More than news & views -­ A complete source for South Asians

April 2002






 Managing Politics and Press in Pakistan

Of  recasting of the ISI, its New Face and Gen. Musharaff’s “King’s Party”


Shaheen Sehbai
 the former editor of the News, an English-language daily
published in Pakistan


Three weeks ago, I resigned as editor of Pakistan's largest and most influential English language daily, the News. My newspaper's proprietor had directed me to apologize to the chiefs of the country's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence for my decision to publish details of the confessional statement of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime suspect in the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I was the first local journalist Danny and his wife Mariane contacted last year when they arrived in Karachi to cover Pakistan and America's war against terror.

Never lacking for audacity, the ISI first broke into our newsroom on Feb. 17 over our story on Mr. Saeed, in which he linked ISI operatives directly to his involvement in financing, planning and executing last December's terrorist attack on India's Parliament. With such obviously embarrassing information coming from one of their own kind -- Mr. Saeed had, after all, turned himself in for interrogation to his former ISI handler on Feb. 5, a week before Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, arrived in Washington for an official visit -- the principal information officer of the regime called me at 1 a.m. and demanded I pull the piece. When his coercion failed, my proprietor in London was called. He too tried to stop publication, but failed, and the government pulled all its advertising -- accounting for over half our income the next day -- in an effort to silence my paper completely. Then they asked the owner to sack me, as well as three other senior journalists.

I resigned rather than become part of the conspiracy to mislead the people of Pakistan. Fearing physical attacks, as experienced in the past – and with the Pearl example fresh in my mind -- I chose to join my family in the U.S. and live to fight another day.

And fight we must. These media management games are the first sign of where Gen. Musharraf's newly purged, more outwardly tactful ISI is headed. "Managing" politics and obviously rigging the elections in October are next on the agenda. There are growing signs that a "King's Party" for Gen. Musharraf is being put together to legitimize his stay in office, as an all-powerful president, well beyond any reasonable timeframe.

Games we have seen so many times are underway in Pakistan again. I'm not talking about renewed cricket matches with India, I'm talking about a well-orchestrated effort to manipulate the press, to usurp the people's right to free and fair elections, to perpetuate individuals rather than institutions, and to hide Pakistan's Islamists under a presentable wrap giving them a sizeable say in national affairs.

The primary instrument of change in achieving this devil's pact is Gen. Musharraf's recasting of the ISI as a more docile and introspective institution, ostensibly purged of Islamist hardliners and Taliban sympathizers. But buyers beware.

Over 20 years ago, another military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, created the first monstrous reign of the ISI when he empowered the agency to run a different war in Afghanistan -- the one against the Soviets. Billions of American taxpayer dollars and weapons of every imaginable type flowed through the ISI into Mujahideen hands -- while the U.S. government looked the other way as Zia built Pakistan's nuclear capacity, trained Islamic militants and inculcated radical Islam into the barracks, the schools and the streets. Rogue terrorist armies were born and no one paid attention.

Then in 1985, under an absolutist formula for controlling press dissension, Zia tried to patch together political legitimacy at home under farcical non-party elections by handpicking his parliament and nominating a nonentity as prime minister. An August 1988 plane crash left a gaping power vacuum filled by out-of-control intelligence outfits. The births of America's present-day nemeses, the Taliban and al Qaeda, were -- at least in the eyes of the all-powerful Islamist generals -- the ISI's most important contributions to Pakistani national security after the bomb.

Another intelligence disaster now looms. Its similarities to the Zia days are remarkable. Gen. Musharraf, the military dictator of the day, is the new darling of the West fighting the new enemy in Afghanistan. Billions of American taxpayer dollars are again set to flow. A beautiful facade has been crafted for external consumption, on everything from press freedoms to promised elections to a corruption-free economy to an Islamist-free reformed state. The reality is harshly different.

The ISI has been assigned the task of identifying, recruiting and organizing representatives for this effort. They are to entice, cajole and coerce the press and politicians. Key leaders from the political parties of both former prime ministers -- Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – are being lined up for pre-approval. The Islamist role will be enshrined by fundamentalist generals in the National Security Council. Power, after all, is still the ultimate aphrodisiac in Pakistani politics.

A full dress rehearsal of this methodology was carried out during the recently concluded countrywide polls for mayors and deputy mayors. Every city, big or small, had a pre-selected mayor. In Pakistan's military stronghold, Rawalpindi, for example, ISI interference in seating a pre-approved candidate was so blatant that the non-political but highly compliant Chamber of Commerce president was "elected" mayor against well-known political stalwarts.

Pakistan has played crucial roles in two of the most important struggles of our time -- the defeats of communism and terrorism. The first time, the West looked away while evil forces were born in our midst, destroying whatever was left of our culture and society. The moderate majority was silenced into submission until the world woke up on Sept. 11.

The warning signs are there again. America must invest its political and financial capital in institutions and not individuals. It is imperative that the American people, their elected representatives and the international press watching events in Pakistan not look the other way again. Freedom of the press is under siege. The promised return of democracy is being systematically compromised. American aid is being used to achieve dubious objectives. And the poor people of Pakistan, in defense of whom the ISI and Gen. Musharraf have made their last stand, may once again lose whatever is left of a country that can still be great.

(This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 19, 2002)