HAMID MIR is a Pakistani journalist who first achieved global fame for his candid interviews with Osama bin Laden. Mir was the last journalist to speak with Osama, in December 2001, before the al Qaeda leader went underground. The 44-year-old Mir is now the executive editor of Pakistani TV network GEO News, where he hosts a popular political talk show called Capital Talk. Excerpts from a telephonic interview
What did you make of PM Yousuf Raza Gilani’s speech? Was his support for the army and ISI a missed opportunity for the civilian government to clip their wings?
No, I expected this. I know there were some people close to President Asif Ali Zardari who wanted some heads to roll in the military establishment, but the prime minister was not willing. Zardari, the PM and the army chief had a meeting at 8 am on 2 May and there was no talk of taking any action. Gilani left for France the same day. It was only after that that Zardari’s advisers urged some action to be taken. The problem was the incident had blown into a huge political storm. People in the media, Facebook and blogs wanted the PM, President, army chief and ISI chief all to resign. For four days, there was no action. By the time Gilani came back, it was very difficult to take action against only a few lowly officials. The situation became more complicated after CIA head Leon Panetta gave interviews blaming ISI and humiliating Pakistan. It became a war between CIA and ISI. The PM had to defend them.
The perception is the civilian government is a veneer. It’s the ISI and army who are really in control.
You must understand it was Nawaz Sharif who first suggested in an interview to me in 2009 that Zardari should not give an extension to General Ashfaq Kayani. But Zardari and the PPP tried to exploit that interview instead of understanding why Nawaz was saying this. Even the Supreme Court was putting pressure on the government not to give extensions to any public servant, including the army chief. But the PPPwanted to play political games so that they could also give extensions to their favourite bureaucrats and members of the judiciary. So the PPP gave the impression that the PML-N and judiciary were antiarmy, while they were with the army. The PPP has also been criticised for using the intelligence agencies to pressure members of the Q-League to join the government. Interestingly, on the evening of 2 May, the same day as the Abbotabad incident, 14 ministers belonging to the Q-League took oath in Islamabad. Many Pakistanis disliked this. The Supreme Court and Opposition had created an opportunity for the government to make important changes within Pakistan but the PPP did not take it. Their leader has been hanged by generals but here they were using the ISI and army for political gains. What can one expect? They granted the extensions.
What do ordinary Pakistanis believe – was this an intelligence failure or covert shelter extended by the ISI to Osama?
Opinion is highly divided. Some ministers have been saying off the record that it was not possible for him to be there without secret support, but publicly they still defend the security establishment. But frankly, average people in Pakistan are not angry that Osama was killed, they are angry that the Americans could violate our sovereignity so nakedly. People also doubt the capability of our armed forces. That is the main issue. In the media, we know the ISI was on the hit list of the al Qaeda. Their offices were attacked in Lahore and Multan, their vehicles targeted in Peshawar and Rawalpindi. What would they gain by protecting Osama?
Pakistan has been caught with its pants down. Pressure on them will increase but don’t expect extraordinary transformation. The US is still heavily dependent on them for their Afghan operations, mainly the supply channels. Pakistan may have lost face but will not abandon its trajectory’
Anti-American feelings in Pakistan seem to be peaking. How do you see this panning out? What common goals can the US and Pakistan now have?
The problem goes back a long way. In 1989 there was no Taliban threat. We got a democratic government after 11 years of dictatorship, Benazir Bhutto was PM but the US imposed sanctions against Pakistan through the Pressler Amendment. In 1998, when Nawaz Sharif was PM, India detonated its bomb; Pakistan followed. Again sanctions were imposed on us. Most recently, there has been the Raymond Davis issue. This was huge for Pakistanis. Children have been calling our channel and asking, if we could hand over Raymond Davis to the Americans after he shot three Pakistanis, why don’t they trust us still? That incident had already created a flame in Pakistani hearts. The Osama operation turned it into a huge fire. So the anti-Americanism is a political issue not a religious one among ordinary Pakistanis.
US senators have been asking for aid to Pakistan to be cut. What’s the sentiment here? What is your view? Should Pakistan’s collaboration with the US stop?
I will put it this way. Pakistan should fight the war on terror in their own way. They should fight this war for Pakistanis not for Americans. When we joined the war led by America in 2001 there were no suicide bombings in Pakistan. It was a safe place. We followed the US blindly, gave them our bases, started operations against our own people in the tribal areas. We executed and tortured some of them, but never produced them in our courts. When we released some of them they went back and became suicide bombers to take revenge. We are more unsafe after joining the war on terror. Now we need to say goodbye to the American war. I’m not saying it will immediately make Pakistan a safe place. But we should strengthen two unanimous resolutions passed by the Pakistani parliament. The solutions lie there.
