Interview with The News
Firstperson: Hassan Abbas
The News, November 28, 2004
Of Truths and Prescriptions
By Ammara Durrani
Hassan Abbas is currently a visiting scholar at the Negotiation Project, Harvard Law School and a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA. He served in the Government of Pakistan for ten years and worked in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1994-96) and President General Pervez Musharraf (2000). He did his LLM in International Law from the University of Nottingham, UK (1999) as a Britannia Chevening Scholar and MALD from the Fletcher School (2002). He regularly contributes to various newspapers in the US and Pakistan.
In 1997, his first book Poleaxe or Politics of the Eighth Amendment 1985-97 was published (Watandost, Lahore). Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah the Army and America War on Terror (M E Sharpe, 2004) is his latest publication. In an email interview with Political Economy, Abbas talked at length about his new book and the various issues it raises on Pakistan's national and foreign politics. Excerpts follow:
PE: In the post-Nine Eleven period, several works focusing on Islamist extremism and intelligence agencies have surfaced. There is a perception within the intellectual circles that most of these works are pandering to publishers' market and power lobbies capitalising on the post-Nine Eleven dynamics. Do you agree?
HA: This is absolutely correct for trade publishing (commercial) market but largely incorrect for academic publishers. And there are obvious reasons for this trend: trade publishers' primary target is to sell more books and make money whereas academic publishers have to cater to academic requirements and are concerned about their reputation in scholarly circles. In my case, I had to fulfill many such requirements (peer review); more so, it can be suicidal for an academic to say something, which is not properly referenced or thoroughly researched and substantiated.
I agree that since the 9/11 tragedy many publications in the West, and especially in the US, provided exaggerated estimates of Muslim extremist groups' capabilities; but at the same time there were many books that were very critical of the US administration and policies, and these were also very popular in the market. People on both sides of the divide can benefit from the freedom of speech.
PE: We know that government servants are not allowed to express their opinions in print, which is why the current vogue is for retired bureaucrats and military officers to write books based on their experiences and knowledge of their service years. Don't you think you have 'risked' writing yours down at a fairly early stage? Would it prove counterproductive in terms of your government career?
HA: In fact, I wrote a book on the Eighth Amendment in 1998 (when I was serving as a police officer in NWFP) and waited (somewhat nervously) for somebody to come and question me about the "anti-establishment" publication of mine, but no one ever approached me--probably because gurus in the establishment and spooks in our agencies are not in the habit of reading books! In the present case, I had submitted my resignation before my book went to the publisher. And one of the objectives behind writing this book is to provoke others to write and expose the truth, so I thought this is a risk worth taking.
PE: Please tell us in detail about your methodology, your access to classified documents and insiders? What problems did you face during your research?
HA: The methodology was simple--instead of utilising the standard political science research models, I tried to write a story in a readable fashion to make it more accessible. Besides benefiting from major published works on the subject, I interviewed dozens of people (which are recorded translated and transcribed) for my book. Regarding issues that are deemed controversial, I ensured that I confirmed the facts from at least three persons. My access to the "so-called" classified issues and insiders was primarily due to my contacts that I made while serving as a staff officer in Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's office (to be specific I was Mr Asif Ali Zardari's staff officer covering Ministry of Environment) and then as a deputy director in NAB.
But I think more important was my interest in collecting publications and interviewing political figures about major controversies of Pakistan's history. Most of the people (who served in high positions in Pakistan in different stages of its history) were very helpful when I approached them for interviews and explained the motive. But such figures tend to open up if they get the idea that the questioner has done the homework and understands the context.
The major problem I faced in the research was that most people who gave me important information and even showed documents were not willing to be quoted by name. So I couldn't use some of the information they gave me because you can't give anonymous source for every major "breaking news" in the book.
PE: Has your critical caricaturing of the military establishment, the intelligence agencies, Jihadi outfits and General Musharraf caused you any trouble?
HA: Not yet! I think I have criticised them where due and have defended their positions where they deserve and the feedback that I have received so far is that "you have not spared anyone". So, I hope that my reader will find it a neutral and balanced work.
PE: According to your book, the US and the Pakistan military saw communist/leftist/socialist leanings within the Pakistani intelligentsia in the early years as a threat, and hence efforts were made to curtail these tendencies from growing. How do you think the politics of Pakistan would have been different today, had those tendencies been allowed to grow, particularly with reference to the rise of extremism?
