Asia Union is no more a dream and an alliance of strong nations are already on way. Pakistan is emerging as a strong economy with enormous potential and in past it has proved itself time and time again. However Pakistan needs planned development which is sustainable.
Former ISI boss, General (R) Zaheer-ul-Islam speaks out about the issues first time after his retirement. He was interviewed by Center for Development-Pakistan and he expressed his views and replied to the questions posed by the Center.
It was a sunny Friday of December; we were on our way to ancestral house of Former Chief of Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan. Last night, we were contacted by house attaché of General. In a military fashion, he inquired about the timing and was giving details of our journey into most famous military men region of the world that produced exemplary Khaki/Soldiers for centuries. The military men generally belonged to famous Rajput clan, believed to be finest Generals since ancient times, which defended and sacrificed for the frontiers of Indian Sub-Continent. Even in World War I & II, people from Potohar region defended the democracies of West, while they were denied of their own freedom, as my military historian and commentator friend; Jahan Mehmood puts it eloquently during his lectures in London and around. Pakistan Army is no stranger to these men as well. The attaché on the day called us on dots and inquired if we have left Islamabad. It started getting irritating, albeit I told him that we are leaving in ten minutes, he quickly prophesized, “you should reach us by 11 A.M”. And 11 it was. We were greeted by huge entrance gates of a villa with somewhat Moroccan and French Architecture impregnated by vintage Punjab’s Haveli style. The General was in his office shuffling few files in his camp office style, Bethak (Annexe ) just beside the entrance gate. We are introduced to the General; the attaché announced my name to certify that I am the one who is going to take first public interview of former ISI’s El Patron. The office was of a decorated three generations military family with walls depicting a proud tradition while side tables portraying his love for Golf. After a while, we settled in the lawn of his gracious house for next four hours. I, along with my two colleagues was in front of a man who had been an architect of Karachi Operation and alleged executor of Peace Talks between Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban. His stint saw China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announcement to the world as DG ISI and Pakistan witnessed an onslaught of Imran Khan and Dr. Tahir ul Qadri’s Tsunami and Inqilab (Revolution) Marches to Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. Actually,Dr. Qadri came twice to Islamabad and retired both times peacefully. In May, 2014 he was accused by Geo TV of an attack on its anchor Hamir Mir in Karachi, which was rebuffed strongly by the army quarters. Later, Geo TV retracted its allegation and Geo/Jang Group printed a front page apology to Pakistan Army, ISI and its then Chief, General Zaheer ul Islam. The apology came two days before an anticipated ruling by the broadcast regulator on the affair and marked a clear retreat by media conglomerate after weeks of bruising public criticism. GEO/Jang group was not able to substantiate their claims.
Lt. General ® Zaheer ul Islam is running a strategic Think Tank in Islamabad dedicated to strategic issues of Pakistan and world. Our conversation encompassed regional in addition to national issues with his take on strategic future of Pakistan.
CDP: What is the future of geo-politics of South Asia Region?
For centuries, China, Russia and Central Asia needed a way out, for example Silk Route and route to warm waters. Since Gawader was bought from Oman in 1958, China started progressing towards its shores. The strife began in late 70’s when an Argentinian company called BRIDAS moved into supply natural gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the project now simply known as TAPI. During the second Benazir Bhutto’s government, an agreement was signed between the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan. However, a US company Unocal, came in with a parallel proposal and along with a Saudi oil company, Delta, signed separate agreements with the government of Turkmenistan. This move later on got failed in 1998, when Unocal moved out of the consortium citing political problems with Afghan Taliban and US Government accusations against Taliban. One of the reasons by Unocal not to proceed with the project was Gender inequality in Afghanistan. TAPI line was planned to move from Gas fields in Turkmenistan into Afghanistan and Pakistan. From Multan, Pipe line was to enter India at the point of Fazilka. This move was subverted because of US pressure. It should also be noted that this pipeline would have made India dependent on pipeline through Pakistan, which is a strategic benefit for Pakistan by default. However, with the progress on China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the geo-strategic positioning of Pakistan has come out strongly. China with more than 1 Billion people market on one side, a strong economic power such as Russia and a country like Afghanistan which is in need of huge development, Gawader being the largest deep sea port is a natural gift to Pakistan and region. Had it been that BIRDAS’s project was successful, Gawader by now would have been already a key economic center. Former General looked hopeful, he continued, TAPI and CPEC are two projects which had to be started two decades ago. He thinks Pakistan’s position in future would be much stronger geo-strategically and economically. He believes Pakistan cannot be ignored. Responding to question, how, he asserted, we need to put our house in order first.
