PAKISTAN IN THE WAKE OF BIN LADEN: Private Security Companies Constitute a “State within a State”

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The Pak­istani city of Pe­shawar is sit­u­ated an hour from Afghanistan. Dri­ving there from Is­lam­abad, the land­scape was mostly lush green fields, poor vil­lages and mud houses. After being stopped at five check­points along the way, an at­tempt to in­ter­cept for­eign­ers and mil­i­tants en­ter­ing the sen­si­tive city, on ar­rival there was a dra­matic change in mood.

Dust filled the air and the roads were in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair. Kid­nap­pings and sui­cide at­tacks were com­mon. Dur­ing the days of Pres­i­dent Per­vez Mushar­raf, re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists were em­pow­ered to rule the area and any pho­tos of women were pro­hib­ited. Today, how­ever, count­less posters of women sell­ing clean­ing prod­ucts were vis­i­ble. All fe­males wore burqas and men grew thick beards.

The city has be­come a focal point for the grow­ing ten­sion be­tween Pak­istan’s var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tant fac­tions. Pak­istan, more than 10 years after the Sep­tem­ber 11 at­tacks, is a bro­ken coun­try. Mil­i­tants are eat­ing their host, launch­ing at­tacks in­side Pak­istan and Afghanistan and de­mand­ing the over­throw of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. The ISI (In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence) is ef­fec­tively a state within a state, de­tain­ing, kid­nap­ping and killing civil­ians and jour­nal­ists at will.

Crikey spoke to some of Pak­istan’s lead­ing re­porters in Karachi, Is­lam­abad, Rawalpindi and Pe­shawar to un­der­stand how Pak­istan re­mains, as writer Ahmed Rashid calls his lat­est book, on the brink. The pri­vate se­cu­rity in­dus­try is in­te­gral to this equa­tion, in­flam­ing a mil­i­tarised and un­ac­count­able sit­u­a­tion and pro­vid­ing vital sur­veil­lance to a heav­ily mon­i­tored state.

At a gov­ern­ment build­ing in Pe­shawar, every­body was on edge as I en­tered be­cause mil­i­tants con­tin­ued to at­tack every few days. I spoke to a se­nior of­fi­cial who re­quested anonymity due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sub­ject mat­ter.

“Mo­ham­mad” was a wealth of knowl­edge about the role of pri­va­tised se­cu­rity and de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies in the area since Sep­tem­ber 11. He said that map­ping of local com­mu­ni­ties in FATA (Fed­er­ally Ad­min­is­tered Tribal Areas) had taken place, con­ducted by pri­vate com­pa­nies, that was then used by the US for in­tel­li­gence against sus­pected mil­i­tants.

It was a ver­sion of the “human ter­rain sys­tem”, a US army pro­gram that at­tempts to bet­ter un­der­stand local com­mu­ni­ties. Its record has been an ab­ject fail­ure, with ac­cu­rate cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity im­pos­si­ble when night raids, drone at­tacks and bomb­ings ac­com­pany friendly chats in the vil­lage.

Vil­lagers in FATA were asked per­sonal ques­tions about their chil­dren, ID num­bers, fam­i­lies and how many peo­ple slept in the houses. Local Pak­ista­nis were em­ployed by West­ern con­trac­tors to do the in­ter­views, due to lan­guage flu­ency, but lo­cals weren’t told how the in­for­ma­tion would be used.

Mo­ham­mad told Crikey the com­pany, Gulf As­so­ci­ates, did a sur­vey of Pe­shawar on water sup­ply and drainage. Every house­hold was asked ques­tions about fam­ily size but “peo­ple were told they needed to pro­vide these de­tails to get water”. This was the twisted logic of out­sourc­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices in the “war on ter­ror”.

The nexus in Pak­istan be­tween the ISI, fed­eral gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tants and pri­vate se­cu­rity op­er­ates with no of­fi­cial trans­parency.

