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India, ISI and the Hamid Mir attack

April 23, 2014 15:51 IST

'ISI mouthpieces in the media have been quick to blame India for the attack. Clearly, the intellect and worldview of these characters (which includes fairly senior retired military officers) is based on Bollywood masala movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod.'

'More seriously, the fact that ISI touts have been using this opportunity to train their guns on India raises serious questions about all the talk of the army being on the same page as the civilian government on the issue of improving relations with India,' says Sushant Sareen.

The attack on Hamid Mir, one of the best known Pakistani journalists, has reaffirmed Pakistan's reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world for newsmen.

Mir, who took six bullets, barely survived the well-planned ambush in broad daylight on a busy road in Karachi when he was heading from the airport to his office. The attempt on his life created a storm in the Pakistani media, more so after his brother alleged that Inter Services Intelligence chief Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul Islam was responsible for the attack.

According to reports in the Pakistani media, Mir, left, had confided in his friends and family about the threats to his life from the ISI and had even recorded his testimony on paper and in a video in the event something happened to him. As soon as news of the attack broke, fingers started being pointed at the ISI.

The military spokesman was quick to condemn the incident and deny any ISI involvement. But cut to the bone by the audacity and temerity of the journalists who were accusing the ISI of being behind the attack, the ISI, which is a virtual State within a State, unleashed its army of plants in the media to launch a fierce counter offensive, not just against Mir (accusing him of all sorts of anti-national activity) but also the media group --Jang/Geo -- that he works for.

For rival channels, this was a godsend opportunity to pull the Jang Group down from its pedestal as the most popular and powerful media group in Pakistan.

For some months now, the ISI has been using a rival channel ARY to target Jang, its owner and its journalists. After the Hamid Mir attack, other channels like Express have jumped into the act. The idea is to severely damage Jang's credibility and popularity and at the same time increase their market share at Jang's expense.

What makes the attempt on Mir's life so sinister is that it comes against the backdrop of mounting tensions between the civilian government and the military.

Apparently, the army was pretty cut up with the government on the issue of former dictator Pervez Musharraf's treason trial, the peace process with the Pakistani Taliban and the trade deal that the government was all set to sign with India.

Things got a little tense after some rather strong words were used by cabinet ministers against Musharraf, which the media twisted to present as though these were aimed at the army. Adding further fuel to fire, some television channels started playing an eight-year-old fiery speech by Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, in which he railed against the military for meddling in politics.

Things seemed to have cooled down a bit after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad and expressed his confidence in the army and held up the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, as a role model for newly commissioned officers.

But the attack on Mir, coupled with the allegations against the ISI, seems to have muddied the waters once again. Although Sharif has set up a judicial commission of inquiry, the Mir case threatens to snowball into a test case for establishing civilian supremacy and making the military accountable.

However, if Sharif tries to brush this under the carpet, and the army continues on its offensive against those who question its dubious policies as well as its monopoly on defining national interest, then all the tall talk of civilian supremacy will remain just that.

Already, the government, under pressure from the army, has retreated on the issue of opening trade with India. Even on Musharraf, there seems to be a move under way to let him off the hook and allow him to flee Pakistan.

If now the government backs down on getting to the bottom of the attack on Mir, then it will be, for all practical purposes, reduced into a glorified municipality, like its predecessor. It may survive in office for a full term, but will wield no real power to take any important decision without a nod from the military.

Mir is, of course, not the first prominent journalist to come under fire, nor will he be the last. A number of other journalists have claimed threats from State, quasi-State and non-State actors -- hit-lists containing the names of journalists have also been floating around for some time now.

Interestingly, the ideological persuasions of the threatened journalists cover the entire spectrum of opinion, as does the source of threats to them.

But more than the threats, which are a professional hazard in a country as disturbed, divided and intolerant as Pakistan, it is the sheer impunity with which journalists are threatened and targeted that exemplifies the dysfunctional nature of the State and its institutions.

Nothing illustrated this fact better than the utterly useless report of the commission that investigated the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, who is also believed to have been killed by the ISI after he published a story about Al Qaeda's infiltration of the Pakistan navy.

Mir, like Shahzad, had frequently been crossing the unwritten red lines of the military by highlighting issues like the enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killings by the army and paramilitary forces, the human rights violations in Balochistan, the need to prosecute Musharraf, the rising civil-military discord etc.

The problem was not just with the stories he was covering, but also the fact that Mir thought he had become too big to be touched. His hubris was his undoing, as it has been of scores of journalists before Mir who thought that their prominence put them out of harm's way.

In Mir's case, his past must also have gone against him. He was at one time seen as a blue-eyed boy of the ISI and an Urdu newspaper he used to edit some years ago was alleged to have been funded by the ISI.

What is more, he used to espouse the cause of jihadi terrorists and had developed close links with them. When such a person tries to assert his independence, his former patrons are bound to be furious and the attack on him is likely to have a salutary impact on other journalists who were outspoken, something that is already becoming apparent in the sort of guarded statements and comments that Mir's colleagues have been making on television and in the print media.

It wasn't, however, just the military, but also the terrorists who were reported to be gunning for him. Although he was quite adept at walking the tightrope on the issue of Taliban, there were times when he took positions that didn't go down well with the Islamists. While the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has denied any involvement in the attack, there are unconfirmed reports that the Punjabi Taliban have claimed responsibility.

But this claim doesn't appear to be very credible because Mir is known to have close links with the Punjabi jihadis, something that came out clearly when a tape emerged of a conversation between him and the Punjabi Taliban discussing the links of a kidnapped former ISI official, Khalid Khwaja, with the Central Intelligence Agency. Khwaja was later shot dead by the Taliban.

Although the involvement of the TTP or its affiliates cannot be completely ruled out, the circumstances surrounding the attack on Mir shift the needle of suspicion away from them. Despite their strong presence in Karachi -- they have claimed responsibility for at least three or four attacks on media houses like Express and AAJ in recent months -- for the Taliban to target Islamabad-based Mir in the port city would require an intelligence and operational network capability which is probably out of their league.

But if indeed it was the Taliban that carried out the attack on Mir, then it means that Pakistan is in far more serious trouble than what it is apparent. Apart from the Taliban, the ISI mouthpieces in the media have been quick to blame India for the attack. Some of these loonies have also named the CIA and Mossad.

Clearly, the intellect and worldview of these characters (which includes fairly senior retired military officers) is based on Bollywood masala movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod. Even more hilarious was the bizarre theories that some 'analysts' came up with: Mir was dubbed a RAW agent who was shot because he had outlived his usefulness; one morning show anchor even doubted that he was injured; another 'analyst' asked whether he staged the incident himself and accidentally got shot more than planned; yet another blamed the Jang/Geo group for the attack so it could paint the ISI in lurid colours!

More seriously, the fact that ISI touts have been using this opportunity to train their guns on India, their favourite whipping boy, raises serious questions about all the talk of the army being on the same page as the civilian government on the issue of improving relations with India.

For some months now, known military mouthpieces have been carrying out a vitriolic and virulent campaign against India and have been taking pot shots at the Sharif government accusing it of a sell-out.

While the Manmohan Singh government, as is its wont, remained somnolent on this issue, what is surprising is that the so-called well informed Indian analysts on foreign affairs have continued to delude themselves that Pakistan has changed.

The fallout of the Hamid Mir attack should serve as a reality check to all these Indians about how nothing has changed in Pakistan.

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank.

Sushant Sareen