The ultimate guardians of the national interest

Following the remarkable events in Egypt over the last five days has been truly a paradigm changing experience. Even a cynic like me can’t help being taken in by the idea that this is a genuine revolution, contrary to the CNN and Fox news tickers of chaos, crisis, etc. Egypt and Burma have always fascinated me in their similarities in various ways to Pakistan. I guess growing up in post-Ziaist Pakistan, I have a morbid fascination for countries with a political vacuum. Almost a year ago, I remember reading a brilliant article by Adam Shatz about Egypt’s political vacuum and thinking that Pakistan was lucky, by contrast, in that it at least had a political class and a political tradition, no matter how flawed.

This paragraph in Shatz’s article (in which he quotes the Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrullah) has stayed in my mind over the last year:


As Hani Shukrallah, an editor at Al-Shorouk, one of the new independent papers, points out, ‘the regime has pursued a deliberate policy of selective repression based on class.’ Shukrallah, a veteran of the student left of the 1970s, illustrated this by describing an aerial photograph of a Kifaya demonstration in downtown Cairo. ‘You can see three circles: the first is composed of the demonstrators, a few hundred people. Around them is a circle of several thousand police officers, and around the police is the people. The people are onlookers, spectators. The middle-class professionals in Kifaya can chant slogans like “Down with Mubarak” because they risk, at worst, a beating. But most Egyptians live in a world where anything goes, where they’re treated like barbarians who need to be conquered, and women are molested by the security forces.

It reminded me a lot of the pictures you see from the protests in places like Lahore and Islamabad against the emergency rule. What it made me realize is that ultimately, every authoritarian regime rules, not by force, but by the tacit consent of a small but influential class of urban opinion-makers. (When Musharraf lost the support of this class, he was doomed). I remember reading a quote by Anatol Lieven in which he made the observation that dictatorship in Pakistan has always been a relatively “soft” one. I don’t know whether Lieven was right or wrong. Certainly, the arm of the Pakistani state has not been soft on those it has – at various times – perceived to be outside the limits prescribed by Pakistani nationalism. But it is correct to say that the brilliance of the Pakistani military regimes has been that they have always left a great degree of breathing room to those whom it accepts as part of the class whose own institutional interests the Pakistani army represents. The kinds of opinions that the Pakistani English newspapers are able to express are an example of this. And this is what came to my mind when I read Shukrullah’s description of the three circles – the inner circle of the privileged, well-connected urban middle class, surrounded by the arms of the state and surrounding both of them, the rest of the population.

Maybe what we are constantly complaining about as the moral failure of the military is really just the destiny of resource-poor, post-colonial states with a small but well-connected class of modernist nationalists at the helm. Maybe it’s not really worth complaining about because it’s a structural issue. It fascinates me that the Egyptian military, for example, is looked at, by the protestors, as a saviour or at the very least as a potential arbitrator against the current regime. In a way, the army’s arrival to save the Cairo Museum from looters and the collective sigh of relief at this arrival symbolizes the basic dilemma – the military is always seen as a saviour because it is better organized and more developed. Here’s a (terrible) analogy: As the youngest in a family of five, I was always resentful of everyone else’s ability to make better decisions for me. I always wanted to do things by myself but had this strange, rebellious streak where I would rebel to be contrary, make really stupid decisions and then breathe a sigh of relief as someone smarter and older took control of the situation for me. Structurally, the situation is that the political class is so stunted, so far behind in development to the overdeveloped, nationalist military that the modernists always end up running back into the warm cocoon of the military’s embrace. The alternative is just too horrifying to contemplate. What is this but a form of colonialism? It’s no coincidence then, that political transitions often consist of the various actors courting the military’s good favour for a temporary shift in the status quo.

But it’s not good to be so pessimistic. It’ll be interesting to see how Omar Suleiman’s appointment as Vice President will go down.

“What concerns us now is this is clearly a military takeover,” said Mr. Shahin. “I would not be surprised if Mubarak disappears tomorrow or after tomorrow.