Shaukat Qadir has been at the cen­tre of these dis­cus­sions for years. He was given of­fi­cial per­mis­sion in 2011 to visit the Osama bin Laden house in Ab­bot­tabad and in­ter­view some of the key play­ers in the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment and in­tel­li­gence in an at­tempt to un­der­stand how the world’s most in­fa­mous fugi­tive was able to live in sup­posed hid­ing for so long.

A re­tired Pak­istani Army brigadier, Qadir, in a white sal­war kameez, in­vited me to his home in Rawalpindi to dis­cuss his re­port’s find­ings. He said he be­lieved only a few ISI and Pak­istani of­fi­cials knew the where­abouts of bin Laden be­fore his death. “I refuse to be­lieve it was due to in­com­pe­tence or com­plic­ity,” he ar­gued.

His most ex­plo­sive al­le­ga­tion was that one of bin Laden’s wives even­tu­ally sold him out as a way to share in the $US25 mil­lion re­ward money. There was in­tense ri­valry among bin Laden’s wives (some of whom are soon to be de­ported from Pak­istan to Saudi Ara­bia and Yemen: but Qadir didn’t know if that re­ward had been paid.

He’d heard that al-Qaeda, “who were to­tally broke be­fore this”, had re­ceived — not di­rectly from the US al­though Qadir claimed Wash­ing­ton had un­wit­tingly paid al-Qaeda this money — about $US12 mil­lion and his wife $US1.5 mil­lion.

Al-Qaeda, which had seemed ir­rel­e­vant when the Arab Spring began and coun­try after coun­try over­threw au­to­cratic regimes, was now back in the game, he be­lieved. This was due to the crush­ing of the rev­o­lu­tions by US client states in Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain that showed Is­lamists as key fig­ures of re­sis­tance. Qadir wasn’t claim­ing that al-Qaeda was an all-pow­er­ful or­gan­i­sa­tion, too many lead­ers had been cap­tured or killed, but they re­mained a po­tent force.

Aside from the ISI, pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies were an­other state within a state. Crikey has been given ex­clu­sive ac­cess to a list of 62 re­tired mil­i­tary men who joined pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies. The na­tional se­cu­rity jour­nal­ist source told me that at least half of these men had been ar­rested and then re­leased for cor­rup­tion and work­ing for the Amer­i­cans. Al­though it was an open se­cret that many Pak­istani of­fi­cials worked with the US, these men were tar­geted briefly for push­ing the murky rules too far.

The most re­veal­ing com­pany name on the list was G4S Wack­en­hut Pak­istan. G4S is a British-based be­he­moth in the in­dus­try with atrou­bling human rights record. It re­mains the world’s largest se­cu­rity firm on rev­enues, op­er­at­ing in 125 na­tions and em­ploy­ing more than 650,000 peo­ple. I saw count­less men in G4S uni­forms across the coun­try.

In many na­tions since Sep­tem­ber 11, pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies have too much power and often re­place func­tions of the state. In Pak­istan, how­ever, the gov­ern­ment uses for­mer mil­i­tary peo­ple to work for pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies, giv­ing them unique ac­cess to the gath­ered in­tel­li­gence. The war econ­omy fuels an elite group of com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als de­ter­mined to make money from po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. It is the de­f­i­n­i­tion of vul­ture cap­i­tal­ism.

Jour­nal­ists rarely re­port this deep col­lu­sion be­tween in­tel­li­gence, pri­vate se­cu­rity and the state be­cause they face threat of death or as­sault. Ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­ject Jour­nal­ists, Pak­istan is one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries in the world to prac­tise re­port­ing.

