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ISI-Bashing: A US Battle Transferred To Pakistan

Posted by yourpakistan on June 26, 2011


Anti-ISI campaign in the US media must not be transferred inside Pakistan, where the US has groomed proxies working on an American political agenda. Even CIA was not demonized after its epic 9/11 failure the way ISI is today in the US and parts of Pakistani media and politics.

AHMED QURAISHI | WWW.PAKNATIONALISTS.COM

What is the right balance between a healthy skepticism of Pakistani military and ISI and between antagonism toward both? Pakistani media and politicians have to define this balance to avoid unnecessary divisions in Pakistan. These divisions serve to weaken a vital line of defense for the Pakistani state. The United States is orchestrating a get-ISI campaign in the US media. This campaign must not be transferred inside Pakistan, where a US-backed lobby groomed during the past eight years is acting as America’s B-team, mounting a Pakistani version of the American campaign against Pakistani military.

There have always been anti-military leftists and ex-communists in the Pakistani media, promoting extreme ideas such as disbanding the military. This lobby has been vocal but never too much. These days, this lobby has gained a new vigor thanks to the US propaganda against Pakistani military.

The brutal assassination of noted journalist and my friend Syed Saleem Shahzad has laid bare this decades-old feature of Pakistani politics.

The ISI is our principal tool for counterintelligence and information gathering. It is the eyes and ears of our strategic community as we navigate our way through a difficult neighborhood.

The antagonism toward ISI as seen in the past few weeks is not natural to the system but manufactured and sustained through a combination of lack of information, real mistakes, rumors, half-truths, and in some cases outright propaganda. Some of this antagonism is rooted in skepticism toward state power. That’s healthy for any vibrant society. But in Pakistan, the lines between skepticism and animosity have blurred over the years. Expressions of this animosity in some corners of our politics and media surpass anything seen in stable and mature democracies. After all, a democratic system needs a functioning state, including educated voters, independent media, judiciary, military and intelligence. A state could collapse without educated voters, or without a working military and intelligence. Choose your pick.

Shahzad’s brutal assassination brought the unhealthy anti-military antagonism within our system to the surface. It was stunning to watch some leading pundits in our media accuse ISI of killing Shahzad without evidence, and simultaneously ignore strong circumstantial evidence on the involvement of elements close to the terrorists of al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban. Shahzad maintained close contacts with sources in the two terror groups, as his scoops on numerous occasions indicate. You can’t blame the foreign media, especially media based in the United States, for giving a spin to any story where ISI is mentioned, since this Pakistani agency has become too independent for American taste. But at least at home we should question all angles and not simply ride the wave.

For example, western media saw in Shahzad’s article that purportedly led to his brutal death an embarrassment for Pakistani military and thus a motive for ISI to eliminate him. Many people in our media picked up this theory. That’s an angle worth probing, but so is the fact that the same article exposes al-Qaeda links to the attack on the naval base in Karachi. If it did it, Al-Qaeda didn’t claim responsibility. Late Shahzad did. Did he fell out with his terror informants? No one knows for sure. But it’s an angle worth probing.

The anti-military antagonism has probably blinded many of us to exploring other important angles. For example, ISI itself was badly burned when two of its ex-operatives were killed by Pakistani Taliban earlier this year while trying to create inroads within the terror group. Likewise, US journalist Daniel Pearl paid with his life for getting too close to unscrupulous elements.

A meeting between Shahzad and officers from the media management wing of ISI last year is cited as evidence that the spy agency was harassing him. The agency’s version is very straightforward: they met Shahzad at a registered government office about a story he did and asked him either to confirm his sources or retract the story because it damaged Pakistani interests. Shahzad declined both demands and that was it. One friend and acquaintance of Shahzad, Mr. Najm Sethi, said the meeting constituted a threat. Another friend of Shahzad, Mr. Ejaz Haider, wrote that his friend mentioned the meeting with ISI but didn’t characterize it as a threat.

It is fair to say that ISI, by virtue of the said meeting, should be included in Shahzad’s murder investigation. But that is quite different from saying ISI is the killer and ignore all evidence that points to other possibilities. That said, we do have a history in Pakistan of secret government agents kidnapping journalists, beating them up and then releasing them, alive. But most of us forget that this culture is not part of what our security agencies want to do. It was thrust on them by governments, often democratic ones. Security agents from various agencies of the government have at different times kidnapped and ‘sorted out’ journalists under orders from several democratic and non-democratic governments in Islamabad. In most of such cases journalists were harassed because powerful figures in government wanted to harass them and used state power for the purpose.

There is also the legacy of how state institutions were used to settle political differences. This burden of history should not be overblown and used to create a wedge between state institutions such as the ISI and ordinary Pakistanis.

 A version of this column appeared in The News on 6 June 2011.

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