One resolution passed in October 2008 says Pakistan should not allow any group or individual to use Pakistan territory to destabilise any other country. How can this be implemented? By securing our tribal areas; by not allowing any sanctuaries to come up, by not allowing any terrorists to hide. We also need to bring development to the tribal areas and secure Quetta and its suburbs. How can we do any of this without public support? To get public support we have to stop the drone attacks which are killing more innocent people than terrorists. We have to stop the US violating our airspace with their drones and the Taliban from violating our territorial sovereignity by making hideouts. For me there is no difference. Both US and Taliban are violating our sovereignity. Both are enemies. We should fight both.
What was the second resolution?
To stop the drone attacks.
You met Osama. Do you think the al Qaeda after him will get more radicalised or will it fracture and dissipate?
The philosophy of al Qaeda is based on anti-Americanism. Osama never impressed me as a religious scholar, but he was very good on the Palestine issue and contradictions in American policy. So it all depends on the Americans. Only they have the solution. If they change their policies, get out of Afghanistan, get out of Iraq, the al Qaeda and other extremist groups will lose all their excuses to fight America.
You say the death of Osama per se was not a big issue in Pakistan. What explains understand the growing religious radicalism in the country then?
I was in Abbottabad 4-5 days back. Osama’s neighbours said they were not aware he was living there but if they had known they would’ve defended him. I was shocked. I asked them why, when he was responsible for killing many innocent people. They said he was not our enemy, he was the enemy of America. He was not a CIA agent or Indian agent; he was killing Americans because they are killing Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan. People were not ready to accept that he was a terrorist. But if you talk about the Taliban, they will start abusing them, saying they are very bad, they are killers. Their logic is Osama was fighting America, the Taliban are fighting us. It was a real learning for me. Sitting in Islamabad and Karachi, we are not aware of how 70 percent of Pakistanis think.
What about the Jamat-ud-Dawa and LeT? How much support do they have?
You will be surprised. Every second Indian knows their name but a majority of Pakistanis won’t even know Hafiz Saeed or Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s name, especially in the rural areas. These people represent a very extreme school of thought in Islam — salafis — and involve a very tiny minority of Pakistanis. At one point Osama wanted an axis between China, Iran and Pakistan, even though the Chinese were not Muslim. His agenda was very different from the JuD and LeT. They are perceived not as jihadis but as a sectarian organisation. They are not popular. In 2002 they could form a government in one province only because the military was supporting them.
What about the tribal regions?
There are a lot of complexities there. For instance, there is a big tribe called the Achakzais near the Chaman and Quetta border. The villages here straddle both Pakistan and Afghanistan. If boys from a family join the Taliban, they could hide on either side of the border. Most people in Quetta don’t support the Taliban but people on the border cannot abandon their own brothers and uncles who are part of the resistance against America and the NATO forces. The military establishment may be providing them big support but the local population don’t really like them.
What about the Punjab region? Will you concede it is dangerously radicalised?
Yes, that is true. The southern part of Punjab has no schools, roads, development. Their language is different. They feel neglected by what they call the ‘kingdom of Lahore’. They hate the modern city ruling them. This is not just a problem of extremism but of poverty and a class struggle. Poor boys here go to religious schools to get free food and education. When they turn 16-17, they go back to the villages and challenge the supremacy of the feudal landlords. The landlords don’t like the challenge and use the police to suppress them. That is how the cycle of violence is generated. There is no real deep religious radicalisation in Pakistan per se. I have spoken to lots of boys training to be suicide bombers. The big question everyone asks is why do they bomb mosques? When I put this question to them, they say we wanted revenge on such and such Brigadier or major sahib and it is easy to kill them when they are visiting mosques. If you tell them this is not Islamic, they say we are not fighting for Islam, we are just taking revenge. They killed our children, our relatives, we are killing theirs. There is no real religious basis to this war.
Osama’s death will most noticeably impact US-Pakistan relations. It is unlikely to impair the al Qaeda. Osama had become just a charismatic symbol. Leadership vacuums are filled quickly in unconventional outfits. The relatively centralised al Qaeda structure is now a network of satraps’
To come to some Indian concerns. What does Dawood Ibrahim bring to the Pakistani table? Why isn’t he handed over?
I haven’t seen Dawood in Pakistan. If you have his address, please give it, I promise to expose him. He’s related to Javed Miandad, but whenever I ask for a meeting, he smiles and says come to Dubai. If I go to Dubai, he says, he is in Mauritius. Indians must provide concrete information to the Pakistan government. If the government doesn’t act, provide the information to us in the media. We will expose him.