CDP: What would be Pakistan’s role in future geo-politics?
Former DG ISI elaborating role of Pakistan in future’s geo-politics said that the Geography of Pakistan is so important that even China has to go through Pakistan and we give access to hot waters to land locked countries of the region. He further said the potential of human resource is amazing and Pakistan Army is one countless examples of this country. Next in line, he stressed upon the status of being the only nuclear power of Islamic World as well as the only justified nuclear power of developing world. This bags a leadership role of Pakistan for Middle East and Islamic World. He thinks another important factor of Pakistan’s strategic position is signing SEATO and CENTO agreements versus Warsaw. This gave a clear edge to Pakistan over India during 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. He also observed that in recent history the only successful proxy war against the Communist USSR was won by Pakistan Army and ISI. On the volatile situation of Balochistan, Former Spy Master pointed that if you analyze the so-called separatist movements in Balochistan fuelled by Russians and Indians back in 70’s, they used Sardars (Tribal Chieftains) not common man. Common man is always patriot, so addressing Baluchistan; one must never blame a common citizen. Leadership needs to be rectified.
CDP: What are your suggestions to end conflicts in Middle East?
Singleness of command was the reason behind Pakistan’s success during the Afghan Soviet War which is not present in Syria’s episode. “Pakistanization of Turkey” is a wrong term because despite the fact that West has been involved in arming and financing Syrian rebels against Assad but the success is a far cry. The failures in Syria are major because of no coherent strategy and command which gave rise to menace of Deash or Islamic State. Pakistan handled Afghan situation very well and successfully pulled Russians out of Afghanistan. He further deepens the role of Pakistan in the spectrum of China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Former General paused for a moment and exclaimed that it was Pakistan who forced India to join United States and leave Russia. Because of Pakistan, India realized that Russia is not enough. Rising China however has coincided and further cemented the US interests in India. However, the region is anticipating a new shuffling, producing a China-Pakistan-Russia nexus soon.
CDP: Do you see Eurasia Union in Future?
Asia Union is no more a dream and an alliance of strong nations are already on way. Pakistan is emerging as a strong economy with enormous potential and in past it has proved itself time and time again. However Pakistan need planned development which is sustainable and yield employment opportunities for young people. Pakistan in its true sense is Rising Tiger.
CDP: Do you see end to geographic conflicts in the region?
The conflicts we see around us are not going to end for at least 10 years unless there are leaderships who can sacrifice their personal and political gains. For example, it was year 2006, when President Musharraf actually gave an actionable solution to Kashmir dispute which was agreed upon by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. If same proposal comes to table today and both leaderships go towards solution, their political careers will be over but they will be remembered for years to come. General (R) Zaheer ul Islam thinks that a third party intervention is needed to bring Pakistan and India to agreeable formula on Kashmir dispute. Conflicts in region could end if big powers like US and China sit down for realistic solutions. Once Chinese President proclaimed that fruits of development in 1st world should reach the poorer countries and they owe it to them.
CDP: What is the geo-strategic implication of CPEC for Pakistan and region?
