March Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

Ninety-one year old Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan is a man of facts. The scion of a family where induction in the army was a well-trodden career path, not a matter of mere choice or desire, this officer and gentleman, quintessentially, is of the old school — a man who means what he says and says what he means. And he does not express opinions on matters that he does not know the complete details of, or is unsure about.

Sitting in the living room of his 42-year-old house, in a portion designed by his architect son, Ali, he pours his own tea and a cup for me, cuts a piece of cake, talks to the gardener about weeding the grass properly and listens to what Amina, his utterly elegant wife of 67 years, has to say. I notice throughout our conversation that while doing all he does, what he does not do is make assumptions or jump to conclusions.

He was Pakistan’s first air force chief, for a period for eight years, and at 36, the youngest ever to hold the post. Ask him about the performance of the current air force chief and the Mehran airbase disaster — issues which everyone has an opinion on — and Asghar Khan simply declines to offer a view, for, he contends, a lack of proper knowledge on the man and the matter. Inquire about his take on PIA, the organisation that he ran successfully for three years — with the lowest accident rate, the highest recorded net profit and air-hostesses in Pierre Cardin-designed uniforms — and a post that prompted him to acquire a commercial pilots license so that he could “get to know the crew and details concerning maintenance, which help you run the organisation better,” but once again he declines to comment, maintaining he does not consider himself competent to make an assessment on the current state of the airline.

As to the fact that Osama Bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad, a place the air marshal considers home, he simply opines, “That was a very odd thing that happened, odd that nobody knew about it. I wonder what is taking the commission [investigating the incident] so long.” And what of Memogate? “I don’t understand what’s going on,” he says.

Born in 1921, Asghar Khan has seen it all — literally. He looks younger, says he feels older, but there is no confusion about the fact that he has always called a spade a spade. In his well-kept diaries published as a bookMy Political Struggle (OUP, 2008), he maintains, Zia is “more a clown than a President,” the Quaid’s birthday is celebrated with the “usual hypocrisy and profession of pious intent,” and he expresses his disillusionment with the armed forces on the anniversary of the 1965 war saying, “their role ever since has not been one that has served the interests of the country.” On the US military aid received during the Afghan war he contends, “Pakistan may not be able to survive more blessings of this nature.” And speaking of extremist elements within the army he says, “The armed forces [constitute] cross-sections of people from society, they are just like other Pakistanis. The civilian mindset is reflected in the army as well.”

Assad Durrani

Assad Durrani

Meanwhile, the air marshal remains unapologetic about his statement regarding Bhutto (“I will hang Bhutto at Kohala Bridge”) that unarguably stymied his political career. “What about all that he said about me in his jalsas?” he asks.

The most significant political lesson he learnt, he says, was not from the Bhutto imbroglio, but from the advice he was given by a rising politician many years ago soliciting his support: “My programme is to make fools out of people. I can make bloody fools of the people and together we can rule for 40 years.” Asghar Khan did not agree, and has chosen to stay on the sidelines of power ever since.

He has, however, not remained entirely uninvolved in the farce played out as politics in the national arena. And a proactive stance adopted by him in the long dormant and now resuscitated Mehrangate affair 16 years ago, has ushered him right into the country’s centrestage once again.

We would have never known that rigging had taken place in the 1990 elections if not for the outburst of the interior minister, Lt General (retd) Naseerullah Baabar during a session of the National Assembly on 20 April 1994 — when he quoted an affidavit submitted in the investigation of the fall of a bank in 1994. In the decade of Prime-Ministerial see-saw between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, it was Bhutto’s turn in office and Sharif’s turn as the leader of the opposition. Baabar disclosed that way back in 1990, right before the elections, a certain chief of the army staff had instructed the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to ensure that the IJI came to power instead of the PPP. Unlike the musings of our current interior minister, many people believed him. One such person was Asghar Khan, who wrote a letter in 1996 to the chief justice of the day, Sajjad Ali Shah, a man presumed to be grinding one axe or another for one particular party — not unlike the current chief justice. By that time Yunus Habib and his Mehran Bank were long gone, him punished, the bank made insolvent — but Asghar Khan felt something was amiss.

