Torture and death in custody of police and intelligence agencies in Pakistan has a long history but with the advent of Zia rule, and his introduction of so called sharia punishments, the physical brutalization of people took a great leap forward
The discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad and his killing by US commandos has raised serious concerns about the performance of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The country’s interior minister Rehman Malik, besieged by allegations of incompetence and complicity went on the defensive, pleading that his government was not aware of Osama’s whereabouts until the US attack on his fortified mansion on May 2. He insisted that it was just a case of accidental failure of Pakistani intelligence agencies, similar to the failure of the US intelligence to detect the perpetrators of 9/11 as they planed their attacks within America.
While giving a briefing on the Abbotabad incident to the in-camera session of both houses of parliament on May13, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), also reportedly admitted the “failure” of his agency, offering to resign from his post while adding that it was “not intentional” failure. In the following days the US senator John Kerry, secretary of defence, Robert Gates and secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, all reiterated that there is no evidence that anyone at the highest level of Pakistani government knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That leaves failure of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies as the only official explanation of Osama bin Laden’s undetected presence in Pakistan.
While Pakistanis were still wondering why their country’s extensive intelligence network failed to detect Osama bin Laden, a foreign national and alleged terrorist of great notoriety living under the very noses of Pakistan’s civil and military authorities, they were jolted by another dramatic event. On May 22 the highly protected naval base in Karachi was attacked by militants causing much death and destruction.
On May 27 a news story appeared in Asia Times (on line), claiming that the deadly attack on the base was carried out by al-Qaeda after talks failed between it and Pakistan Navy over the release of some naval officers arrested on suspicion of links with al-Qaeda. Shortly after the appearance of the Asia Times story its contributor, Saleem Shahzad, was kidnapped from the streets of Islamabad allegedly by ISI operatives and his dead body was discovered on May31. Although the ISI has since denied its hand in the killing of the journalist, its role as the secret arm of the state has again become a matter of concern.
The government, after much dillydallying, grandstanding and intervention by the Supreme Court has confirmed the appointment of two commissions of inquiry, one to investigate the Abbotabad incident and the other to probe into the kidnapping and murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad. Hopefully the findings of these commissions will, if and when made public, throw some light on the precipitating events and personae dramatis of the two incidents which have caused much public dismay and dejection in Pakistan. What is needed in the meanwhile is a broader institutional analysis of Pakistan’s Intelligence agencies, their historical roots, their institutionalised goals and mode of functioning in order to understand what they actually do and why. Without this shared understanding there can be no objective criteria of determining failure or success of these organizations or any prospect of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of their operations.
The heritage: Conspiracy to deprive the king
The history of Pakistan’s modern intelligence agencies goes back to the colonial times. In those days the intelligence services, particularly the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the colonial police, were primarily concerned with protecting the British Raj from any threat to its existence and continuity, and the greatest of that threat was perceived to come from the political left.
Thus in the 1920s, when anti- imperialist movements were stirring around the world and in South Asia, the British intensified their surveillance of the left in their Indian colony. Several “criminal conspiracy” cases were orchestrated by the provincial CID networks against a number of trade union leaders and left intellectuals. Two of these cases that attracted much publicity at home and abroad became known as the Kanpur Conspiracy case (1925) and the Meerut Conspiracy case (1929). The accused, in both of these cases were charged with entering into conspiracy to “deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India” under Section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code (1860).
After the creation of Pakistan this pattern of surveillance and harassment of the left continued. In March 1951, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan broke the news of a conspiracy to overthrow his government. Soon thereafter a number of left political activists were arrested and jailed. The veteran communist and anti-imperialist activist, Dada Amir Haider Khan, who was already imprisoned in the Rawalpindi jail at the time, writes in his memoirs that there was a sudden influx of “well educated” people into his adjacent cells, among them Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Zaheer Kashmiri and Hamid Akhtar. A few days later the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the communist leader Syed Sajad Zaheer were arrested to stand trial in what became known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case.
Interestingly, the accused in this case were also charged under Section 121-A of the 1860 Penal Code which listed it a crime to “deprive the King of sovereignty of British India.” The Muslim League leaders who came to power after independence had yet to finish the work of constitution making for the new state of Pakistan, and neither had they suitably amended or replaced the penal code of 1860.
Intelligence for what?
Yet, little time was lost in expanding the network of intelligence agencies after independence. A brand new agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), was created in 1948 within the army which was destined to become Pakistan’s largest and most dreaded spying agency. It has since been labelled “state within a state” by some. Two years later in 1950 another agency, the Military Intelligence (MI) was created which too has transgressed into civilian affairs, often in competition with ISI. When Gen. Ayub Khan ceased power in 1958 he made extensive use of these agencies to monitor and control his political opposition with a view to sustain his rule.