Establishing a Chinese Naval Base will be a point of worry in later stages. With the advent of Chinese money, there are going to be implications. “There is no free lunch in this world” he proceeded. So “we have to be very careful in our minds that they are going to earn far more from us”. He stressed upon the balancing of relationship between the two countries. He emphasized that it is on us that how are we going to benefit from CPEC. Among many, few could be that we improve our infrastructure, facilities and set up industrial zones along the route. He believes that CPEC is a small part of China’s strategy of South Asia and Middle East. “Traffic will flow all around, from Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and China will connect to all these countries”. He exemplified that China is not only investing in Pakistan, it is investing in whole of the region.
About Afghanistan he said, “We are feeding, clothing, providing them shelter in the form of undocumented export of Wheat, Cloth and Building Material”, he proceeded, “let us make it official”. Afghanistan cannot survive without Pakistan and it is a fact. However, returning to question that why there is a decline in favorable impression of Afghanistan of Pakistan, he said, “It is our own fault”. They realize and accept Pakistan’s importance but we have to be more active. He proposed that there should be Special Ambassadors to resolve issues with Afghanistan and help them with Taliban issue. Pakistan can do it and there is a quadruple formed between Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China.
CDP: What are the biggest threats to Pakistan’s internal and external security?
CDP asked about the threat perceptions considering his position as one of the most powerful head of Intelligence Agency of Pakistan; he responded that he’ll categorize it with the responsiveness and what to resolve first. Former DG ISI claimed that first category is of immediate response and that includes TTP and Punjabi Taliban such as Lashkar e Jhangavi. He presumes Lashkar e Jhangvi as more lethal outfit than TTP because LEJ have taken fight into urban cities. According to him, our immediate response should be precise and deadly. He believes that these organizations are funded and supported by foreign agencies; however, efforts were directed towards cutting their support structure during his stint. Next in line are organizations, which use our soil and harm other countries. He pointed out that it is an unmistakable irony that International Community point fingers towards them but terror outfits like Lashkar e Jhangvi and TTP were never on top of their agenda. They should consider our terrorist as their terrorist as well. The message was loud and clear as it has been since War on Terror. He claimed that Lashkar e Taiba mujahidin were prepared along with Afghan Jihadi to operate against Russians. “When you provide weapon to ideology, it cannot be turned on and off at will, to unwind, it requires three times more efforts to redirect the ideology”. Ideology cannot be killed was the precise message. “They have their own reasons, logic in committing these atrocious acts of terrorism, to finish it off, we need to rehabilitate them”. It seemed to be a genuine recommendation from someone who had seen it all.
He put forward example of Jamat ul Dawa (JUD), an outfit dedicated to Kashmir cause and humanitarian efforts. Spy Master said with conviction that there were no substantial evidences of their involvement in terror plots in India; however, to integrate the members of JUD, their activities as humanitarian organization are the perfect outlet. “I have mentioned it to many delegations from western powers that it is Jihad that is center piece, by serving humanity they get satisfaction and that is there only Jihad.” He also informed that many western donor agencies had collaborations with them during devastating Earthquake of Kashmir in 2005, Floods of 2010 and 2011, where JUD carried out rescue and relief activities.
CDP: Is Pakistan capable of tackling security issues?
With foreign funding they (banned outfits) have a budget of over PKR 2 Billion, and a mercenary get better salary than a soldier of Pak Army. People who subscribe to these outlets have economic aspect as well. “We have to put effort in economic revival, creating job opportunities and giving them an alternative narrative to choose.”
Talking about Operation Zarb-e-Azb, he said that big fight was fought in settled areas by cutting off the life line of terrorists. Major sweeping operations of tribal belt were already carried out during tenure of General Musharraf and General Kiyani. To my question of media and politicians’ role of failing to build a consensus and narrative before Army Public School tragedy took place, he opined that it was very unfortunate that a consensus was not reached and media did not play its part along with politicians.
