May 29

The Axact saga

Posted on Friday, May 29, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Like Osama bin Laden, Axact was sitting bang in the middle of an establishment hub and running a “criminal” business empire for many years without stirring a leaf anywhere. And like the US Navy seals raid, it took an American organisation to expose the scam before the world. In both instances, Pakistan has been hugely embarrassed. In the first case, despite a high-powered commission of inquiry, there has been no accountability. In the latter case, despite the initial zeal shown by the FIA, it is anybody’s guess whether successful prosecution will follow.

Axact first came to notice when it decided to set up Bol TV network over eighteen months ago and offered lip-smacking financial packages to the top media-persons in the country. Questions were naturally asked about the source of funds and viability of the mysterious Axact Group behind the mega-media venture. When even remotely satisfactory answers were not forthcoming – the façade of Axact was mind-blowing, its core dark and murky — the speculative whispers turned on dubious wheeler-dealer businessmen, land barons, invisible global terrorists and even serving and retired senior military officials who were rumoured to have invested billions of rupees in order to forge a “religious-nationalist” narrative on the wings of Bol. But this didn’t scare the big shots of the media who jumped ship and, like modern Pied Pipers, led a crowd of swashbuckling anchors and unsuspecting producers/technicians to Bol. The stampede jolted the big media owners to band together and try to save their human assets. But it also alerted Declan Walsh, a New York Times journalist who knew Pakistan well, to the unprecedented and exciting media drama unfolding in Pakistan. When Mr Walsh’s well-researched story (which might well be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) of a modern mega cyber scam hit the front page of the New York Times, all hell broke loose in Pakistan and Axact’s fraudulent house-of-degrees collapsed, compelling both witting and unwitting journalists to bolt from Bol.

The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone. If Axact had continued to rake in the billions quietly like it had done for nearly ten years no one would have been any the wiser about its cyber fraud. But when it ventured into the Bol project to develop political muscle, it opened itself to enormous public curiosity, media interest, civil society concern and journalist jealousy. The greater irony is that the top journalists of the country rushed to embrace it instead of investigating it. And it was left to an American journalist who had been expelled from Pakistan for his alleged “anti-national” activities to rake up the dirt of Axact in the country’s national interest!

The FIA has detained Axact’s CEO and is interrogating him. It has lugged away computers, discs and files containing data of Axact’s global cyber empire. It has recovered tens of hundreds of fake degrees of cyber colleges and universities. It has unearthed dozens of bank accounts in Pakistan. It senses an empire spanning hundreds of cyber colleges, off shore shell companies and protective layers of directors and shareholders. It is swamped by hundreds of complaining customers who were handed fake degrees when they had paid for genuine course work. Former employees are lining up to spill more beans by the day. Shrill voices are being raised abroad for cracking down on the billion-dollar business of fake degrees. The FBI is investigating. The US Congress is on notice. Will Axact survive? Will Bol go on air next month as pledged?

To be sure, Axact needs Bol to mount a counter campaign for survival. But that will be difficult, if not impossible. Bol’s core group of journalists has scampered out of sight. The alleged shareholders are publicly denying any stakes. Bank accounts may be frozen by the FBR. Foreign remittances from offshore company accounts have trailed off. The Axact Group is confronted with a plethora of cases of criminal fraud and income tax evasion. Even if the alleged fraudsters and criminals obtain bail from the courts, they will think twice before fleeing the country into the arms of Interpol or FBI.

The media is another big loser from this episode. Although it is absolutely kosher for media professionals to hop jobs in pursuit of upward mobility, it is also true that any journalist worth his or her salt should ask hard questions about the viability and worthiness (aren’t we always billing ourselves as the conscience of the nation?) of the enterprise he or she is thinking of joining before taking the plunge. In Axact’s case, unlike the crop of existing media moghuls and business magnates running TV channels, there were many troubling questions about its owners, source of funds and political objectives. Yet many good people suspended judgment, and some will rue the day they did so recklessly for the lure of the lucre. In all likelihood, though, most bigwigs will get their old jobs back. When they do, we hope they will not abandon the small fry who followed them to Bol.

May 22

The utility of Ishratul Ibad

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad in Karachi has run into heavy weather with his erstwhile patron Altaf Hussain in London. Altaf Bhai says enough is enough, the governor is useless, he doesn’t defend and protect the MQM, and he should resign and join the ranks of the protestors or he will be excommunicated from the MQM. This isn’t the first time Dr Ibad has incurred the displeasure of Altaf Bhai for not living up to his expectations. But he’s been canny and survived every such crisis to date and lived to fight another day.