The main brunt of this monitoring and control was, however, borne by the political left and the progressive sections of society in general. Soon after the declaration of 1958 martial law left-leaning political workers, trade unionists, journalists, writers, artists, teachers and students were arrested and jailed throughout the country. The aging Dada Amir Haider Khan was arrested for the fourth time since his marathon anti-colonial struggle against the British rule culminated in 1947 with independence. When taken to the Rawalpindi jail this time he found already locked up there Afzal Bangash, the leader of Mazdoor Kisan Party, along with his comrades Kaka Snowber, Khushal Khtak and Hameesh Gul. Later Basheer Javed and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi were brought in along with several other political prisoners from Punjab.
A few months later these prisoners were escorted one by one to the Lahore fort, transformed partly into a torture chambers by the CID of British colonial police to interrogate freedom fighters. In the wake of Pakistan’s first military rule in these same dungeons could be found anyone known to have anything to do with leftist or progressive politics, ideas, art, literature or journalism, recalls Dada Amir Haider Khan in his memoirs. Just a few he was able to recognize on arrival there were Fazal Elahi Qurban, Feroz-ud-Din Mansoor, Qaswar Gardezi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Haider Bakhsh Jatoi and Sobho Gianchandani. This was also the place where the young communist leader, Hassan Nasir, was tortured to death in 1960, just 2 years after Ayub Khan’s takeover. According to Dada Amir Haider Khan the roundup and confinement of the so called leftists in the Lahore fort in those days was the work of Main Anwar Ali, a senior intelligence officer who wanted to be in the good books of both Gen. Ayub Khan and the American CIA.
The left had become a favourite target of intelligence agencies because of its vocal opposition to Pakistan’s entry into US sponsored Cold War military pacts led by Gen. (later self appointed Field Marshall) Ayub Khan. The second reason for persecuting the left was its firm rejection of Ayub Khan’s merger of West Pakistan’s provinces into “one Unit,” a device to impose by a dictatorial ordinance to create the semblance of artificial unity in the ethnically diverse state of Pakistan.
At the same time the ISI and MI were being used to watch and harass the politicians, intellectuals, and academics of East Pakistan who were demanding equitable economic, political and linguistic rights for their Bengali province. The 1958 martial law, the subsequent military coup staged by Gen. Ayub Khan, and the implementation of “One Unit” scheme were all in fact political manoeuvres intended to thwart East Pakistan’s aspirations for economic equality and preservation of its distinct cultural heritage.
Lacking any popular mandate Ayub became increasingly reliant on the state intelligence agencies to sustain his rule. In 1964 he decided to acquire electoral legitimacy by contesting presidential elections through an electoral college of “basic democrats” created for this purpose. His political opposition put up Miss Fatima Jinnah, the respected sister of M.A. Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan to run against Ayub. The intelligence agencies again went into action to harass the electors in order to manufacture a majority vote for the dictator.
From “spilling the beans” to the loss of East Pakistan
Never known for their political impartiality, the professional ability of ISI and MI was really exposed during the 1965 war with India. The Ayub government’s decision to send infiltrators across the line of control to foment a mass uprising in the Indian held Kashmir was based on extremely poor intelligence about the readiness of Kashmiri Muslims to resist Indian rule. No uprising materialised and the Pakistani infiltrators were captured by the Indian forces. A greater intelligence failure was the assumption that Pakistan’s covert breach of the line of control in Kashmir will not provoke India to attack Pakistan across the international border. Pakistani Armed forces were caught totally off guard when the Indian army invaded Pakistan across the international border near Lahore on September 8, 1965. Altaf Gauhar, a close confidant of Ayub Khan and secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in his government, writes that when he informed the MI chief Brig. Irshad about confessions made by the captured Pakistani infiltrators on All India Radio, he simply fell back on his chair and moaned “the bastards spilled the beans.”
Still brimming with confidence, the military intelligence agencies entered the fray when Gen. Yahya Khan, having succeeded Ayub Khan, announced general elections to take place in 1970. The ISI posted its agents in every district to monitor these elections and launched an operation in East Pakistan to prevent any political party from gaining an overall majority. Nevertheless, the Awami League of East Pakistan swept the elections and emerged with an absolute majority qualifying to form the national government.
But, Gen. Yahya and his political advisors in West Pakistan refused to transfer power to an independent minded “East Pakistani prime minister” i.e. the leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman. When this refusal to accept the electoral mandate resulted in mass protests in the East Pakistan, ISI and MI again jumped to the forefront of brutal crackdown, in collusion with the Jamat-e-Islami, on known Bengali nationalists including university students, academics, journalist Awami League leaders and leftist politicians. The atrocities committed by the army against their fellow Bengali citizens and other events leading to the secession of East Pakistan are a matter of record that needn’t be repeated here.
After the East Pakistan fiasco, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the elected prime minister of territorially diminished Pakistan, but he too proved vulnerable to the temptation of using the state Intelligence Agencies to keep his political opposition under surveillance. The ISI was also inducted into a surveillance operation to suppress the nationalist movement in Balochistan during the rule of Zulfikar Bhutto.
The ISI reached the pinnacle of its stature during Gen. Zia-ul-haq’s rule (1977-1988). The single most important factor that contributed to this was Zia’s induction of ISI into America’s proxy war, the so-called jihad against the Soviet supported PDPA government of Afghanistan. By taking over management of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan the ISI got control of billions of US and Saudi dollars pumped in by CIA to finance the holly war, mostly in the form of payments to the mujahedeen, Islamic warriors, converging on the region from all over the world. Overnight the ISI became world’s best financed intelligence agency, and with financial control came the independence to make decisions and act in its own right.
With its newfound power and strength got more deeply involved in matters of political governance and policy making. A few of the outstanding acts attributed to ISI during the Zia rule and its immediate aftermath are worth noting here.
From Killing Nazeer Abassi to courting the Taliban
In August 1980, the ISI operatives picked up a number professed communists from Karachi, among them Nazeer Abbasi, a young Sindhi political activist and student leader. A few days later the dead body of Abbasi was found with marks of severe physical torture, reminiscent of the death in custody of Hassan Nasir two decades earlier in Lahore. All public demands for an official inquiry into the death of Nazeer Abbasi fell on deaf ears of the Zia regime, while the family and friends of the victim pointed accusing fingers at the ISI officer, Col. Imtiaz Ahmed alias Billa, who was later promoted to the rank of brigadier and deputy director of ISI. Torture and death in custody of police and intelligence agencies in Pakistan has a long history but with the advent of Zia rule, and his introduction of so called sharia punishments, the physical brutalization of people took a great leap forward.
Similarly, while Pakistan’s intelligence agencies always meddled in domestic politics, with the advent of the Zia regime this became a regular and normal practice. Zia had announced holding of national elections for November, 1988 , but he died suddenly in the crash of his plane elections in August. While the ISI found it hard to offend public opinion by reneging on the holding of elections, its chief Gen. Hamid Gul and his deputy, Brig. Imtiaz Ahmed Billa immediately got work cobbling together a political coalition of right wing Islamist parties under the name of Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), to counter the electoral prospects of PPP, the party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto.
The PPP still won the 1988 elections, although without being able to gain an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. The ISI and the military brass allowed Benazir Bhutto to form a government, but only to plan her defeat in the next round of elections which came earlier than expected. Benazir’s PPP government was dismissed within two years by the bureaucrat president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, announcing fresh elections for October 1990.
This time the chief of the army, Gen. Aslam Beg himself got into the act, commandeered, Rs. 140 million from Karachi banks and deposited the amount in ISI accounts to finance the election of the opponents of Benazir and her party. The scheme worked giving a landslide victory to IJI and its leader Nawaz Sharif chosen as prime minister.
Having established itself as a force in Pakistan’s domestic politics the ISI turned its attention back to Afghanistan where warlords, erstwhile holy warriors (mujahedeen), having defeated the godless communists were now literally at each other’s throats for the possession of spoils. In this chaotic situation had emerged yet another militia in the Kandahar around 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Omar, promising to restore order by implementing Islamic legal code (sharia). This militia, named Taliban was raised mainly from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Saudi funded madrassas (Islamic schools) run by Pakistan’s Islamist political parties. The ISI, disenchanted with mutually warring mujahedeen, saw the opportunity to establish a permanent foothold in Afghanistan by throwing its and military and financial support under a policy that came to be known as Strategic depth. By 1996 the Taliban had established their “Islamic Emirate” over all of Afghanistan except a small area in the north controlled by the Northern Alliance.
Fast forward, on the domestic front the post-Zia democratic interregnum ended on 12 October, 1999 when Nawaz Shrif’s second elected government was toppled, ironically with the help of another chief of the ISI, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf ceased power. With the Military back in the saddle in Pakistan and the Taliban muddling along with their atrocious “Islamic” rule in Afghanistan, the only superpower on earth remained fairly contended with the situation in the region until the attacks on US sites in New York and Washington occurred for which Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda is held responsible.
On 13 September, 2001 Gen. Pervez Musharraf was presented with and agreed to the demand by the US President George W. Bush to break ties with the Taliban and join the US led coalition in “War on Terror.” That decision by Musharraf to comply with the US notice has loomed large in the major events that have shook Pakistan ever since that fateful September day.