Investigation Cell” off a basement corridor in the Islamabad offices of The News, the 34-year-old father of two explains that the shock in his colleague Saleem Shahzad’s murder was a realisation it might just as easily have been him.
As Cheema drove home from a party in the early hours during Ramadan last year, 12 men who identified themselves as police commandos abducted him, he says. Informing him first that he was a suspect in a killing, they pulled a bag over his head and hauled him away.
“They took me to a building where the leader stripped off my clothes. Then I was ordered to lie on the floor and they beat me on the back and shoulders for 20 or 25 minutes with leather straps and wooden canes.
“I was writing about corruption in the government and the lack of accountability in the military and intelligence agencies – they said they were beating me because of my reporting. Then they shaved my head and eyebrows – that’s what is done to thieves in rural areas to humiliate them.
“Shahzad’s death left me speechless,” he says. “I was the second last victim before they took him. So I felt very much that this was a message for me – it was very, very personal.”
In Islamabad, the government of Prime Minister Yousaf Gillani is as overwhelmed as it is complicit in the nation’s failings. The economy is in crisis and the government has ceded control of more than half the country to the military or to extremist militias. “None of the cogs of state mesh to make it do what must be done,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Kamran Arif said.
Just south of Islamabad is Rawalpindi, a more typical Asian city than the sanitised and empty boulevards of Islamabad. As home and headquarters to the men and institutions that comprise Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, this is the centre of absolute power in Pakistan. And it is here that a deep-fried sense of humiliation over the American raid to kill Osama bin Laden, in May this year, is felt most acutely.
“After the bin Laden raid, it’s a question of the survival of the state,” the defence analyst and director of the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute, Maria Sultan, says. “The problem now is that by this very public humiliation, the US has lost its biggest supporter – it’s not the capability of the Pakistani military that is affected, it’s its credibility.”
A close reading of ”Getting Bin Laden”, The New Yorker’s inside account of the May 2 raid, reveals the mission was not just a single US incursion that managed to evade Pakistan’s air defences. On the night, there were effectively three separate American missions, none of which was detected by a military-security complex that demands indulgence by the people of Pakistan on the grounds that it is their only protection from the Indian hordes.
Pakistan’s generals faced a grim choice – they had to admit to deceiving the world in harbouring bin Laden, or to incompetence by not knowing he was lounging in their backyard. So supine were they in opting to plead incompetence there were fears of a mutiny in the middle ranks of the security services.
The US signal to the world of just how much it could not trust its south Asian ally came hard on the heels of serial embarrassments at the hands of the Taliban and other militant groups in Pakistan.
There have been a series of militant attacks on the most secure and sensitive defence establishments. The latest, which some observers concluded could not have been undertaken without inside help, saw a 10-man assault team storm the Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi. It took hundreds of Pakistani navy commandos, marines and paramilitaries to retake the base, but not before two aircraft were destroyed, hostages taken and the base had been occupied for the best part of a day.
But it takes a discerning Pakistani general to differentiate between militants – some are ”strategic assets” of the security apparatus and the generals refuse to go after them.
Dr Ayesha Agha, whose military and political commentaries appear in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, explains: “The military depends on these ‘assets’ – they are a cost-effective means to fighting wars that the Pakistani military wants to fight in India and Afghanistan.” Extrajudicial killings by the military now are counted in the hundreds.
When men in uniform were filmed recently murdering a detainee, the reckoning in human rights circles was that far from being a lapse of judgment, the recording had been allowed in the knowledge that its distribution on the internet would serve as a useful warning to the wider community.
A Karachi taxi driver becomes excited as he ferries us from the airport to a downtown hotel – “Pakistan lovely country,” he bellows. “Terrorism? No, no, no.”
But a single graphic in a 200-page study of Pakistan, published in May by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, reveals an impossible security challenge. Last year alone, 2113 terrorist attacks, 369 clashes between the security services and militants, 260 operational attacks by the security forces, 135 US drone attacks, 69 border clashes, 233 bouts of ethno-political violence and 214 inter-tribal clashes resulted in more than 10,000 dead and as many injured.
The death of bin Laden and the reported death of al-Qaeda’s new No. 2 figure, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in an American drone attack last week, are still being factored into a running debate among intelligence specialists on the extent to which al-Qaeda offshoots elsewhere in the world, especially the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], have taken the baton from the Pakistani organisation.
But a July study by the New America Foundation of 32 ”serious” jihadist terror plots against the West from 2004 to 2011, finds 53 per cent had operational or training links to jihadist groups in Pakistan – compared to just 6 per cent being linked to Yemen. And the rising tempo of the drone attacks has failed to dent the rising frequency of Pakistan-linked plots against the West, the study finds.
Implicit or explicit in any discussion on Pakistan’s volatile mix of militant violence and governmental chaos, is the level of anxiety around the world about the security of its nuclear arsenal. Confronted with claims such as that by bin Laden that acquiring a nuclear weapon was a ”religious duty” and the hope expressed by one of his lieutenants that such a weapon one day might be seized in Pakistan, officials in Islamabad invariably boast that all is tightly locked down.
But when we ask a Pakistani diplomat how secure were the weapons in the aftermath of the US mission to kill Osama bin Laden, he replies: “Less so, now that the Americans have revealed to the world that it is possible to sneak into Pakistan undetected, to take something that you really want.”
