Politics and Press in Pakistan
recasting of the ISI, its New Face and Gen. Musharaff’s
former editor of the News, an English-language daily
published in Pakistan
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.
article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 19, 2002)