In the earlier crises, Altaf Bhai’s grouse against his handpicked Governor was that Dr Ibad wasn’t doing enough to help extract maximum political concessions and benefits from the MQM’s on-off alliance with Mr Zardari’s PPP in Sindh. But the rocky alliance never completely derailed and Dr Ibad was able to salvage his leverage by some deft maneuvering. His strongest and most resilient card was his calm and cool demeanour in handling Altaf Bhai’s periodic outbursts and appearing as a fair adjudicator and strong bridge in its running disputes with the PPP. But the problem is qualitatively different now.

The MQM is at the receiving end from the military establishment and not the PPP. This is quite unprecedented. In the 1980s and 2000s the MQM was the darling of the military establishment because it was first needed under General Zia ul Haq to counter the PPP in Sindh and then under General Pervez Musharraf to counter the PPP and PMLN in the rest of the country. Even during General Ashfaq Kayani’s time, the military establishment used the MQM to leverage power-relations with the PPP and PMLN – there isn’t one occasion when Altaf Bhai did not side with the military during any of its running spats with the federal government in Islamabad, evidence of which is available in countless statements extolling the generals and threatening martial law. Under General Raheel Sharif, however, the estrangement is complete because the army has no political favourites and seems determined to clean up Karachi in which the MQM’s criminal packs are no less terrorizing than the TTP, RAW, and assorted sectarian and extremist groups. The fact that General Rizvan Akhtar, who earlier served as DG Rangers Sindh, is now the DGISI means that the quality of information about who’s who available to General Sharif is top notch and no political blackmailing or thundering will cow down the new DG Rangers and the Corps Commander Karachi who are in charge of the operation.

It is this singular fact that has eroded whatever influence Governor Dr Ibad used to have in protecting the interests of the MQM in the past. And he isn’t the only one who’s feeling the heat from the military. The Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari are also at their wits’ end. If they don’t cooperate, General Raheel Sharif is likely to lean on the prime minister to impose Governor’s Rule on Sindh with the Governor handpicked by the brass. Surely, that is something that the MQM, PPP and PMLN should all avoid because it would signal the beginning of the end of civilian rule in the country altogether.

Altaf Bhai should also consider that it is very difficult for Governor Ibad to defend proven criminals and terrorists without compromising his position completely and becoming a target of the military himself. As Saulat Mirza’s testimony shows, Dr Ibad was responsible for securing the release from prison of many MQM activists in the past and it would be foolish to try and continue to play the same role when the uncompromising military rather than the deal-making civilians are in charge.

Altaf Bhai’s outburst against Governor Ibad, which was preceded by a tirade against the generals, suggests an acute frustration and rage at his inability to keep the situation from spinning out of control. The noose is tightening around him in London after a statement by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, that the government and military establishment intends to cooperate with British police in providing significant evidence related to the murder of Dr Imran Farooq. There is also talk of establishing a new chain of command from London in the event of Altaf Bhai’s indisposition. The hapless Rabita Committee in Karachi is already reeling from the dismissive commands of the Great Leader and several stalwarts have gone into exile in Dubai in order to escape his wrath. The goal of Altaf Bhai’s lieutenants in London is to oust Dr Ibad so that he cannot provide a platform for moderate alternative MQM leadership in Pakistan.

This is misplaced concreteness. Altaf Bhai should think through this situation politically and not emotionally. Dr Ishratul Ibad as Sindh Governor is better than General XYZ in his place. The MQM needs a calm and collected man in the Governor’s House just as much as it needs some fiery hotheads outside.

May 15

The In-Between Truth

Posted on Friday, May 15, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Seymour Hersh is “l’enfant terrible” of the American establishment. He has now stunned the world by an extraordinary conspiracy theory about the US military operation to kill Osama bin Laden in a compound near Pakistan’s top military academy in Abbotabad in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

Essentially, Hersh tells the following story and sprinkles it with a lot of names and details based on un-named US intelligence sources. (1) OBL was in the ISI’s “protective” custody from the day he set foot in the custom-made Abbotabad hideout in 2005-06. (2) A Pakistani military officer walked into the US embassy in late 2010, spilled the beans, collected $25m in reward money and was whisked away along with his family and settled in America by US officials. (3) In the following months, the Americans used the services of a couple of Pakistani doctors, including Dr Shakil Afridi, to determine that the man in the compound was indeed OBL. (4) Then they confronted COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and DGISI Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha with the evidence and told them to secretly cooperate with their plan to extract OBL, or else they would tell the world that the two generals were consciously protecting the world’s most dangerous terrorist in their backyard, and impose severe hardships on them personally and on Pakistan generally. (5) Faced with Hobson’s choice—damned if they did and damned if they didn’t – Generals Kayani/Pasha bought into the US plan to secretly facilitate the Navy Seals’ helicopter raid so that the US could later claim that OBL had been found in some distant mountainous region and taken out by a drone. (6) But the plan went awry when one of the helicopters crashed and President Obama had to reveal details of the raid, leaving Generals Kayani/ Pasha red-faced before charges of complicity or incompetence at home.