In his 1994 affidavit, former DG ISI,

Lt General Asad Durrani stated under oath that he was asked to provide ‘logistical support’ for donations made to the IJI election campaign by some Karachi businessmen. The idea was to tilt the electoral ballot in favour of the so-called ISI-tailored Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), led by Nawaz Sharif. Durrani was made to understand that this had the approval of the government of the day (i.e. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, as maintained by COAS Mirza Aslam Beg). Durrani appointed some officers for the job regarding the disbursement of the funds, and sent them to do the needful. Soon thereafter, accounts were opened in Karachi, Quetta, and Rawalpindi. The money — Rs 140 million at last count — was deposited in the Karachi accounts by Yunus Habib. From there certain amounts were transferred to the Quetta and Rawalpindi accounts. Of this money Rs 6 million were distributed in accordance with the wishes of the COAS or as suggested by the election cell in the Presidency. The remaining money was transferred to a ‘special’ fund.

To the inflation-hit people of today, one million rupees may seem like peanuts compared to the billions of dollars allegedly siphoned off the public exchequer and rotting in assorted Swiss accounts, but back in 1990, the US dollar fetched Rs 21.41 (as compared to Rs 91 today) and one tola of gold cost merely Rs 3,300 as opposed to the current rate of Rs 60,000.

In his statement, during the 1993 investigations into the collapse of his bank, Yunus Habib disclosed that extremely large amounts of money (e.g. Rs 5-10-150 million were also paid to Altaf Hussain, Advocate Yusuf Memon (as a front for Javed Hashmi etc.), then CM Sindh Liaquat Jatoi (through Imtiaz Sheikh), Ajmal Khan, Jam Mashooq, Dost Muhammad Faizi, Jam Haider, Sartaj Aziz’s son Ali, Farooq Leghari and Mirza Aslam Beg (source: Ardeshir Cowasjee, Dawn, 12 August, 2007).

Asghar Khan’s premise was simple: the ISI had no right to do what it did, nor did the COAS and the DG ISI. Furthermore he contended, the COAS and DG ISI had obeyed ‘illegal’ orders. Justice Sajjad agreed and converted his letter into a petition titled ‘Human Rights Petition 19/96’ and registered a case under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution. Asghar Khan was asked to hire a lawyer, which amused him since he was not a party to the proceedings. Justice Sajjad told him it was for his own good and looked around for a decent lawyer for the air marshal. Eventually, Hafeez Pirzada was asked whether he would consider taking up his case — pro bono. Pirzada agreed. A day later Pirzada was shown the door by Asghar Khan when he learnt that the distinguished lawyer had allegedly received money under the ISI scheme as well! Habib Wahabul Khairi then appeared on behalf of Asghar Khan for the hearings. Today Khairi is close to 80 and hence, the services of Salman Akram Raja have has been enlisted — also pro bono, excepting any miscellaneous charges for filing paperwork.

Asad Durrani’s 1994 affidavit was readmitted as evidence. On the ISI’s insistence, the proceedings were held in-camera and Durrani, Beg and Babar submitted statements accordingly. The case had three to four hearings, the last one in 1999 when Saeeduzaman Siddiqi was chief justice, and it is said he had reached a decision on the case but refrained from issuing a formal ruling. Then Musharraf came to power, and Siddiqi was sent packing when he refused to take oath under the new PCO.

Asghar Khan has written to every chief justice since 1999 — six in all — Irshad Hasan Khan, Bashir Jehnagiri, Sheikh Riaz Ahmad, Nazim Hussain Siddiqi, Iftikhar Chaudhary and Abdul Hameed Dogar, to settle the case. His plea fell on deaf ears till 23 January 2012 when the Supreme Court issued a new date to hear the case.

Yunus Habib

Yunus Habib

Salman Akram Raja maintains that as far as he is concerned, the case has nothing to do with Mehran, the bank owned by Yunus Habib that collapsed under the weight of shady transfers of money. Speaking on the phone from Faisalabad he said, “It is more important to draw lines around what the army and ISI are supposed to do. An army officer takes oath to not take part in politics. Also, politicians must be made to realise that accepting money is wrong. Apart from these two things, it is up to the voters and the electoral process to decide what they want and who they want. Our aim is not to seek punishment.”

