Pakistan’s all-powerful army has a long history of siring, pampering and letting loose jihadi terrorists, at home and across borders. It has also sold-out or shunned certain jihadis when they have spun out of its orbit, and occasionally fought them when they bucked its diktat. It has signed scores of agreements with the jihadis, feted and garlanded their leaders, and appeased them when it wanted. No civilian leader or government has had any say in this project nor the ability to curtail its blowback.
The recent news that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the ex-spokesman of the infamous terrorist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – who was in the Pakistani army’s custody for over two years – has fled to Turkey, shows that the top khaki brass continues to mollycoddle terrorists of assorted hues. The army has many problems, but poor discipline is certainly not one of them. It is an extremely organized outfit with a top-down, well-knit and well-defined command and control structure. A most-wanted, high-profile terrorist escaping from its detention is unimaginable. The army’s coyness about Ehsan’s escape and its friendly media rationalizing Ehsan’s “contributions” to the army’s effort to neutralise the TTP smacks of collusion, not incompetence on the part of the captors. And there is no way in hell that the army has cut a deal with a top TTP operative, without the knowledge and approval of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa in the current instance.
Regardless of whether Ehsan made good his escape on his own or was allowed to flee, the buck stops with General Bajwa. That the man who, on behalf of the TTP and later its breakaway incarnation Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), had gleefully claimed the slaughter of thousands of Pakistanis and the maiming of others, including Nobel-laureate Malala Yousufzai went scot-free on General Bajwa’s watch is a disgrace in its own right. But a bigger humiliation is the Pakistani army’s criminal silence over this matter. After all, among the TTP’s most heinous crimes were the wholesale killings of schoolchildren at the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar, murderous attacks on the army itself and desecration of servicemen’s corpses by playing football with their severed heads.
The outgoing Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor had boasted in April 2017: “I want to take this opportunity to announce that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former spokesperson of the TTP and a leader of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, has turned himself in to our security agencies.” Ehsan was never brought to book or faced any trial.
Now he has walked away, without as much as a rap on the knuckles, right out of the Pakistan army’s safehouse. After the parent of a child killed in the APS attack filed a petition, the authorities had, however, told the Peshawar high court that they “would continue to keep him under custody and investigation”. Ehsan has claimed in an audio clip attributed to him that he had opted to flee as the army didn’t keep its end of the bargain. He had clearly been cut a deal, otherwise two years is more than enough time to indict, prosecute and punish a terrorist who loudly and repeatedly owned the murders of thousands of innocents, on behalf of his outfit(s).
The army had paraded him before the cameras and then sat him down – clad in a crisp salwar-kameez suit and waistcoat—with a chosen television anchor for an ostensibly confessional statement. However, Ehsan – appearing extremely comfortable – essentially had indicted the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies for propping up the TTP. The TTP’s baby-faced butcher, who had gleefully claimed scores of attacks and threatened many more, was being housed in a villa in Peshawar’s suburban Hayatabad Township, in the midst of civilians, indicating that there wasn’t even an intention of bringing him to justice. Ehsan also sired a child during this sham custody.
Kid-glove treatment of terrorists
The Pakistani army’s kid-glove treatment of its favourite terrorists isn’t anything new. The author Arif Jamal had noted that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives had lived largely under custody, enjoyed conjugal visit privileges and while in jail, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, “Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi even fathered a son who is being raised as an LeT jihadist”. Jamal wrote that the jihadists had nicknamed the boy Maulana Adialavi, after Rawalpindi’s Adiala prison, where he had been conceived.
One, therefore, has to look at the just-announced conviction of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the chief of the LeT’s parent outfit Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), on terror-financing and organiSing charges, with industrial-strength suspicion. The verdict was perfectly timed before a key meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in Paris on February 16. In its October 2019 review, the FATF had kept Pakistan on its grey list and given it till this February to take more measures to avoid being placed on the blacklist. Blacklisting by the FATF, a powerful inter-governmental body that monitors terror-financing, and makes policy recommendations to financial entities and governments about threats to the international financing systems, could be a major blow to Pakistan’s sagging economy, which got an International Monetary Fund (IMF) lifeline just last year.
It is not just that the Pakistan army continues to hug its terrorist proxies tight but also that it is systematically and constantly hounding the critics of its jihadist project, which indicates that those policies and practices are very much in place.
The latest target
The latest target of the army’s war on dissent is Gul Bukhari, a fearless human rights activist and opinion writer. Bukhari – who happens to be the daughter of a retired general and daughter-in-law of another one – has been a fierce critic of the army’s anti-democratic policies and its jihadist practices, for years. She had to flee Pakistan after she was abducted by the army’s operatives in June 2018. This time around, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has apparently issued notice for Bukhari to appear before it. The charge against her is – wait for it – terrorist activities by virtue of criticizing the army on social media. And if she fails to appear before the FIA, her property can be confiscated. Everyone and their aunt knows in Pakistan that the FIA’s anti-terrorism wing would not have initiated such frivolous and malicious proceedings without the army twisting its tail. Pakistan is under virtual martial law, with Prime Minister Imran Khan merely serving as a civilian fig leaf under General Bajwa.