A lot of Pakistani media approves of the army’s support for the Haqqani network as a counterbalance to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Isn’t this playing with fire like America did with Osama?
We must differentiate between India and America. As far as my experience goes, India is very popular in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul and north Afghanistan. A majority of Afghans don’t like America despite the fact that the US is giving them a lot of aid. They see the US as an invader. As a journalist I cannot deny the feeling for Indians is completely different. Indians are building their parliament building, their roads. There is a huge Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul, there are big buses gifted by India. India has a traditional role in Afghanistan. Just because the Pakistan government doesn’t like India’s presence there, I will not endorse that. I am a frequent visitor to Afghanistan and have many friends there. They all say we hate the US but we cannot hate India. For argument’s sake I tell them India is becoming a strategic partner of America so what will you do if America allows India to establish its bases in Afghanistan against Pakistan and China? They say we won’t allow that but Indians are different from Americans.
Afghanistan is a big learning centre for Indians and Pakistanis — the so-called intellectuals, writers, policy thinkers who attend big international conferences. They go to Delhi and Islamabad, but the trouble is they don’t go to Kabul and Kandahar.
India and Pakistan should not fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. Instead we can use Afghanistan to start a new relationship. We cannot start that relationship from Kashmir but we can start it from there. The governments in Islamabad and Delhi must understand that ordinary people are not willing to accept their policies. They are already running joint business ventures. There are many hotels and construction companies where Indians and Pakistanis are working together. Our governments may not be willing to cooperate in Afghanistan but what about the restaurant owner in Afghanistan whose chef is Pakistani, whose security guard is Indian and whose waiters are Pakistanis?
These Pakistanis and Indians are very clever. They are even collaborating with the Taliban. There are more than 20 provinces in the south and east where the Taliban run their own governments. When Indian contractors get a road project in these regions, they use Pakistani labour to negotiate with the local Afghan Taliban commander. The commander asks for a two or three percent cut and becomes the security force of that project. The project gets completed, everyone goes away happy. If the Americans leave and there are only European countries, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia left in Afghanistan, they can talk to the Afghan Taliban. I don’t think there will be a big problem. Money is a big technology which Indians and Pakistanis can use in Afghanistan, but this a technology only Indians and Pakistanis can use. The Americans cannot use it (laughs).
‘India and Pakistan should not fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. We cannot start a new relationship in Kashmir. But we can in Afghanistan’
In India, Pakistan’s growing proximity with China has created a lot of anxiety.
Yes, the common Pakistani does feel very warm towards the Chinese. They feel it doesn’t bow down to America. Even in this crisis, China has supported the country and been a real friend. But to my understanding, China does not want Pakistan to fight with India. I have learnt this from Afghanistan. The world is changing very fast. After five to ten years, common people in India and Pakistan will be able to defeat the policies of Delhi and Islamabad.
That’s not the sense one has of the Chinese interest in Pakistan. But to get back to some more immediate Indian concerns. The US has just chargesheeted two alleged ISI officers for the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. India has also put out a list of 50 most wanted men from Pakistan. What does the Pakistani media feel about this?
What can I say? Ilyas Kashmiri is fighting against the state of Pakistan. Masood Azhar is underground. If the Indian government is not satisfied with the actions of the Pakistan government, then give us the evidence. The Pakistani media cannot dictate foreign policy but we can put pressure on our government. And, if there was enough evidence, I am sure no ordinary Pakistani would condone our soil being used to destabilise other countries. We are called Indian agents because GEO TV exposed Ajmal Kasab to be a Pakistani at a time when the civilian government here was denying it. But we would expect the Indian media to mount similar pressure on its government to act on the Samjhauta Express accused and Indian support for Baluchi insurgents. Unfortunately, both the Pakistani media and the Indian media sometimes behave like terrorists themselves. This was particularly visible after Mumbai 26/11.
So is India still enemy number one?
No, and I have said this publicly many times. America is enemy number 1. One decade of fighting their war has destroyed Pakistan. The enmity with India did not create the same kind of internal strife. The Kashmir issue is still very important for most Pakistanis but most Pakistanis feel that India and Pakistan are trying to reach some solution on Kashmir through peaceful talks. Some weeks back the United Jehad Council which is the umbrella organisation of all the militant groups issued a statement supporting talks. This undermined the JuD and LeT’s hard stance. The anti-India feeling is certainly fading here. Bollywood films have played a very important role in this. We have so much in common, but the trouble is we only project the short list of what is uncommon between us.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.