As Asghar Khan recounts, “Asad Durrani is a soldier. As a soldier he believed he had to carry out orders. I was a soldier too, but I refused to bomb unarmed civilians, women and children in a caravan in 1942. I was 21 years old and I knew how to say no to General Richardson who was waiting on the ground. I brought back the planes [sent to conduct this mission] and told him, “I cannot follow an unlawful command.” We must do the right thing. It is a difficult decision to make. But even in the Nuremberg Trials, many officers were sent to their deaths simply because they had followed illegal orders. No election in Pakistan has been fair since 1975. The ISI should not perform a political role.”

Carey Schofield spent five years with Pakistan’s army personnel, travelling and covering their operations in remote outposts. For this purpose a special army uniform was made for her by an army tailor at GHQ — a picture of her wearing it can be seen on the cover of the hardcover edition of her 2011 book Inside the Pakistan Army — A Woman’s Experience on the Front Lines of the War on Terror. One chapter is dedicated to the workings of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.

We learn from her account that there are 25,000 professional people working for the elite spy agency. Officers from the three armed forces are seconded to the ISI for a period of four years, though some serve longer. The senior leadership of the organisation always comes from the armed forces. However, the lower ranking civilian professional officers are convinced that they run the show. They believe the military men come and go, but they remain. And Schofield is convinced that if there is any collusion between the ISI and the mujahideen, it stems from these civilian professionals.

Also, she says, if the ISI is has acquired a bad reputation, it is because of the academics and journalists working for the agency. One junior journalist allegedly threatened Schofield with “I can have you thrown out of the country,” presumably, if she didn’t toe the ISI line.

While Schofield’s analysis is informative and interesting, her take on the role of the ISI’s upper echelons manned by military officers is somewhat hard to swallow, given the dozens of verifiable reports of assorted ISI chiefs direct involvement in politics, foreign policy and what could arguably be construed as anti-state activities.

The directorate general of security (DGS) is the key post in the ISI. Everything of any real consequence comes under the DGS. He handles all counter-intelligence and local spying. The ISI’s political wing that maintained contacts with politicians also came under the ambit of the DGS. However, the political wings of both, the ISI and Military Intelligence (MI) were closed down by COAS General Kayani in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Hence, officially these agencies can no longer collect information on politics or maintain contact with politicians. But this is the official position. What really plays out behind the scenes remains moot.

Another issue that will inevitably come up in court is the use of tax payers money.

Lt General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi gave an interview to Shuja Pasha for his book Crossed Swords (OUP, 2008) and explained what the ISI’s ‘strong room,’ i.e. it’s vault, was when he took over as DG ISI. He maintained that the room lay empty — it’s stockpile of money, hitherto “stacked to the ceiling,” having been taken away by agents for foreign and internal adventures. It was during Qazi’s tenure that Yunus Habib was brought down. Qazi wanted to transfer the ‘ISI’s funds’ to a safer bank than Mehran, but Habib didn’t have the funds to cough up, since most of the money had already been transferred — albeit to the wrong hands. (source: Herald, April 1994). Against this backdrop, the point is: will the Supreme Court now question the auditing procedure of the ISI or pass an order for a new ordinance to track how the ISI uses its funds in the future? And, does the public not have a right to know how their money was and is used?

Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ibrahim certainly thinks so. Talking over the phone from his home in Karachi, he asserted, “The Mehrangate issue is now really only a historical matter — it is a very old topic. Nonetheless, people have a right to know what really happened. Your money, mine, why was it given out, how was it given out, on whose authority was it given out, to whom was it given? It is important to answer this question so that it is not repeated again.” His hope is that the Supreme Court does not pass the buck and rules on the matter according to the law and the Constitution. “When Pakistan was made, we used to say, ‘look at India, it will never stay together,’ and yet it is was we who fell apart first. Either we believe in democracy or we don’t.”

