< Pakistan’s War of Information


Friday, June 03, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, Pakistani journalist and bureau chief for The Asia Times, Saleem Shahzad, published a story about an alleged Al-Qaeda infiltration in the Pakistani Navy. He wrote the story after a naval base in Pakistan’s south was attacked by Al-Qaeda insurgents, who claimed to be seeking revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Two days after his story was published, Shahzad was abducted from his home. This Tuesday, he was found dead in a canal with marks of torture on his body.

Journalists in Pakistan are blaming the country’s intelligence service, the ISI, for Shahzad’s killing. Freelance journalist Shahan Mufti says that Shahzad’s killing is part of a larger war that’s being waged in Pakistan.

SHAHAN MUFTI: This war is being fought not between two parties but many parties. It is being fought, on one hand, by militants and, on the other hand, by a couple of intelligence agencies. So the Pakistani Intelligence Agency is involved. It has its hands deep in this war. The CIA, who is carrying out the drone campaign and has foot soldiers in Pakistan, they're deeply involved in this.

And so, in this war, information and free information, misinformation, become very potent tools. And I think that’s the context in which this journalist has turned up dead.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But even as they're in the crosshairs of this war, news outlets and journalists put themselves at risk from the very organizations that provide the bulk of their information. For instance, Saleem Shahzad had sources deep within the ISI, the military and within Al-Qaeda, right?

SHAHAN MUFTI: That’s correct, especially in that northwestern part of Pakistan, where the war is at its hottest. That is an area that journalists don't have direct access to. They are banned from going into those areas, so these journalists are deeply dependent on the ISI, deeply dependent on the militants and deeply dependent on any official body for their sources of information.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it doesn't prevent them from being targeted by those organizations.

SHAHAN MUFTI: No. Like any relationship where there’s such an intelligence, or any institution, there is a power relationship which keeps shifting. And this is all happening at a moment when the journalists were in a power position after the death of Osama bin Laden. They felt like they had the freedom to lambast the military, the intelligence agencies for their failures and bring their failures to light. And that –


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did they feel they had the freedom?

SHAHAN MUFTI: With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the military had to come out and apologize for it. And I think that moment of weakness is what stimulated the –


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emboldened reporters?

SHAHAN MUFTI: Yeah, it did.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that the U.S. would support the Pakistani government’s efforts to investigate the killing. At the same time, the U.S. gives billions of dollars in aid each year to Pakistan’s military and security apparatus, who are implicated in the killing. So how does the U.S. square that circle?

SHAHAN MUFTI: The intelligence agencies are not admitting to it. In a very rare public statement they have actually denied that they killed this journalist. Usually when there’s question marks around intelligence agencies’ involvement with the killing of a journalist, they usually say nothing, 'cause they don't have to. So this time, at least, a day later-

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They took the trouble to deny.


SHAHAN MUFTI: To deny it. And - but how much pressure they're going to face from the United States, unfortunately, I don't think there’s going to be much pressure because the United States government, the State Department, has very little leverage over the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani intelligence services, despite the aid that goes there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If this is a war fought among the ISI, the military, Al-Qaeda, American intelligence, what are they fighting for?

SHAHAN MUFTI: This is really the question around the American relationship with Pakistan. What is this American relationship with Pakistan? Why does America seem incapable of letting go of Pakistan? It all has to do with creating an environment in that region that can help bring the war to an end at this point in Afghanistan. And -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Pakistan has its own agenda vis-a-vis India and, therefore, does not align with the American position.

SHAHAN MUFTI: Exactly. That is what we keep talking about when we talk about a double game, that Pakistan’s playing a double game with the United States. It’s really this idea that Pakistan is trying to make sure that India is contained and that Afghanistan remains a friendly country to Pakistan.

And, to this end, the Pakistani military intelligence outfits are carrying out their own war in the region, sometimes against the CIA and the United States, sometimes with the CIA and the United States, sometimes against India, sometimes with Afghanistan, sometimes [LAUGHS] against it. And in this incredible fog, journalists are trying to bring out this very, very complicated truth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And as so many of them get picked off, do you see the information just closing down, or will there still be some sort of way to look into the murk?

SHAHAN MUFTI: There is a tradition of a free media in Pakistan. There is a tradition of an independent media, a print media in Pakistan. Recently there is a tradition of a independent television media in Pakistan, as well. But if you are a journalist reporting in Pakistan on sensitive issues, you’re used to your phone being tapped and you’re used to being trailed and followed around. But somehow the information keeps coming out of Pakistan.

And I think that while this death will have a chilling effect on the media, there’s also possible, because of the amount of attention this has attracted, that this will be used by the media as another way to point out the weaknesses in its military and its human rights record in Pakistan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the pundit class in the U.S. think that the death of Osama bin Laden represents a kind of closure. You suggest that it’s opened a whole new chapter of violence. Apparently, it has. Are we not paying enough attention?

SHAHAN MUFTI: I think, at the end of the day, we should be asking ourselves, what is all of this for, who is the United States helping by being involved in this war? And I think those are the kinds of questions that might one day save the life of somebody like Saleem Shahzad.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't we need to prevent a safe haven being created for terrorists in Afghanistan?

SHAHAN MUFTI: Yes, and I think that the neighbors of Afghanistan are going to have to deal with that question long after the United States is out of that country. That is in the interest of a lot of countries in the region, and it seems less and less that the United States is going to have any real role to play in peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the long run.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shahan Mufti, thank you very much.

SHAHAN MUFTI: It was a pleasure, thanks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shahan Mufti is a freelance journalist and a former correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Pakistan.