That brought our conversation to Karachi, as Commander of V Corps based in Karachi, his tenure saw first of few operations to be carried out in criminal hideouts including Kemari. He termed Karachi as the alliance of Terrorism with Criminology. Karachi was the center of criminal activities because of historical and political factors. He claimed that keeping criminal was a norm for political activities and there was a fight for survival in the metropolitan in year 2011. According to him, Karachi should be tackled with a three pronged strategy. Most important aspect is the political will. Sindh has a potential to rectify the entire problem but it cannot be done without rooting out corruption. Secondly, law and order should be dealt in accordance. Terrorism and its facilitators should be eliminated, then heinous crimes which include abduction for ransoms, target killing. Lastly, common or street crimes, which affect the citizens of Karachi on daily basis, should be dealt. Third is administration of Karachi, which is a next to impossible task given its present state of resources and area. City should be re-established to work as a cosmopolitan. For example, there should be proper distribution of water, illegal expansion of city should be stopped and likes.
In response to what is the nature of problems of Karachi, he opined that it was a game of influence and everybody was marking their turf after 2009. MQM till then was peaceful in their nature of operations but establishing of People Aman’s Committee by Pakistan People’s Party and later activation of ANP in Karachi’s politics gave cover to Talibans to carry out the same operations of Bhatta Collection, Abduction for Ransom and things got deadly for citizens of Karachi.
CDP: What should be Pakistan’s counter strategy to Taliban and India excesses?
Foreign Policy should be based on national interest. Foreign Office should be more active and vocal in voicing a very well-crafted Foreign Policy. On the other hand, India staged events and its media became an arm to their foreign policy in propagating the narrative; whether it is right or wrong. Pakistan should focus on conveying its original position and counter narrative to countries that matter, for example, China, US and UK. As per General (R) Zaheer ul Islam, India can be dealt in two ways; first approach is being direct and hawkish in our attitude towards them. He thinks it is not the right time for that, second one is to focus on our problems and let them do whatever they want. He said Pakistan is a responsible nation and would do what is correct.
Former DG ISI was critical of Government’s approach towards Foreign Ministry, not appointing a regular Foreign Minister is an irresponsible act and this could be attributed to three reasons:
- Sheer incompetence
- Not trusting anyone.
- Do not have any capable individual for the job.
Here, I probably asked the most important question of our session, that what are your thoughts on Civil-Military Relationship and Army’s role in past of governing this country.
He made a very simple but clear statement on that. He said, “It is law of nature, when one organ of the system is weak, other organs take its place for optimum level of functioning. They cannot let the system or body fail. Meanwhile during the process, other organs get so functionalized that the weak organ remains no longer. So, when one office is weak, other offices fill in the vacuum for regular function”. However, every pillar of state should subscribe to its own constitutional role and that is the way forward.
CDP: How do you think Think Tanks can contribute to guiding opinion and law makers of Pakistan towards a better and coherent strategy?
On the roles of Think Tank in modern Pakistan, he proclaimed that it is unfortunate that our political elite do not read much. Level of intellect is evident by their policy statements. It is of vital nature that well researched material is provided for policy and opinion making. It is extremely important that Think Tanks engage and talk to decision makers. He also pointed out that as a nation it has become our habit that we acquire knowledge from word of mouth and not through reading. Think Tanks like Center for Development are important, benefits of which can be reaped in coming times.
CDP: How do you rate Media’s role in nation building?
“Media must start acting maturely now”. Till the time, public does not support media and it stays dependent for earning, it will be same. General gave a very meaningful connotation here. He proceeded that maturity will be dictated by viewership and it will change with the passage of time. “Elections are not fought on issues basis and same case is with our media”.
CDP: What role do you see for Youth in CPEC’s age of Pakistan?
Youth is our only hope. Former Spy Master opined that today’s youth is different from the last generation, they believe in merit, want to perform for country but does not like lying, does not dodge and has gone through immense pressure of cut throat competition. On the other hand, this younger generation is not out going (Activism) and hence cannot kick out wrong doers. He also pointed out there is another youth of political elite which is a minority and he feels that it is important that majority of common youth take control of destiny of this country and their future.
Interviewed by: Saad Sultan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Edited by: Khizar Manzoor
Photos and Transcription: Syed Jalal Ali and Mareeha Saad
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