One of Pakistan’s best known TV personalities has recently been embroiled in a major national scandal involving the Pakistani Taliban and a kidnapped British journalist. My piece on this for Hudson NY is reproduced below.
Last month a British journalist, Asad Qureshi, was kidnapped in Waziristan after being promised an interview with Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of Pakistani Taliban, as they have come to be known, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a group rapidly gaining notoriety in the West after its leader claimed responsibility for the failed car bomb attack earlier this month in Times Square.
Qureshi’s decision to pursue Mehsud into the lawless tribal province might seem foolhardy, but he was accompanied by two fixers who seemed able guarantee his safety – Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja, both former members of Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agency, known as the ISI. Not only were they were unable to protect Qureshi, they ended up abducted as well.
Their disappearance has been heavily covered by the Pakistani media: the fact that TTP fighters would kidnap members of the ISI – an institution which has traditionally turned a blind eye to some of their worst excesses – signalled a marked deterioration in relations between Islamist militants and the Pakistani state.
Both Colonel Imam and Khwaja are known to have had strong ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. During the 1980s and 1990s, when the ISI was heavily involved with both groups, Imam and Khwaja repeatedly met with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar in Afghanistan.
The reason behind the deteriorating relationship between powerful institutions such as the ISI and the Taliban can be explained by the Red Mosque siege: In 2007, the Army attacked this mosque which sits in the heart of Islamabad, just yards from parliament and, ironically, the central headquarters of the ISI. The mosque’s firebrand leaders – two brothers called Abdul Aziz Gazi and Abdul Rashid Gazi – had baited the government for months. Their students were demanding the imposition of Shariah law and increasingly had begun taking the law into their own hands.
Having built a head of steam, members of the Red Mosque stormed music and DVD stores across Islamabad and destroyed their stock. Later, they kidnapped local and foreign women for alleged prostitution and lashed them inside the mosque’s grounds. A draconian response followed when the Army eventually dispatched its elite 111 Brigade to overcome the Gazi brothers and their supporters.
The ferocity of the fighting has left an indelible mark on the national psyche. Tanks and helicopter gunships pummelled a hardcore of supporters who fortified themselves inside the mosque. In total, the siege lasted for ten days and claimed hundreds of lives.
A ferocious wave of jihadist attacks followed. Suicide bombers targeted ISI buildings and other sensitive sites in Islamabad and Lahore. Ordinary Pakistanis are paying are heavy price. The surge in terrorism has already changed everyday life beyond recognition. For example, frequent roadblocks with heavily armed guards and resulting traffic jams are now an integral part of any journey.
After holding the trio captive for several weeks Colonel Imam and Asad Qureshi were released without harm; Khwaja, however, was fatally shot. His body was eventually recovered from a river in Waziristan by a council of local elders, known as a jirga, who repatriated the corpse to Islamabad for burial.
Pinned to Khwaja’s body was a note warning that a similar fate awaited other “American spies.” The note also made reference to Khwaja’s supposed betrayal of the Gazi brothers during the Red Mosque siege.
The story took a dramatic turn revently, when leaked recordings of an intercepted phone call surfaced on the internet. The call features a conversation between a TTP fighter based in Lahore and Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best known journalists and TV anchors, who made his name interviewing Osama bin Laden several times in the 1990s, and who later said the recording had been doctored
In the recordingm the TTP fighter explains that he will be see Hakimullah Mehsud in the next few days and asks for information about Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja. Mir responds by saying that he suspects Khwaja is working for the CIA and may also have links with Israel. He also casts doubts over Khwaja’s Islamic beliefs, suggesting that he might belong to a persecuted sect in Pakistan whose members are widely regarded as heretical.
Mir also offers information about upcoming military activity, telling the man, “[the Army] will also start an operation in North Waziristan and 40,000 troops will leave in a couple of days.”
Key excerpts from the phone reveal the following exchange:
TTP: So, are they [Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja] men of the government or ISI?
Hamid Mir: Who?
TTP: These, Khalid Khawaja and Colonel Imam.
HM: Khalid Khawaja, according to my opinion, is not an ISI man, rather he is a CIA agent, an American CIA agent and he has links with the Taliban leadership.
TTP: Yes, he met with Hakimullah and others when he came here last time.
HM: I personally know that Khalid Khawaja has links not only with CIA but he is also a front man of Mansoor Ijaz who belongs to a very big international network of Qadiyanis [the sect regarded as heretical by many Pakistanis].
HM: …ask [Khwaja] what relationship he has with Mansoor Ijaz and William Casey? William Casey was the chief of CIA.
UM: Right, right.
HM: He (Khawaja) himself has confessed in front me that he had links with William Casey. Ok! Leave William, ask him about the Qadiyanis, because I personally believe that Qadiyanis are worse than infidels, what kind of links does he have with Qadiyanis?
Later, when the issue of releasing Khwaja is discussed, Mir appears to suggest that he should be questioned further before anything happens. The unidentified TTP fighter replies, “OK. Inshallah [Allah willing], I will meet Hakimullah in two or three days and talk to him about all this.”
The scandal engulfing Mir is extreme, although he told the Guardian newspaper, “I never said these things to these people. This is a concocted tape. They [the ISI] took my voice, sampled it and manufactured this conspiracy against me.”
Beyond the obvious outrage caused by the tape, its contents raise a wide range of other questions. Who released the recording? After all, it damages everyone concerned. At one point Mir and the TTP fighter suggest that Khwaja was willing to help broker an understanding between the TTP and the Pakistan Army. The agreement seems to be that in return for peace, the army would turn a blind eye to TTP raids on US containers in Pakistan – it is not clear whether the containers referred to are freight containers or military ones. Similarly, what is the role between Pakistan’s right-wing, pro-Islamist media and those on the frontlines? The relationship between Mir and the TTP fighter he is speaking to certainly sounds comfortable and familiar.
The kidnap, murder and subsequent controversy surrounding Khalid Khwaja’s disappearance in Waziristan underscores how inextricably intertwined some of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions – such as the ISI and media – have become with the jihadist cause they are nominally supposed to be fighting. Unravelling that will be delicate process of splitting apart information, with, undoubtedly, many more twists yet to come.