HA: I think, Pakistan, as a matter of policy, exaggerated the influence of communist/leftist groups in the 1950s-60s to receive more military aid from the West. But besides military equipment, Pakistani religious political parties also received funds from the West in lieu of these heightened assessments, which helped them greatly in establishing their infrastructure in Pakistan. Without doubt, things would have been different today otherwise.
PE: Do you see a similarity of approach between Ayub Khan and General Musharraf on their policies vis-a-vis the religious hardliners?
HA: Like Ayub Khan, General Pervez Musharraf is a progressive and liberal person by orientation. Most of their policies are very similar with the difference that during 1960s the religious political parties had little support base whereas now they are much more powerful and influential in comparative terms--the Afghan war of 1980s made a huge change in this context, I believe.
PE: You say that the Liaquat Ali Khan assassination inquiry report is still under lock and key in Islamabad; that is even after the release of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report. Why are commission reports and tribunal findings kept a secret in Pakistan?
HA: The reason behind this curse is a culture of cover-ups. The ruling elite (political, military and bureaucratic) consistently pursued a policy to hide their failures from public eye. People of Pakistan have been repeatedly fooled this way. East Pakistan tragedy is the classic example in this case. Even to this day a great majority of Pakistanis are unaware about what really happened and who butchered the innocent Bengalis in 1971.
PE: Why do you think murders like those of Liaquat Ali Khan, Ziaul Haq and Daniel Pearl would remain a mystery?
HA: I hope not. I researched the General Zia assassination in great detail and learnt that many people who were in senior military positions in 1988 are aware of some facts, which they are hiding. Few people know that there were two groups in the army at that time who were daggers drawn with each other and somebody benefited from that scenario. So there are many clues for anyone who desires to probe the issues further. Hopefully, some Pakistani journalist will expose these mysteries further. I did my best.
PE: With reference to the Rawalpindi and Attock conspiracy cases, despite the altruism/best intentions of the generals involved, weren't they contradictory to basic democratic ideals of politics? Why is 'national interest' always invoked by generals and not politicians?
HA: Yes, no doubt that these conspiracies, despite their good intentions, were not the real answer to the problems Pakistan was facing at those junctures. Pakistani politicians have also committed horrible crimes in the name of "national interest", but the consistent use of this phrase by the army has made it a cliche and people of Pakistan, I think, are now disgusted by this phrase. The actual victims of this phrase are the people and it appears that this will continue to be the case for foreseeable future.
PE: You observe the Pakistan army misreading the Kashmiris' will to co-operate with adventures such as Operation Gibraltar and possibly Kargil. Now that a lot has come to the surface about how alienated Kashmiris feel from Pakistan, what do you think have been the factors responsible for this gap in trust?
HA: I think Kashmiris (on the Indian side) think that over a period of time Pakistan became more interested in getting the land rather than the issue of self-determination for the Kashmiris. Second, Pakistan has not created any great model of governance that conceivably can attract anyone to become a part of it. Some Kashmiri leaders I had a chance to interact with (like Yaseen Malik) argue that Pakistani support of some extremist religious groups in the theater damaged the image of a freedom struggle and hence they are largely disillusioned.
PE: Why was NAB funded by the ISI? Did the military's meddling in the accountability process led to its failure?
HA: Only part of NAB activities were funded by the ISI and that too in terms of providing salaries to some two dozen officers (in 2000). Yes, I think military hierarchy's increasing influence had a negative impact on its somewhat neutral stature that it developed in the first year after the military takeover. Later, NAB was used as a tool to choreograph a political process, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin--in terms of NAB's reputation and potential. I still think NAB's performance will ultimately define the rise and fall of the post 1999 political setup in Pakistan.
PE: You are critical of the ISI and its mammoth size, influence and resources. Where do you think lies the problem in that organisation?
HA: All countries have intelligence agencies, and in the modern day world an effective and resourceful intelligence agency is a must for national security and for pursuing other national interests, but the problem with the ISI of the 1990s was that it developed a personality of its own. Its leaders and operators started acting independently and developed a skewed worldview. Second, its misuse by the military leadership in domestic political affairs proved to be death knell for democracy in Pakistan. A professional intelligence agency has to be subservient to the civilian leadership and its activities should be in line with the national policies and it should have nothing to do with domestic politics at all.