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Dysfunction chronicled

The Pearl Project’s report on the killing of Daniel Pearl and the botched trial of his alleged killers is a remarkable piece of journalism. Every section of it is worth reading closely, but the section that really stood out to me and which I wish could have been expanded on, was section 10, titled “Rushing to judgment” which chronicled the trial of the four individuals accused of killing Daniel Pearl in Pakistan’s ATC II. The details of this trial are very important for anyone trying to understand the dysfunction that is Pakistan’s terrorism prosecution. There are three broad categories of failure here, each of which deserves to be studied in depth. The first is the actions of the infamous “agencies” which basically killed the chances of a proper trial before it even began. The second is the utter incompetence and dishonesty of the prosecution in building a case against the accused and the third is the atmosphere in the courtroom which is a reflection of the larger question of the public attitude towards terror prosecution.

According to the report, the ISI chief at the time, Gen. Ehsanul Haq, has admitted that Omar Saeed Sheikh surrendered himself, on February 5 2002 to the home secretary of Punjab and Musharraf’s close associate Brigadier Ejaz Shah and remained at his house for 7 days before he was “officially” handed over to the Lahore police on February 12. Because of Omar Saeed Sheikh’s high profile status as a famous terrorist, it is tempting to interpret this surrender as evidence of Sheikh’s links with the ISI. (Benazir Bhutto famously termed Ejaz Shah as Omar Saeed Sheikh’s handler in the ISI). However, the fact is that such “lost time” in the custody of the ISI is not limited to high profile terrorists only. It is extremely common in the case of terrorism suspects. In an excellent report in the Daily Times, Vidya Rana describes the frustration of the police with the interference of the intelligence agencies with their terrorism investigations. Here is a quote by a police official interviewed by Rana


We are being used as a ‘pick-n-drop’ service to terrorist-suspects. Police usually arrest a terrorist on tip-off of intelligence agencies. The little information we gather during preliminary investigation, it goes to media to justify the arrest. After taking physical remand, the arrested is handed over to those who provided tip-off for further investigation. But after submitting the challan, police find it difficult to substantiate the charges with evidence deemed concrete by the court,” the police officer said adding that it all happens because investigating agencies do not provide complete evidence to police which can land the terrorist in serious legal trouble during the court proceedings and the subsequent judgment.

In the Daniel Pearl murder trial, the original discrepancies in the arrest of Sheikh haunted the prosecution from day one. According to the report:

What suspects and witnesses told investigators was at direct odds with what police and others testified in court. Indeed, Pakistan police officials acknowledged in interviews that prosecutors and police fixed the trial by fabricating a story to place Sheikh at Pearl’s abduction and inducing witnesses to lie to corroborate the fabrication on these points.

For example, it appeared that the taxi driver who had dropped off Daniel Pearl to the Village restaurant had been coached by the police to make an incorrect statement about what he say that day. Whereas previously he had stated that he had seen nothing, he then stated that he saw a white Corolla pull up next to his taxi and saw Daniel Pearl get into it and drive off. In a State Department cable, US Consul John Bauman wrote:

, “As noted in previous trial reports, in its zeal to convict Sheikh Umer despite meager physical evidence and no eyewitnesses, the prosecution apparently induced at least two witnesses to perjure themselves.”

In a letter to Daniel Pearl’s family, Bauman wrote:

Bauman, U.S. consul general in Karachi during Pearl’s kidnapping, referred to the missing days in a May 22, 2002, e-mail to Pearl family members and Wall Street Journal reporters. In the e-mail, Bauman noted the testimony of a prosecution witness, Zaheer Ahmed, a local carpet-maker: “Zaheer claimed that the raids took place on the night of February 11-12, whereas they actually took place on February 4-5. This is an obvious attempt to gloss over the week of February 5-12 when [Omar Sheikh] claims he was in ISI custody.”

It wasn’t just the timeline which the prosecution lied about. According to the report, the “handwriting expert” Ghulam Akbar who was brought to the stand to prove that the handwriting of the handwritten texts of what would become the hostage emails matched the handwriting of the suspects on trial. Unfortunately, under cross examination, Akbar admitted that he had no training on handwriting at all. Another discrepancy was that a police investigator admitted that the serial number of the laptop siezed by the police did not match that of the laptop examined by an FBI expert.

The final, and, in my opinion, most important aspect of the trial is the level of religious hatred directed towards the prosecution and its witnesses. It’s very tempting to blame prosecution failures purely on incompetence and on the discrepancies in the arrest caused by the interference of the agencies but that is ignoring the elephant in the room which is that the climate in Pakistan makes it almost impossible for terrorism trials to take place in the first place. In this Washington Post article written on May 12 2002, the atmosphere surrounding the Pearl trial is vividly described.

The defendants, Sheik Omar Saeed, Salman Saquib, Fahad Naseem and Sheik Adil have shouted insults at witnesses and made obscene gestures at government attorneys. Two of the four men on trial have made threatening gestures at the lead prosecutor. One of their attorneys accused a witness of working for the CIA and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Earlier this week, the attorney, Rai Bashir, warned the presiding judge that unfit jurists will be condemned to hell. Then, outside the courtroom, he accused the lead prosecutor, Raja Qureshi, of blasphemy.

“He ridiculed Islamic laws and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and he did not show any respect in mentioning his name,” Bashir told reporters, who published the allegation the following morning.

The heroic public treatment given to Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salmaan Taseer is an all-too-telling example of the skewed nature of the public discourse on the issue of prosecution of those who are perceived to be acting in the name of God. One of the most telling aspects of the Pearl Project’s report was the statement read out by Omar Saeed Sheikh’s lawyer after the guilty verdict was announced:

He read a statement from Sheikh saying: “We shall see who will die first: either I or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me. The war between Islam and kafirs [non-Muslims] is going on and everybody should show whether he is in favour of Islam or in favour of kafirs.”

While I am not trying to minimize the sheer incompetence of the prosecution or the clearly unlawful actions of the intelligence agency, the impact of this third aspect – the violently skewed nature of public discourse on the issue of terrorism prosecution – cannot be overstated. In this brilliant satirical article on the trial of Mumtaz Qadri, Junaid Sahibzada illustrates this dilemma perfectly.

MQ: ” God instructed me to kill and hence I killed. Which part of my sentence you don’t understand?”

A lawyer from the crowd, jumps to MQ’s rescue and helps MQ by using his legal expertise and argues.

Lawyer: “The constitution of Pakistan says that Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.

This proves that God exists and if He exists then he can also ask MQ to do a small task as well. If you do not accept MQ’s claim that God instructed him to go for the kill then you are rejecting the constitution which has empowered you as the judge of the supreme court of the Islamic Caliphate, I mean the Islamic republic of Pakistan in the first place. And you are also becoming an apostate at the same time since you are rejecting God”

I hope I am wrong when I say this but it does seem that Pakistan’s legal system cannot prosecute terrorists because Pakistan’s legal system, as a subset of Pakistan’s overall state structure is fundamentally unequipped to act against those committing acts of violence in the name of God and religion. In fact one can take it a step further and say that the Pakistani state and constitutional structure is practically designed to allow freelance acts of violence to be committed with impunity and without fear of retribution. The same combination of a weak state structure superimposed with a strong state ideology that allowed Pakistan to create its jihadi “proxies” is what leaves these same proxies free to kill and maim Pakistani citizens at and go unpunished for it. As the post 1997 history of the Anti-terrorism Act and its various iterations have shown, no amount of change in the penal code will change the nature of this stalemate.

Some thoughts on Naseerullah Babar

Whatever Naseerullah Babar’s contributions in his decades-long political career, it was interesting to see how quietly the news of his death was received. This was partly due to his long illness in the last few years and partly due to the tumultuous events of the last few days. But it is interesting that the response was so muted, nonetheless, given how intertwined he was with so much of the PPP’s politics from the 70s through the 90s. Perhaps one can say that the era of a certain hawkish mindset within the PPP is dead. It was instructive, a few months ago, to see Masood Sharif Khattak doing the talkshow rounds criticizing the performance of the current Interior Minister’s performance. Rehman Malik, he said, hasn’t even visited Naseerullah Babar on his sickbed in the last two years that he’s been ill. But beyond that, there’s been a fundamental shift in approach which is best demonstrated by the change in the policy towards Karachi. Rehman Malik’s policy of cooperation with the MQM could not be more different to Naseerullah Babar’s (and Benazir’s) hawkish approach.

It was interesting to listen to one of BB’s interviews in 2007 in which she talked about her government’s commitment to security and gave the example with which her party put down ethnic terrorism in Karachi. In a way it showed that she was somewhat out of touch with the political changes that had occurred since 2002 when MQM’s political image had been rehabilitated and moved back into the mainstream. It would have been interesting to see how Naseerullah Babar handled this changed reality. Even before he became ill, he had distanced himself from BB on her return to Pakistan, because of his objections to the NRO and because, possibly, of BB’s changed attitude towards the Taliban. Remember, before BB’s death, Naseerullah Babar was supposed to have arranged the phone conversation between her and Baitullah Mehsud in which he assured her that he would not attack a woman.

In the final analysis, one wonders whether PPP gained or lost from its association with its hawkish elements of whom Naseerullah Babar is surely the most interesting example. It is true that the hawkish tendencies of Naseerullah Babar and General Tikka Khan led to the same strategic mis-steps that the military establishment is infamous for. In fact, there was a sort of competition netween Babar and the military establishment about who would get the glory for the Afghan policy which in retrospect is really fascinating:

40. What was the isi role in Afghanistan in the period 1974-77?

It was a top secret affair and the isi had no role. The secret was shared between Mr Bhutto, myself, Aziz Ahmad and the then Army Chief Tikka Khan. This was for obvious reasons. The Foreign Office could with, nonchalance deny if raised at un or any other forum.

Conversely, Naseerullah Babar’s comments on the Ayub and Yahya military rule shows on which side he stood, when it came to civilian vs. military rule:

Very few officers were involved in martial law duties. In retrospect I would say that it was the most unfortunate event in Pakistan’s history. Corruption was institutionalised from 1958. Initially senior officers started from buying dinner sets and proceeded in allotment of agricultural land and urban refugee property. Presently, it is in mega millions. It is most ironic that it was initiated by the Ayub martial law.

and:

He joined the Pakistan People’s Party in 1977 after the arrest of Bhutto. He famously threw away his Hilal-i-Jurat (with bar) and other army medals at the presiding officer of a military tribunal, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the military regime of Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

One can see a sort of twisted logic in ZAB and then BB using figures such as Babar and Tikka Khan. Consider Operation Midnight Jackal of 1990, the counter-operation launched by Masood Sharif Khan Khattak the then DG IB chief to counter an ISI plot to overthrow BB’s first government. In the crudest of terms, and stripped of all romantic illusions, politics is about consensus building between various elite groupings. That means that when a section of the elite plays a dirty game, an equally dirty game is required to counter it. Of course this is the classic ethical dilemma raised by Gandhi.

For Gandhi the means-end dichotomy lying at the heart of the traditional revolutionary theory was fundamentally false. In human life the so-caned means consisted not of implements and inanimate tools but of human actions, and by definition these could not fall outside the jurisdiction of morality. Furthermore the method of fighting for an objective was not external to but an integral part of it. Every step towards a desired goal shaped its character, and utmost care had to be taken to ensure that the steps taken to realize it did not distort or damage the goal. The goal did not exist at the end of a series of actions designed to achieve it; it shadowed them from the very beginning. The so-called means were really ends in an embryonic form, the seeds of which the so-called ends were a natural flowering. Since this was so, the fight for a just society could not be conducted by unjust means.

I realize, a more incongruous paragraph could not have been quoted in the midst of an article about the realpolitik of Naseerullah Babar and his hawkish colleagues. But it’s useful to analyze the quest for civilian parity with the military in light of Gandhi’s rejection of the means-end dichotomy of political violence. In this case, the question is, are hawkish political maneuvers, i.e. the idea of beating the establishment at its own game, justified in the process of rebalancing of Pakistan’s civil-military divide? Personally, I see very little different, qualitatively between Naseerullah Babar’s heavy-handed (and in my mind unjustifiable) approach in Karachi and the military establishment’s approach to Balochistan in the last 4 years. Similarly, for Babar, the Afghan policy was simply a race to take credit for the same flawed policies. And while Babar attempts to absolve Bhutto of the debacle of the Balochistan military operation of 1974-1976 by passing the buck to Abdul Qayyum Khan and his intrigues, it’s interesting that Tikka Khan, the “butcher of Balochistan” and the main executor of the disastrous military policy was himself such a PPP loyalist. Moreover, as Babar himself admitted, moves like the Balochistan military operation and the Hyderabad Tribunal, in which ZAB’s civilian government increasingly took on the form of the oppressive military establishment, were used by Zia-ul Haq to ultimately bring the Bhutto government to an end. One can see the same pattern reoccurring with the collapse of BB’s second government and the extra-judicial killings and security situation in Karachi being used as the justification.

However, it is interesting to consider that at the height of its popularity, PPP did have an appeal to, and made use of, such hawkish figures who, today, would consider it toxic. To me, it’s a reminder that all political groupings spring from the same elite, the only thing which defines them is how they stand against each other and how they balance each other out and from that, society is shaped. In other words, politics makes for strange bedfellows.