Faisal Mahmood / Courtesy Reuters A journalist at a demonstration in front of the parliament building in Islamabad, January 28, 2013.

The Generals Strike Back

The ISI's Critics -- and the Agency's Efforts to Silence Them

On April 19, unknown gunmen shot Hamid Mir, a well-known Pakistani journalist and private TV news anchor, in the port city of Karachi. By some stroke of luck, he survived. Mir’s family immediately blamed the attack on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), specifically naming its director general, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam Abbasi, as the culprit.

Mir’s employer -- Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s most popular stations -- hurriedly broadcast the allegations, splashing Abbassi’s picture across TV screens in Pakistan for hours, setting off a political and media maelstrom in a country where the generals consider themselves above reproach and are certainly never named and shamed for crimes. On April 22, the ISI had Pakistan's defense ministry petition PEMRA, the country’s electronic media regulator, to revoke Geo TV’s transmission license and initiate criminal charges against its management for defaming the state. The military’s reaction stirred up a nationalist frenzy against Geo TV. In several cities, ISI-backed militant organizations, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, staged angry protests, which competitor media organizations then gleefully broadcast along with talk shows segments questioning the patriotism of Mir and Geo TV. Ultimately, Geo and its affiliated newspapers were banned from military bases and units.

The more the generals crack down, the deeper the stain of their guilt sets. Before he was attacked, Mir had informed his family and close associates that the ISI was plotting to assassinate him and that the agency should be held responsible if he was harmed. The generals, he believed, were furious about his sustained reporting of their dirty war against Baluch insurgents in Baluchistan province. Last month, Mir invited the children and other family members of “disappeared” Baluch nationalists (who were allegedly abducted and murdered by the ISI) to appear on his popular evening talk show. That, he says, was the last straw.

It is hard to conclusively prove the military’s culpability in the attack on Mir. But what happened to him fits the ISI’s recent strategy for silencing its critics. Two years ago, the spy agency also threatened journalist Saleem Shehzad with dire consequences for offenses against “national security.” Shehzad had crossed the military when he revealed that al Qaeda sympathizers within the navy’s ranks had facilitated a terrorist attack on a major naval base in Karachi in May 2011. Two days after his story was published, he was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Circumstantial evidence, including the death threats that Shehzad had received from ISI personnel before his abduction and the mysterious disappearance of his cell phone records from the database of a private cellular company, clearly pointed to the ISI.

Even so, a government commission appointed by the previous administration to investigate Shehzad’s death expectedly exonerated the agency of any wrongdoing. As ever, the ISI and the military have proved untouchable. Using Pakistan’s enduring rivalry with India, the generals have manufactured a narrative of existential danger that privileges the military as the sole provider of national security. In that sense, the organization operates more like a crime racket than a state institution subject to the rule of law. Anyone who seriously questions its activities is branded a traitor, one who must be intimidated into silence and, ultimately, terminated.

What is new is that civilians, even though they could be killed, have begun to break the long-standing taboo against publicly calling out the military for its misdeeds. Shehzad did and lost his life. Mir did and will likely do so again. And in an important victory for the rule of law, on March 31, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former president and army chief, was indicted for treason for unlawfully suspending the constitution and declaring a state of emergency in November 2007. Musharraf is the first army chief to face prosecution for his extraconstitutional actions. While holding him individually accountable will not drastically rebalance power between the civilians and the military, it will carry significant symbolic value and could help puncture the military’s veneer of invincibility.

It is not surprising, then, that the military has fought back. The generals first tried to shield Musharraf by providing him sanctuary in a military hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi under the cover of a heart ailment. No longer able to keep up that charade in the face of repeated court summonses and increased criticism from journalists and some government ministers, Raheel Sharif, the current army chief, drew a line in the sand on April 16 by warning the military’s critics to refrain from attacking the institution's “dignity.” The day Mir was attacked, Musharraf was quietly moved to Karachi for treatment at another, “more secure,” military hospital, which implied the civilian government’s acquiescence.

If Musharraf does manage to escape the law, it will only reinforce the military’s impunity. And as long as its presumption of exemption is intact, Pakistanis and the rest of the world will continue to suffer the consequences, including military patronage of violent Islamist groups and the persecution of journalists and other critics who speak out against its stranglehold on national security. But there is a silver lining to all this: both Musharraf’s indictment and Mir’s defiance may mean that the military can no longer take for granted the conspiracy of silence that surrounds its unlawful actions.

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