What is the right balance between healthy scepticism of Pakistani military and the ISI and between antagonism toward both? Asking this question now is important because the ambiguity is feeding unnecessary divisions in Pakistan. These divisions serve to weaken a vital line of defence for the Pakistani state. They also provide a domestic platform to what clearly is a get-ISI campaign that has been on for many years now in the political and intelligence circles of more than one country.
The brutal assassination of noted journalist and my friend Syed Saleem Shahzad has laid bare this decades-old feature of Pakistani politics. There exists a deep-seated antagonism in parts of our politics and media toward Pakistani military and especially toward the ISI. The agency is our principal tool for counterintelligence and information gathering. It is the eyes and ears of our strategic community as we navigate our way through a difficult neighbourhood. This antagonism is not natural to the system but is manufactured and is sustained through a combination of lack of information, real mistakes, rumours, half-truths, and in some cases outright propaganda.
Some of this antagonism is rooted in scepticism toward state power. That’s healthy for any vibrant society. But in Pakistan, the lines between scepticism and animosity have blurred over the years. Expressions of this animosity in some corners of our politics and media surpass anything seen in stable and mature democracies. After all, a democratic system needs a functioning state, including aware voters, independent media, judiciary, military and intelligence. A state could collapse without educated voters, or a working military and intelligence. You can’t discount any one of them.
Shahzad’s brutal assassination brought the unhealthy anti-military antagonism within our system to the surface. It was stunning to watch some leading pundits in our media accuse the ISI of killing Shahzad without evidence and ignore strong circumstantial evidence on the involvement of elements close to Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. Shahzad maintained close contacts with sources in the two terror groups, as his scoops on numerous occasions indicate. You can’t blame the foreign media, especially media based in the United States, for giving a spin to any story where the ISI is mentioned, since this Pakistani agency has become too independent for American taste. But at least at home we should question all angles and not simply ride the wave.
For example, western media saw in Shahzad’s article that purportedly led to his brutal death an embarrassment for Pakistani military and thus a motive for the ISI to eliminate him. Many people in our media picked up this theory. That’s an angle worth probing, but so is the fact that the same article exposes Al-Qaeda links to the attack on the naval base in Karachi, especially when the terror group has kept low and refrained so far from claiming responsibility for the attack.
The anti-military antagonism has probably blinded many of us to exploring other important angles. For example, the ISI itself was badly burned when two of its ex-operatives were killed by Pakistani Taliban earlier this year while trying to create inroads within the terror group. Likewise, US journalist Daniel Pearl paid with his life for getting too close to unscrupulous elements.
A meeting between Shahzad and officers from the media management wing of the ISI last year is cited as evidence that the spy agency was harassing him. The agency’s version is very straightforward: they met Shahzad at a registered government office about a story he did and asked him either to confirm his sources or retract the story because it damaged Pakistani interests. Shahzad declined both demands and that was it. One friend and acquaintance of Shahzad, Mr Najam Sethi, said the meeting constituted a threat. Another friend of Shahzad, Mr Ejaz Haider, wrote that his friend mentioned the meeting with the ISI but didn’t characterise it as a threat.
It is fair to say that the ISI, by virtue of the said meeting, should be included in Shahzad’s murder investigation. But that is quite different from saying the ISI is the killer and ignore all evidence that points to other possibilities. That said, we do have a history in Pakistan of secret government agents kidnapping journalists, beating them up and then releasing them, alive. But most of us forget that this culture is not part of what our security agencies want to do. It was thrust on them by governments, often including democratic ones.
Security agents from various agencies of the government have at different times kidnapped and ‘sorted out’ journalists under orders from several democratic and non-democratic governments in Islamabad. In most of such cases journalists were harassed because powerful figures in government wanted to harass them and used state power for the purpose.
There is also the legacy of how state institutions were used to settle political differences. This burden of history should not be overblown and used to create a wedge between state institutions such as the ISI and ordinary Pakistanis.
The writer works for Geo television.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org