This story is at variance with the official US-Pak version that claims that the Pakistanis were caught unawares by the US raid and had no direct hand in the hiding, capture and killing of OBL. Indeed, Pakistani officials have offered a bagful of explanations to clarify that they were not hiding OBL and they did not have the requisite electronic wherewithal to spot and track the US helicopters from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Abbotabad in Pakistan and back. The problem of disbelief in this version has been highlighted by their refusal to make public the findings of the Abbotabad Judicial Commission that investigated the matter.

The explanation by Generals Pervez Musharraf, Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha that they were not hiding OBL has never washed at home and abroad. So they, along with General Pervez Musharraf and his DGISI Nadeem Taj during whose earlier time as commandant of the Kakul military academy OBL was relocated to Abbotabad, would have been in deep trouble with the world community if they had been found out. Equally, Hersh’s claim that the two sides agreed to the extraction method in advance with assistance by Pakistan makes no sense. Why, if the two sides were in cahoots, should they sanction the dangerous raid when, after being found out, Generals Kayanai/Pasha could have quietly handed him over to the Americans who could have taken him to some place in the north and claimed to have droned him on the basis of its own brilliant intelligence? This way, the Pakistanis would not have been embarrassed abroad by the accusation of hiding OBL, nor criticized at home for handing him over to the US. In fact, Generals Kayani/Pasha could not possibly have connived with the US in facilitating the raid as meticulously painted by Hersh because that would have required them to take into confidence not just the Chief of Air Staff, the CJCSC and several other high and low officers but also to seek their active support in the mission, a huge risk that could not have been taken if the target were in the backyard of the top military academy in an urban military town like Abbotabad. But no-mans land in the north where there are no eyes and ears was a different matter.

This logic is borne out both by the level of distrust between the two sides that existed before the raid and the hostility of the Pakistanis after it. Before the raid, tensions between the CIA and ISI had built up, most notably over the refusal of the Pak military to take action against the Haqqani network and LeT in North Waziristan, and the unpleasant, tense, long drawn out Raymond Davis affair. It was accentuated by the natural suspicion that OBL couldn’t be so brazenly living in Abbotabad without the ISI’s protection. These factors persuaded the Americans to go it alone – since 9/11, this was the first time that a joint operation against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s urban areas was ruled out, despite such joint-ops having netted over 20 top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the basis of standard operating procedures (SOP – CIA Intel to identify target + Pak ground forces to raid and capture). After the raid, the

Pakistanis retaliated by putting Dr Shakil Afridi in irons despite shrill and threatening calls for his release by US Congressmen and Senators, by outing the CIA station chief in Islamabad and later by cutting off NATO supplies following the Salala incident. The Americans hit back when, on the eve of his departure, CJCSC Admiral Mike Mullen publicly accused the ISI of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network”.

One explanation can be offered that combines elements of the three versions – Pakistani, American and Hersh’s – into a highly plausible scenario. The night raid was expected to be a very high-risk affair if the Pakistanis were not in the loop. It risked becoming Obama’s “botch-up” on the eve of his re-election just as the Iran hostage rescue crisis became for President Jimmy Carter in 1979-80. Perhaps, therefore, the Americans actually took Generals Kayani/Pasha into confidence to the extent of telling them the fib that they had located a “very high value target” (maybe Ayman al Zawahiri but definitely not OBL) somewhere in the mountains in the north of Pakistan and were going to dispatch an extract-and-kill Seal team from Afghanistan to nail him and requested their cooperation in not disrupting the operation. This would explain the relative ease with which the US raid was conducted. It would also explain why the Pakistanis gave their permission because they thought it would be a failed mission since they knew that there was no high value target like OBL in the target area. It would, finally, explain their rage and frustration when the low-flying helicopters veered off course at the last minute and went to Abbotabad instead of further north.

The two sides had connived with and lied to each other, but one had double-crossed the other successfully, so their secret would remain buried between them.

Seymour Hersh is on the right track. But there are errors of omission and commission in his story that erode its authenticity, like that of the cover stories of both Pakistan and America. The truth lies somewhere in-between.

May 9

Apas Ki Baat 09 May 2015

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo

May 8

Apas Ki Baat 08 May 2015

Posted on Friday, May 8, 2015 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo