PAKISTAN: Is the battle with the media becoming the military’s Waterloo?

The attempted murder of an anchorperson of a popular media house triggered the open discussion on the role of the ISI in dealing with the freedom of expression and the media as a whole. Indeed, this is not the first occasion that the role of the ISI was brought up as a conspirator in the affairs of the state. However, the involvement of the ISI has always been swept under the carpet on the pretext of national security and potential threats to Pakistan from neighbouring countries. The ISI are portrayed by the government as a professional intelligence organisation, protectors of Islam and the ideological boundaries of Pakistan.

The role of the ISI was discussed the world over when Osama bin Laden (OBL) was killed in a well-orchestrated raid by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, The raid on OBL’s compound in Abbottabad, was launched from Afghanistan. The ISI was exposed in that it had close connections with al Qaeda and the Taliban when they purposely concealed the world’s most wanted man. The United States had direct evidence that the ISI’s former chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of OBL’s presence in Pakistan. At first the military establishment denied that it had any connection with the raid or that it had any part in hiding OBL. However, the excuses and explanations offered by the military establishment and the government did not hold water. As a result of this they took another tack and charged the U.S. for violating, not only the sovereignty of the country but also committing an act of aggression. Once again the ISI was spared and the U.S. was denounced as an enemy of Pakistan and Islam as well.

It has become blatantly evident that the ISI has been involved in the arrest and enforced disappearances of thousands of innocent persons. The family members of disappeared or extrajudicially killed persons have stated and even testified that their loved ones were arrested by the ISI, following which they were disappeared or killed in detention. At the moment there are hundreds of such cases in the higher courts of the country wherein, even the judges have blamed, ‘secret agencies’ (pointing their fingers towards the ISI) for the disappearances. However, in not one hearing has any representative of the ‘secret agencies’ ever appeared in the courts despite several reminders.

Some relevant history

Since the creation of Pakistan it was felt that there was a need for an intelligence agency on the working of the three wings of the armed forces. The Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) was created in 1948 in order to form an exclusive intelligence agency for the three services. Although the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Military Intelligence (MI) had been created the year after independence, in the presence of growing complaints by the military concerning the weak performance of the MI in sharing intelligence with the army, navy and air force during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 this led to the creation of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 1948.

Interestingly, the ISI was the brainchild of an Australian-born, British Army officer, Major General Robert Cawthome, then Deputy Chief of Staff in the Pakistan Army. Designed to be operated by officers from the three military services, its function was to collect, analyze and assess external intelligence, either military or non-military. Initially, the ISI was not concerned with the collection of domestic intelligence except for that gained in the former N.W.F.P (which is now KPK) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

When General Ayub Khan became president in late 1958 he made use of the ISI and MI to monitor opposition politicians in order to sustain military rule in the country. The ISI was reorganised in 1966 after intelligence failures in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 and further expanded in 1969 when Khan entrusted the ISI with the responsibility for the collection of internal political intelligence in what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Its role was expanded when it was tasked with performing a similar intelligence gathering operation in Balochistan.

When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came to power in the new Pakistan in December, 1971 he was critical of the ISI and gave them the new task of gathering intelligence from Afghanistan. This was during the cold war era when Afghanistan was thought to be a puppet of the USSR. He also gave the ISI the task of spying on the activities of his political opponents. Sadly he was unaware that the ISI had their own agenda and they were instrumental in toppling his government by organising country-wide agitation on the pretext that he was rigging the election. The ISI was also part of the conspiracy which led to his execution by hanging.

When the former Chief of Army Staff, General Zia-ul-Haq seized power on 5 July, 1977, he expanded the ISI once again by making it responsible for the collection of intelligence about the Pakistan Communist Party and particularly Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).

The ISI today

Several reports have surfaced recently concerning the alleged connection of the ISI and the military establishment with terrorist organisations that are planning strikes against US and foreign embassies in the East.

In an article which appeared in the South Asia Monitor, Pakistan-backed Indian Mujahideen – down but certainly not out!, by Ajai Sahni, the author makes the assertion that Pakistan’s MI is backing the Indian Mujahideen (IM), which has, “…..been declared by many as one of the most lethal Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist organisations operating in India……”. It must be noted that in view of the direct connection between Pakistan’s MI and the ISI it is evident that not much happens without the approval of the hierarchy of the ISI.

A further report involved the arrest of a Sri Lankan national alleged to be an ISI agent who was a Pakistani official based in Sri Lankan. The suspect, originally from Kandy was remanded in judicial custody by a Magistrate’s Court in Chennai, India. Zaheer Hussain (37), allegedly linked to a Pakistani terror organisation, was ceased in a joint operation of Central and state police forces. According to reports by Indian intelligence, Hussain has been instructed by a senior official in the Pakistan High commission in Colombo, “….to recruit youths from South India, especially in Tamil Nadu for terror activities…..”. The same intelligence report went on to say that, “…..a person with close links with a Pakistan high commission official in Colombo was involved in head hunting for the ISI….”.

Hussain was remanded in Puzhal prison and charged under IPC 120 B (conspiracy) and 480 C besides sections 16 and 17 of Prevention of Unlawful Activities. The Indian press speaks of Husain’s, “explosive confessional statement”, which was sent to the Indian home ministry, but it can only be left to the imagination as to how such a ‘confession’ was obtained. It has, however, sent shock waves through the country’s anti-terror agencies.

Within Pakistan

It is widely accepted that the government of Pakistan and the military and intelligence agencies in the form of the ISI are supporting the Pakistani and Afghan al Qaeda networks and Islamic extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. For some time now there has been a policy of appeasement by the government towards any acts of the two Taliban organisations. No doubt the origin of this policy came from the ISI who want, very much, to be the handlers of these organisations.

The Pakistan Intelligence community also maintains a significant presence in Balochistan. The ISI is responsible for strategic intelligence as well as conducting operations and has a large element in Quetta. The ISI’s Joint Signals Intelligence Bureau (JISB) operates signal intelligence collection stations in Saindak which covers the western border and in Gwadar which covers the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Oman. In addition to the ISI each service has military intelligence assets, collectively known as the MI, which support tactical requirements. The IB is the oldest intelligence entity in Pakistan which traces its heritage back to British India. The IB conducts federal investigations in Balochistan along the lines of the United States, Federal Bureau of Investigation and also supports the military establishment. Finally, there are the special branches of the provincial and local law enforcement that conduct criminal intelligence.

Clearly, Pakistan’s security establishment is unwilling to stop the growing power of the dreadful extremists of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi while their own ‘death squads’ have the reputation of pursuing and killing insurgents with great efficiency. It seems that as in the past; like the use of the Taliban in the 1990s, that of local militant groups in Kashmir, and that of sectarian groups like the SSP in the 1980s, the security establishment considers the LeJ as an ally in Balochistan with the apparent aim of controlling the unruly province with the help of religious forces that have little in common with the secular orientation of the Baloch rebels and are controlled by ethnic Punjabis like Malik Ishaq. LeJ and their Pakistani allies are believed to have the sympathies if not the active support of the Saudis although there seems to be little doubt about the funds that generously flow to these groups from the Arabian Gulf. These militants are also hostile to the neighbouring Shia Iran due to their religious beliefs. Hazara Shias, a peaceful community, has thus become a victim and cannon fodder in this high stake and deadly game to promote hatred and extremism in order to keep Balochistan under the grip of the security establishment which has found the challenge of fighting the insurgents rather daunting in the last six years.

Several reports have surfaced about the direct connection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in international terror plots.

In July, 2011, journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad disappeared and his mutilated body was found bearing horrendous injuries. Saleem Shahzad had reported on the possible link between the Pakistan navy and al Qaeda. It is believed that he was picked up by the ISI in order to find his source of information. The United States of America later openly accused the ISI of involvement in his torture and death. The government of Pakistan referred to the allegations as an ‘international conspiracy to defame the country’s law enforcement agencies”. The US backed up their claim by saying that it was the result of new classified intelligence.

Mr. Umer Cheema, a senior journalist at The News International, a daily newspaper based in Islamabad, was kidnapped, tortured and humiliated for six hours on September 4, 2010. He was picked up in cloak-and-dagger style in the early hours by men in commando uniforms and driven to a “safe house”. Here unknown persons took over; he was beaten black and blue, humiliated beyond comprehension, he was made to strip off his clothes, hung upside down and remained in illegal custody for hours. Finally, he was thrown out on the roadside at Talagang, 120 kilometres from Islamabad with a shaved head and a threatening message for Ansar Abbasi, the head of the newspaper’s investigative section. In the murder of journalist Hyatullah Khan, a judicial commission was formed which came out with the opinion that the secret agencies of the military were involved (again, fingers were pointed at the ISI), however, the government has not made the report public and when Khan’s widow began to pursue the case she was also murdered and the ISI was given immunity.

Following the case of the assassination attempt on the anchorperson, Hamid Mir the ISI came under direct attack from the media houses and journalists as Mir and his brother accused the ISI chief of direct involvement in the attack. For a few days the media houses agitated on this incident and the prime minister himself sided with Mir and visited him in the hospital. In a quick reaction the Chief of Army Staff visited the ISI headquarters and showed his solidarity with the chief of the agency. This created a rift between the civilian and military establishments.

The ISI quickly organised religious, militant and banned terrorist organisations to come out and agitate in its favour. They also organised the media houses that were not in favour of those that had criticised the ISI.

It is no secret for the citizens of Pakistan that the ISI is very much involved in the local politics and knows exactly how to deal with the opponents. The military establishment and the government too, do not provide any logic behind the continuation of the existence of the ISI on the exchequer. However, they constantly wheel out the theory that behind the suicide bombings, terrorist attacks of the Taliban, the insurgencies in Balochistan and Sindh, there are foreign hands, particularly those of India and the USA.

If for a moment we agree to this notion of a foreign conspiracy and their involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs then it means that our intelligence agencies, particularly the ISI has failed to perform its real task to protect the interests of the country.

It is evident that the ISI was always opposed to civilian rule and involved in purchasing the loyalties of politicians through coercion, intimidation, black mail and overt threats to kill them. The agency has always remained as a partner in the growing corruption, particularly in the big foreign dealings of arms and ammunition and also land grabbing. Its agenda is to control, not only domestic issues, but also foreign policy. The Secretary of the Ministry of Defence cannot be appointed without clearance from the ISI and the secretary must be selected from among the retired generals.

Once, when the former Prime Minister, Yousuf Gillani, tried to put the ISI under the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the military establishment became very angry and used all its cronies, the banned terrorist organisations, the media houses and opposition parties to agitate against the decision. Finally the ISI succeeded and it was released from any civilian oversight.

This time it has again clashed horns with the journalists, their organisations and a popular media house to punish them for open discussions on the role of ISI. It will be interesting to see who will win.

It is inconceivable for the military mindset that if they won the war against media then still it would be difficult to defeat the power of the pen with arms and ammunition. For an army which has never won once in five wars over a period of 65 years the media will become their Waterloo.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-034-2014
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Child rights, Corruption, Extrajudicial killings, Freedom of expression, Judicial system, Military, Rule of law, Torture,