For his part, former law minister Khalid Anwar believes that the reason this case is important is not because it might set future guidelines, but because of what transpired in the past. “The ISI is supposed to be an intelligence gathering agency — intelligence related to security and the defence of the country. The political cell in the ISI exercised its powers in a highly secretive, totally misconceived and unconstitutional manner. No matter how widely their role is defined, what they did is blatantly illegal and there is no vagueness, no uncertainty about this, no conceivable justification.” However, he went on to point out that since there was no hard evidence, the allegations against the agency remain unsupported. “The sources of funds is unofficial; these were private funds. All the ISI did was channelise these ‘charitable’ funds, apparently under the directions of Mirza Aslam Beg to rig the elections.” He cited the example of the Memogate case: “The Law of Evidence is such that even if the Memogate commission finds that something illegal did transpire between Haqqani and Mansoor Ijaz and calls for criminal prosecution of Haqqani in a report, that report in itself is not legally admissible in court as evidence. It’s substantive value is zero.”

As to the question of whether criminal proceedings could be started against the two people who admitted in sworn statements that they followed orders and did the dirty work asked of them — Lt General Asad Durrani and General Mirza Aslam Beg — Anwar replied, “Theoretically yes. But reality is another thing.”

“Who are these people?” asks Athar Minallah, the Supreme Court lawyer who once counted the current chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry as a client. “They admitted that tax payers money was illegally paid as a bribe to influence the electoral process. This is tantamount to a subversion of the Constitution and the highest form of corruption. Both offences are of a serious nature and the extent of this has been established.” He then lamented the mindset that makes it impossible to touch the guilty. “They will get away with it. This is not about legality or the Constitution. It is about the reality of our society. The people who were responsible for breaking Pakistan got away with it, and got promotions.” He went on to speak of the trend to only go after the weak. “Whether it is the media, or the lawyers, we know who is doing what, but we protect our own. This is a dangerous sign of a collapsing society — a failed society which has virtually turned into Rwanda, where everyone wants to operate as a mafia. The rule of law is in front of me and you, but in your view, it applies only to me. The one who is the strongest, will win.”

According to former DG ISI, Lt General (retd) Ziauddin Butt, the ISI is covered under the Official Secrets Act, a pre-partition law, and an army officer working for the ISI will be dealt with under the Army Act, but civilian ISI officers do not fall under its ambit, unless they are charged with anti-state activities.

Fakhruddin G Ibrahim begs to differ: “The ISI comes under the Army Act. It reports to the army. It is in effect a department of the army. But it is also partly [a department] of the government, since it comes under the Ministry of Defence, and the MoD is the master of all. Thus, the army and ISI are government servants.” Hence, technically the Supreme Court can summon ISI officers and so can the government.

Yunus Habib, the man whose Mehran Bank was at the centre of the biggest financial and political scandal of the ’90s, was eventually convicted to 19 years rigorous imprisonment in different cases. He served 10 years behind bars and had to cough up Rs 1.6 billion to NAB in 2006. As stated in Dr Kamran Siddiqi’s research report ‘Failure of Corporate Governance at Mehran Bank Limited,’ Habib started his career as a clerk and assistant in Habib Bank in the late sixties and early seventies, only to be suspended and ‘retired’ for unethical banking practices early on. He managed to launch Mehran Bank in 1992, with six branches across Pakistan. Subsequently, he was convicted of misappropriating Rs 5 billion and distributing the money to topple a government, buy loyalties and use his bank as a deposit box for federal and provincial money. Today the twice-married, 70-something Habib is believed to be residing in Karachi, with a bevy of guards at the gate. Ironically, he was the only person convicted in the case to date.

And what of the politicians who allegedly took the money but deny everything?

“It is a high profile case and the media and public will love it, but the SC will not make a definitive ruling on this case,” says Khalid Anwar.

This is a sentiment echoed by the air marshal. “You know what? He was right,” he says, speaking of the politician who had made him the offer that prompted him to give up politics. “He did manage to fool the people. The basic requirement in politics here is to make fools of people, since they are simple. So much wrong has been done in Pakistan.”

Yet he refuses to see the glass as half empty. “One lives in hope,” says the air marshal.

And given the acute paucity of all things else in Pakistan, perhaps that is all that is left to cling to.

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Act One, Part Two.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.