It has been a stunningly beautiful spring in Pakistan. But the surface calm is deceptive. When the war in Afghanistan began, I suggested that the Taliban would be rapidly defeated and that the “jihadi” organisations and their patrons would regroup in Pakistan and, sooner or later, start punishing General Musharraf’s regime. This process is now under way.
In recent months, the jihadis have scored three big hits: the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl; the assassination of the interior minister’s brother; and the bombing of a church in the heart of Islamabad’s tightly protected diplomatic enclave. There have also been targeted killings of professionals in Karachi: more than a dozen doctors belonging to the Shi’a minority have been shot.
All these acts were designed as a warning to Pakistan’s military ruler: if you go too far in accommodating Washington, your head will also roll. Some senior journalists believe an attempt on Musharraf’s life has already taken place. Are these acts of terrorism actually carried out by hardline groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkatul Ansar, which often claim them? Probably, but these groups are only a shell. Turn them upside down and the rational kernel is revealed in the form of Pakistan’s major intelligence agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), whose manipulation of them has long been clear.
Those sections of the ISI who patronised and funded these organisations were livid at “the betrayal of the Taliban”. Being forced to unravel the only victory they had ever scored – the Taliban takeover in Kabul – created enormous tensions inside the army. Unless this background is appreciated, the terrorism shaking the country today is inexplicable.
Colin Powell’s statement of March 3, exonerating the ISI from any responsibility for Pearl’s disappearance and murder, is shocking. Few in Pakistan believe such assurances. Musharraf was not involved, but he must know what took place. He has referred to Pearl as an “over- intrusive journalist” caught up in “intelligence games”. Has he told Washington what he knows? And if so, why did Powell absolve the ISI?
The Pearl tragedy has shed some light on the darker recesses of the intelligence networks. Pearl was a gifted, independent-minded investigative journalist. On previous assignments he had established that the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory – bombed on Clinton’s orders – was exactly that and not a shady installation producing biological and chemical weapons, as alleged by the White House. Subsequently, he wrote extensively on Kosovo, questioning some of the atrocity stories dished out by Nato spin-doctors to justify the war on Yugoslavia.
Pearl was never satisfied with official briefings or chats with approved local journalists. Those he was in touch with in Pakistan say he was working to uncover links between the intelligence services and terrorism. His newspaper has been remarkably coy, refusing to disclose the leads Pearl was pursuing.
Any western journalist visiting Pakistan is routinely watched and followed. The notion that Daniel Pearl, setting up contacts with extremist groups, was not being carefully monitored by the secret services is unbelievable – and nobody in Pakistan believes it.
The group which claimed to have kidnapped and killed Pearl – “The National Youth Movement for the Sovereignty of Pakistan” – is a confection. One of its demands was unique: the resumption of F-16 sales to Pakistan. A terrorist, jihadi group which supposedly regards the current regime as treacherous is putting forward a 20-year-old demand of the military and state bureaucracy.
The principal kidnapper, the former LSE student Omar Saeed Sheikh – whose trial begins in Karachi today – has added to the mystery. He carelessly condemned himself by surrendering to the provincial home secretary (a former ISI operative) on February 5. Sheikh is widely believed in Pakistan to be an experienced ISI “asset” with a history of operations in Kashmir. If he was extradited to Washington and decided to talk, the entire story would unravel. His family are fearful. They think he might be tried by a summary court and executed to prevent the identity of his confederates being revealed.
So mysterious has this affair become that one might wonder who is really running Pakistan. Official power is exercised by General Musharraf. But it is clear that his writ does not extend to the whole state apparatus, let alone the country. If a military regime cannot guarantee law and order, what can it hope to deliver? Meanwhile, Daniel Pearl’s widow is owed an explanation by her own state department and the general in Islamabad.
Tariq Ali is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. HIs latest book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, is published by Verso.