The court-martial of three individuals, including a recently retired three-star general, on charges of espionage and revealing classified information to foreign intelligence agencies seriously dents the charisma that helps keep Pakistan’s army in charge of the country.
The fact that senior military officers spied for a foreign country suggests that Pakistan is not as safe in the hands of the men in uniform as is suggested.
If, as has been learnt, the secrets shared by the convicted officers are related to Pakistan’s nuclear programme, the case would increase Pakistan’s paranoia about the security of its nuclear arsenal. Considering that the foreign intelligence service that paid for the secrets shared by the convicted officers belonged to the United States, there is a greater adversarial relationship between Pakistan and the US than is often revealed.
Involvement at the top
On Thursday, Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa approved life imprisonment for retired Lt General Javed Iqbal, and death sentences for retired Brigadier Raja Rizwan Haider and Dr Wasim Akram, a civilian who ostensibly worked in ‘a sensitive organisation.’
The espionage ring reached the highest levels of the Pakistani national security establishment. Lt Gen Iqbal served as Director of Military Operations, Corps Commander, and Adjutant General before retiring in 2015; the ‘sensitive organisation’ that employed Akram was one of the Pakistan’s many covert nuclear facilities.
To my knowledge, there are several other individuals currently under investigation and there might be more courts-martial and more convictions down the line.
The investigation into the possibility of military officers sharing intelligence and information with US intelligence services started soon after the raid in May 2011 that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
The Pakistani establishment’s propaganda machine created a distraction in the form of the so-called ‘Memogate’ case against me, forcing my resignation as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and a long-drawn case in the Supreme Court, which never resulted in a trial.
Fake news stories appeared in the Pakistani media about how Pakistan’s elected civilian government had granted visas to the CIA personnel to enter the country and how the US mercenary security corporation, Blackwater, had been covertly allowed in.
In the Pakistani public’s eye, the Abbottabad raid was framed, not as a question of why the world’s most wanted terrorist lived in Pakistan, but as the matter of how the Americans were able to discover him. A major fear was that if the Americans could penetrate Pakistan’s air defences without detention to get Bin Laden, what prevents them from coming in to decapitate Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
All this time, behind the smoke and mirrors of propaganda against civilians, the Pakistan army was quietly discovering spies and information-sellers within its own ranks. The members of ISI, and not the civilians, were the CIA’s go-to contacts in Pakistan, and individuals like Lt Gen Iqbal had more useful information than any civilian could have access to.
But, as is often the case, the army wanted to preserve its image and kept its inquiries secret. Stories about the case started to percolate when the family members of one of the accused went to court to find out where and why he was being held. Once it was not possible to keep the matter secret, the army decided to present it as proof of accountability within its ranks.
Threat to Pakistan’s ‘nuclear threat’
Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been pieced together with designs and components acquired from multiple sources over many years. Revelation of sources from where Pakistan acquires the necessary inputs for its nukes, or the location of its covert nuclear facilities, diminish the quality of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.
The army is already trying to spin the case as proof of its internal checks and balances. An Inter-Services Public Relations press release only said that the three men had been convicted by a Field Court Martial on charges of espionage and divulging “sensitive information to foreign agencies prejudice to the national security.”
But what was not said is far more revealing. For several decades, Pakistanis have been assured that their army is the only and ultimate guarantor of Pakistan’s security. Several civilians who disagree with the army-backed national narrative – including Fatima Jinnah, sister of the country’s founder – have been described as ‘traitors’ for their contrarian opinions over the years.
None of the critical civilians tagged with the ‘traitor’ label were ever accused of specific crimes and no one has ever been charged with espionage for a foreign intelligence service. Now, it turns out that in a country controlled by the army, the individuals with access to secrets that might interest a foreign intelligence service come from within the army.
Where the enemy isn’t India
Moreover, the recipient of secrets shared by the convicted officials was not ‘permanent enemy’ India, which is the target of constant propaganda by Pakistan’s establishment. It was the United States, the donor of $43 billion in economic and military assistance and for years Pakistan’s patron and ally.
Clearly, US-Pakistan relations are no longer just a Cold War alliance gone sour but an increasingly adversarial relationship.
As the US now deems China a major threat in the Indo-Pacific, and Pakistan continues to draw China closer because of its obsession with India, Pakistanis are keeping more and more secrets from the Americans. The Americans, on the other hand, are trying harder to uncover Pakistani secrets, pitting the two sides against one another.
The discovery of Pakistani military officers spying for the US on Pakistan’s nuclear programme also raises questions about the Pakistani establishment’s national security paradigm.
Instead of the nukes guaranteeing Pakistan’s security against India, Pakistan must now worry about the security of its nuclear weapons against adversaries other than the Indians.
But Pakistan’s establishment is unlikely to learn the right lessons and recognise that the ‘soldiers good, civilians bad’ dichotomy hurts Pakistan. It will not diminish its India obsession or understand the totality of the real threats to Pakistan (including the likelihood of economic implosion.)
We will probably soon see new lines of attack on Pakistani civilians seeking implementation of the country’s constitution and new distractions from the espionage case. And there will be the usual clamour for a new round of talks with India under the second Modi government even though the Pakistani establishment reveals no intention whatsoever to change its ways.