President Obama’s public appeal that Pakistan not become the world’s first ”nuclear-armed militant state” gives context to disclosures by The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh of the existence of a US Special Operations rapid-response team which would be parachuted into Pakistan in the event of a nuclear crisis.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former director of intelligence and counter intelligence at the US Department of Energy, is boldest in setting out the fears of Washington, London and other capitals – some of which were disclosed without diplomatic varnish by Wikileaks last year.
Writing in Arms Control Today, Mowatt-Larssen, who served 20 years at the CIA, bills Pakistan as the most likely setting for terrorists bent on acquiring a nuclear device to co-opt a nuclear insider – of whom there are estimated to be as many as 70,000 in Pakistan.
“There is a lethal proximity between terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons insiders,” he writes. “Insiders have facilitated terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings have occurred at air force bases that reportedly serve as nuclear weapons storage sites. It is difficult to ignore such trends.
”Purely in actuarial terms, there is a strong possibility that bad apples in the nuclear establishment are willing to co-operate with outsiders for personal gain or out of sympathy for their cause.”
“Not possible,” says Maria Sultan. “About eight to 10,000 personnel working at the strategic level on security,” she says, ticking off seven or eight interlocking layers of complex security, the first of which she says would trip most intruders before they came within 80 kilometres of a nuclear facility. “The idea that a terrorist can walk in and get hold of a device is just not possible.”
Such is the bind in which Pakistanis find themselves. But if it is true feeble and corrupt civilian administrations make circumstances ripe for a military takeover, it is hardly surprising the generals have no respect for democratic fundamentals.
As revealed in one of the Wikileaks cables, Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was ready to force President Asif Ali Zardari from office – save for the fact the general thought even less of Zardari’s likely civilian replacement. And historically, Washington has opted to connect with Pakistan through the military power of the generals, rather than the people power of the civilian leadership.
Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA analyst, sets out the connections in Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad. “…Richard Nixon turned a blind eye to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to keep his friends in Pakistan’s army in power, a strategy that ultimately failed,” Riedel writes. “Ronald Reagan entertained Zia-ul-Haq even as Zia was giving succour to the Arab jihadists who would become al-Qaeda. George W. Bush allowed Pervez Musharraf to give the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary from which to kill American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.”
And in the judgment of Bushra Gohar, an elected MP from Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, Washington still prefers to deal with the military rather than the country’s civilian leadership. “That’s not a role that the military has under the constitution,” she says during a break in the business of the National Assembly in Islamabad. “There has been a democratic transition in this country and we expect the international community to support it.”
Power vacuums become ripe for exploitation, as was revealed with frightening clarity earlier this year when two of three elected figures who had dared to speak out against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws were assassinated. In January, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his state-provided security men; in March, the Minorities Minister and the only Christian in Gillani’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, died in a hail of gunfire as his car left his mother’s home in Islamabad.
Taseer’s killer confessed and became a national hero. His home is a shrine, he is garlanded with rose petals and, in the oddest twist of all, the young lawyers’ movement that effectively bundled Pervez Musharraf, the last dictator, from power in 2008, has taken the side of this cold-blooded murderer – not the principle for which his victim died.
A visitor leaves Pakistan wondering if anyone here speaks the truth. The dictators habitually resort to amping up religious parties – either to drown out secular ones that might be interested in the ideals of selfless democracy, or to further marginalise the country’s Shiia Muslim minority.
“And people like Musharraf have two faces,” Kamran Arif of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said. “He would say all the right things for the West and do just what he wanted to do at home.”
Some foreign analysts fall back on the seeming failure of Pakistan’s religious parties at the ballot box as a hopeful sign. But a sense of rising radicalisation, particularly in the military and the middle classes, suggests an asymmetric contest for control of a highly unstable society – the non-religious parties fight in the parliament, but the religious parties are street brawlers.
Sherry Rehman, the only elected figure in the country to defend the convicted blasphemer Aasia Bibi, makes the same point in explaining how that debate was lost. “The discourse shifted from the parliament to the street,” she says.
“We have to keep the agenda in the parliament, and not with the gun-toting thugs who make inflammatory speeches outside.”
Like the financial institutions in the 2008 global financial crisis, Pakistan is deemed by Washington to be ”too big to fail”. Between them, however, Washington and Islamabad have been unable in the past decade to make this relationship work – credibly or creditably.
Predictions of imminent collapse in Islamabad are exaggerated, but perhaps not overly so. “The government does not have the capacity to tackle any of the issues,” says the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Arif. “Things will just keep getting bad … and I don’t discount the fact that we can fall into chaos.”
Like many other analysts, Bruce Riedel laboriously sets out the policy options by which Washington and Islamabad might work together to defeat the global jihadist movement – before he concludes that none is easy or guaranteed.
An adviser to several US administrations and now with the Brookings Institution, Riedel sees Pakistan under siege from a syndicate of radical terrorist groups unified by the notion that nuclear-armed Pakistan could be the extremist jihadist state they have never had.
“They want to hijack Pakistan and its weapons,” he says. Alluding to Islamabad’s role in creating a monster, as often as not with Washington’s sponsorship, he writes: “An extremely powerful jihadist Frankenstein is now roaming the world, with equally powerful protectors in Pakistani society, right up to the very top.
“Who cannot fear that the ‘long beards’ will prevail?”