Gul Bukhari is not the first journalist to face the army’s wrath and she won’t be the last. In fact, one of the first actions of the Pakistan army was to muzzle the independent media, when the first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, clamped martial law. A respected left-liberal publishing house, the Progressive Papers Limited (PPL) was taken over at gunpoint by Ayub Khan’s regime in April 1959. The PPL ran the English daily, Pakistan Times, the Urdu daily Imroze, and an Urdu periodical Lail-o-Nahar. The Pakistan Times had been brought out by the veteran Marxist Mian Iftikharuddin, who had joined the Muslim League, at the prodding of none other than the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Not only were the publications taken over but the printing press was appropriated and the properties of Mian Iftikharuddin threatened. In an article titled ‘Ayub’s attack on Progressive Papers’, the venerable editor of the Pakistan Times, Mazhar Ali Khan was to write in 1972:
“Many will probably conclude that the dictatorship’s gravest crime was its deliberate destruction of press freedom, because so many other evils flowed from this act of denying to the people of Pakistan one of their fundamental rights”.
This was true then and remains truer now. I have been one of the earliest causalities of the Pakistan army’s present war on dissent, along with the respected Baloch rights champion Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur and veteran editor Rashed Rahman. The noose continued to tighten from there on, with prominent writers, journalists, and even former parliamentarians getting purged out of the publications that had carried their work for years. The common denominator was that all of the sanctioned media personalities were critical either of the Pakistani army’s domestic encroachment into the political domain or its policy to prosecute foreign policy goals through the use of jihadi proxies or both.
Believing its own lies and half-truths
The Pakistani army, for its part, seems to believe its own lies and half-truths, the most pernicious one of which is that it is the guardian of Pakistan’s geographical and ideological frontiers. Nothing can be farther than truth. The army in Pakistan remains a colonial construct in its mindset and actions. It was nothing but a continuation of the British Indian Army, through the regiments, which Pakistan had inherited at the 1947 Partition of India.
It anointed itself as the praetorian guard over the new state in just over a decade but never developed a national character. In its theory and practice, the Pakistani army has maintained a disdain for free speech and dissenting opinions, just like its precursors did during the British Raj. Even the harassment of journalists and targeting their possessions is a direct continuation of the colonial era. One of the first actions of the British Raj after seizing Delhi in 1857 was to hang Maulvi Muhammad Baqir, the owner-publisher of Delhi Urdu Akhbar, and burn his property to ground. Later on, the British seized – at gunpoint – the press and even personal library of the Communist Party of India’s leader Maulana Hasrat Mohani. Mohani had refused to divulge the real name and identity of a contributor who had written an article critical of the British colonial power, in his paper Urdu-e-Mua’lla.
Activists and media persons aren’t the only ones facing the army’s wrath. In the inglorious colonial tradition of jailing politicians and arresting leaders, the army has, through its civilian façade, orchestrated the arrest of two former PMs, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, one ex-president Asif Zardari, assorted parliamentarians on trumped-up graft allegations, and political leaders like Manzur Pashteen on cooked-up law and order charges. All of them have opposed the army’s political ambitions, to a varying degree. Pashteen also flayed the army’s double game of showcasing to the world that it is fighting jihadi terror, while harbouring the same terrorists.
Pakistan’s army is unlikely to change its ambitions, strategy and tactics to subdue the Pakistani people without political forces closing ranks to confront it. Civil society activists, rights defenders and advocates, journalists and media persons can certainly raise awareness about what the Pakistan army’s role and goal is, but only organised political parties can do the heavy lifting.
The army has succeeded thus far by playing political parties, or groups within them, against each other. The only way forward is for the parties to close rank on a minimum common program to push the army back towards borders and barracks. Pakistan’s major political parties had signed, what they called a Charter of Democracy (CoD), nearly 15 years ago with the intent to forge unity to push and keep the army out of the country’s political arena. The former PMs, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were the prime movers of the process.
An updated CoD is the need of the hour but with Nawaz Sharif facing serious health issues and Benazir Bhutto tragically gone, does the available political leadership have the will and wherewithal to pull off something like that? One seriously doubts that, but politics is the art of the possible. And that is where the dissident voices, writers, activists have a role to play – by prodding, nudging and cajoling the politicians to rise to the occasion.
In the most recent development, Pakistani authorities are now seeking to implement laws to gag social media. This ominous move is patterned after China, where the authoritarian state controls social media with an iron fist. In Pakistan, social media has played a vibrant role as a vehicle for dissent. After the traditional media was muzzled, social media platforms have so far been the firewall that the Bajwa-Imran hybrid regime hasn’t been able to cross successfully. Defending these last vestiges of freedom of expression would be imperative for political leaders and cadres, as well as the rights activists.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.