PE: You have pointed to the internal degeneration of the army despite its outward control over power. You have shown the poor historical performance of the army whenever duty called. You maintain that successes were only due to the spirit and valour of the junior ranks, while failures were because of the top command's inefficacy. In your conversations with your sources, did you gauge any indication towards sober introspection and self-accountability on how a disoriented army needs to re-organise itself?
HA: Unfortunately, not among the serving officers. The retired officers (mid-ranking) after getting an exposure to civilian life, however, think differently. The problem is that military establishment believes it to be their inherent and perhaps God-given right and discretion to decide what "national interest" is. The politicians and bureaucrats are not considered capable of being as patriotic as an armed forces officer can be.
PE: You note that more often than not the army has remained prisoner to policies of yore with consistency even when times or circumstances change. Why is that so?
HA: This happened because military leadership for most part of Pakistan's history was ruling the country and their focus was governance rather than professional military affairs. Extensions in service and land allotments further made the army unprofessional in its approach. These tendencies discouraged objective analysis and promoted inertia.
PE: You have outlined the intensive and consistent role of American government and intelligence in Pakistani politics, constitution-making, security and military affairs. You even hold the US responsible for the Afghan imbroglio and tragedy. Yet your book is primarily aimed at American policymakers and calls for their active participation in setting things rights in Pakistan. Similarly, you term religious extremism as the biggest threat for Pakistan, while at the same time you have demonstrated in your book that the Americans have historically been on good terms with the religious parties in Pakistan. Aren't you being contradictory?
HA: No, these issues have to be analysed separately. Religious extremism, as per my assessment, indeed is the biggest threat facing Pakistan but I am making an argument that this trend and drift can be changed if Pakistan invests in its education system rather than acquiring more weapons and if real democracy returns to Pakistan. For these things to happen, the Pakistan Army-Pentagon relationship has to give way to moderate political forces in the country to be effective players. I think despite troubling experiences (for both Pakistan and the US) and the swinging nature of the relationship, Pakistan's friendly ties with the US are a crucial component of its foreign policy. Because of its strategic location and being the only Muslim country having nuclear capability, Pakistan will remain very important for the US. For Pakistan, or for that matter any other country, relations with the US are important for US is the dominant military and economic power in the world.
I am arguing that this relationship between the two countries can be constructive and fruitful only if people of Pakistan are also considered part of the equation and they also benefit from the relationship. Finally, I think my book is addressed to the people of Pakistan and not to the American policymakers--the sole intention was to uncover the cover-ups orchestrated by the establishment, to prove that US policies over the last fifty years were also responsible for what is the state of affairs in Pakistan. I have also tried to establish that Pakistan has no dearth of brilliant people who are dedicated to make the idea of Pakistan a success--besides exposing the palace intrigues and unholy dramas played by some of Pakistan's rulers that made life a distressing experience for a great number of the people of Pakistan.
PE: You are of the opinion that Pakistan's positive future only lies in the army taking a backseat and America stepping in to foster democracy in the country. But history judges these two actors otherwise. Why call upon them to practise change? Are there no other actors in the country with that potential?
HA: No, I am absolutely not saying that America steps in to foster democracy in Pakistan. I am arguing that America should not be fearful of a democratic Pakistan and should practice what it pronounces. Yes, there are civil society actors in Pakistan who want to make a change but they time and again have failed to face the challenge from military establishment and American interests in the region. And such developments played a crucial role in strengthening the religious hardliners who have emerged as a major threat for peace and stability in the world today. So if religious extremism is to be defeated, bombing is not the answer--instead military has to revert to its job of defending the country, democratic institutions should be given a chance to work, and the state has to invest in human security in terms of educational reform. Without these changes, I see a very troubling future for Pakistan.
PE: You have spoken to many insiders during your research. You have made full use of the information gathered. But is there information you were unable to use in your book? If so, why?
HA: I couldn't use some of my "discoveries" because I wanted to remain focused on the issue of Allah, Army and America and wanted to frame the issues in this context. So hopefully I will use the rest of my materials in another book some years later perhaps. Some issues I avoided because I lacked evidence to touch those controversial topics (like Daniel Pearl case and Murtaza Bhutto assassination), though I have my own theories about what really happened in these instances.