Hamid Mir is ar­guably Pak­istan’s most fa­mous talk-show host and jour­nal­ist. He in­ter­viewed bin Laden three times, in­clud­ing once after 9/11, the only jour­nal­ist known to have spo­ken to the al-Qaeda leader after the at­tacks: ”His words and deeds were very dif­fer­ent,” Mir told me. In per­son, he re­mem­bered, bin Laden was gen­tle and calm, far from the image of a rad­i­cal. But his ac­tions and de­sire to cause car­nage showed him a per­son ca­pa­ble of ex­treme vi­o­lence.

Mir has been the vic­tim of count­less ISI at­tacks and kid­nap­pings, loved and loathed at var­i­ous times by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment, Tal­iban and mil­i­tants. He has sent his son out of the coun­try to en­sure his safety. He takes big risks by nam­ing and sham­ing ISI of­fi­cials who threaten him and other jour­nal­ists. Very few oth­ers fol­low his lead.

He claimed that re­cently Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zadari called him per­son­ally and asked him to cease crit­i­cis­ing some mil­i­tary fig­ures. He re­fused. Zadari then urged him to or­gan­ise more se­cu­rity for his pro­tec­tion and use state-pro­vided ser­vices. Mir said he didn’t trust them but he had arranged a guard to ac­com­pany him day and night. “Zadari is only Pres­i­dent in the pa­pers,” Mir mused, con­firm­ing that the real power in Pak­istan lies with the mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

I asked him about the role of pri­vate se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence and he reached for his copy of the Pak­istani con­sti­tu­tion; clause 256 states, “Pri­vate armies for­bid­den”. Mir said they op­er­ated far more fre­quently in past years, mostly for­mer mil­i­tary men out to make more money in the pri­vate sec­tor, but less often today.

Mir’s story was sadly fa­mil­iar. If he was given a de­gree of pro­tec­tion be­cause of his fame — this didn’t save jour­nal­ist Syed Saleem Shahzad who was mur­dered by the ISI last year in all like­li­hood be­cause he had un­cov­ered a con­nec­tion be­tween al-Qaeda and the Pak­istan Army  — such com­forts were not shared by many other re­porters.

Jour­nal­ists who re­port on Waziris­tan, the area suf­fer­ing US drone bom­bard­ment, face some of the tough­est con­di­tions.

The New York Times em­ployee Ihsan Tipu is from the area and told me that in­ces­sant buzzing of drones is al­ways in the air, bring­ing deep anger to vil­lagers and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems to fam­i­lies. De­spite US claims that “ter­ror­ists” were tar­geted, count­less civil­ians were being killed, he said. “A main dri­ver there is re­venge,” he said.

Crikey met sev­eral jour­nal­ists who trav­elled from the tribal rea­sons to Is­lam­abad to tell their sto­ries. They felt threat­ened by mil­i­tants, the Tal­iban, al-Qaeda, ISI and local of­fi­cials. Lead­ing in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Umar Cheema told me that this in­se­cu­rity was ex­actly what the au­thor­i­ties wanted. Hav­ing been him­self kid­napped and tor­tured by the ISI in 2010, Cheema said the ISI wanted to in­stil fear in any­body who chal­lenged its be­hav­iour and in­di­vid­u­als to be­lieve they could be reached, ha­rassed or hurt no mat­ter where they were.

Amer­ica and the West have backed the Pak­istani state’s bru­tal­ity since Sep­tem­ber 11.

This is the enigma of Pak­istan. It is a nu­clear-armed na­tion that is seem­ingly al­ways on the verge of col­lapse due to a des­per­ate need for Amer­i­can money and to se­cure its re­gional po­si­tion against India and Afghanistan. The re­sult is a quasi- po­lice state, backed by pri­vate se­cu­rity, si­lenc­ing crit­ics of its pol­i­tics of ca­pit­u­la­tion to­wards mil­i­tants and Wash­ing­ton.

It is only brave jour­nal­ists and human rights work­ers who are show­ing a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.

Antony Loewen­stein is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and au­thor who is cur­rently work­ing on a book and doc­u­men­tary on dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism 


Articles by: Antony Loewen­stein

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