Dear General Pasha,
I write this letter to you in the wake of the gruesome and gratuitous murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, friend to many, including myself.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, the agency you head, is being accused of Saleem’s murder. You must also know that the ISI is widely reviled and dreaded at home. For an agency that was set up primarily for strategic intelligence, this is quite an achievement. It is accused of driving in its own lane, monitoring the media, kidnapping, torturing and sometimes killing dissenters, political and otherwise, determining, arbitrarily, what Pakistan’s national interest is and how best we should go about pursuing it.
You must also know that some former officers have not only admitted to electoral fraud, rigging, making and breaking of political alliances, buying people through a mix of carrots and sticks, and browbeating the media, but consider having done so as part of their remit and in the best national interest. Perish the thought that any one of them would say peccavi, since some actually boast about it.
Whispers there always have been. But now much is being said aloud. The ISI is not accountable to anyone; it is all-powerful; it can kill mercilessly and, in this case, it has killed Saleem, so go these whispers. What would you say to this? Shrug and move on, as if it makes no difference, that this is about a few flies buzzing around, a minor nuisance at worst? The man, who now lies buried after being tortured to death, leaves behind three children and a wife. To me this does not look like anything minor.
And what has the agency you head done so far? Nothing, beyond getting an unnamed official to say that while the “unfortunate and tragic death of Syed Saleem Shahzad is a source of concern for the entire nation”, “the incident should not be used to target and malign the country’s security agencies”. Well, sir, to me this is totally unacceptable. What makes the security agencies exempt from criticism or accountability, especially if they are considered enemies by the very people they are supposed to protect?
I believe in giving everyone a fair hearing but the ISI has to do much more than get an unnamed official to issue a feeble condolence and follow it up with a veiled threat to the media to deserve such a hearing. And as far as maligning the agency is concerned or knowing what national interest is, this being no time for mincing words, let me assure you that I understand the theoretical and practical dimensions of statecraft better and more deeply than your entire agency. And I am not the only one.
Now, for a moment, let’s assume that the ISI has not killed Saleem. Let’s also assume that much of what is being said about the ISI is the product of a heat-oppressed civilian brain, not a reality. Perhaps you would still like to know why people think such things of the ISI. So, here goes.
Nation-states are not biological entities; they are, to use the cliché, ‘imagined communities’. This, as the starting point, should give you some idea about how easily the concept of the state and its interest can be problematised. Democratic states garner the loyalties of their people through a sense of sharing and participation, through constitutionalism. In comparison, totalitarian and oppressive states use fear to keep the flock together. History shows that the latter break up at some point. No amount of oppression can keep the people chained; it is only a matter of time. Instead, oppression begets violence and deep turmoil. The problem with oppression is thus that it attracts what it sets out to avoid. Therein lies both the irony and the paradox.
Allied with this point is the idea of civilian supremacy, the fact that while the state becomes overarching, those representing it at any point of time have to operate on the basis of accepted and acceptable rules of the game. They are all accountable through two levels of agency. The first and primary level of agency is granted by the people through elections to their representatives; the second, a much more restrictive level of agency, is accorded by the peoples’ representatives to bureaucratic institutions, including the military and its intelligence agencies.
You, sir, are therefore a servant twice over, as are all your officers and other personnel. You are answerable to our representatives and those representatives are answerable to us.
Obviously, theory does not match fact in Pakistan and it is this anomaly which has brought the country to the brink of disaster. I have said this before and I will say it again: The military-ISI combine has no business defining Pakistan’s interest. That is our job and we, the civilians, will do it through our representatives. Your job is to implement, not formulate, policies.
Since it is your job to identify threats, you must understand the deep fault lines developing in this state. Today’s disarray is the product of flawed policies and even more flawed attempts at nation-building. Strategic vision, like charity, begins at home. If the people of this country feel proud to be Pakistanis, you will have that strength at your back. If they don’t, that makes you very weak too. And you can’t beat people into submission; nor kill them and expect all will be hunky-dory.
It is all about the fundamentals. Unless you get the fundamentals right, no amount of cloak-and-dagger stuff will reduce the threats the country faces. In fact, given what the people think about the agency you head, one of the biggest evolving threats appears to emanate from an organisation whose very reason for existence is to identify and evaluate threats to this state. Could there be a deeper irony than this?
I met you the first time in November 2007 when you were director-general military operations. I know you to be a straight-talking soldier. I would expect that you would do everything to prove that Saleem was not murdered by the ISI. Conversely, if the spoor is traced back to your agency, that you would ensure that whoever is responsible for it, no matter how highly placed, would face the law as a common murderer. That is the only honourable thing to do and nothing less would do, or be acceptable. That is also the only way you can save this country.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2011.
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