Global Policy Forum

Pakistan in the Wake of Bin Laden: Private Security Companies Constitute a “State within a State”


This article examines the role of private security companies in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation trying to secure its regional position against India and Afghanistan. Pakistan has become dependent on US money, and has transformed into a quasi-police state backed by private military companies. Since 9/11, elite private military companies, like G4S, have gotten rich from political instability in Pakistan, even though the Pakistani constitution prohibits private armies. Threats of death have deterred journalists in Pakistan from reporting on this troubling collusion. 

By Antony Loewenstein

April 13, 2012

The Pak­istani city of Pe­shawar is sit­u­ated an hour from Afghanistan. Dri­ving there from Is­lam­abad, the land­scape was mostly lush green fields, poor vil­lages and mud houses. After being stopped at five check­points along the way, an at­tempt to in­ter­cept for­eign­ers and mil­i­tants en­ter­ing the sen­si­tive city, on ar­rival there was a dra­matic change in mood.

Dust filled the air and the roads were in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair. Kid­nap­pings and sui­cide at­tacks were com­mon. Dur­ing the days of Pres­i­dent Per­vez Mushar­raf, re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists were em­pow­ered to rule the area and any pho­tos of women were pro­hib­ited. Today, how­ever, count­less posters of women sell­ing clean­ing prod­ucts were vis­i­ble. All fe­males wore burqas and men grew thick beards.

The city has be­come a focal point for the grow­ing ten­sion be­tween Pak­istan’s var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tant fac­tions. Pak­istan, more than 10 years after the Sep­tem­ber 11 at­tacks, is a bro­ken coun­try. Mil­i­tants are eat­ing their host, launch­ing at­tacks in­side Pak­istan and Afghanistan and de­mand­ing the over­throw of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. The ISI (In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence) is ef­fec­tively a state within a state, de­tain­ing, kid­nap­ping and killing civil­ians and jour­nal­ists at will.

Crikey spoke to some of Pak­istan’s lead­ing re­porters in Karachi, Is­lam­abad, Rawalpindi and Pe­shawar to un­der­stand how Pak­istan re­mains, as writer Ahmed Rashid calls his lat­est book, on the brink. The pri­vate se­cu­rity in­dus­try is in­te­gral to this equa­tion, in­flam­ing a mil­i­tarised and un­ac­count­able sit­u­a­tion and pro­vid­ing vital sur­veil­lance to a heav­ily mon­i­tored state.

At a gov­ern­ment build­ing in Pe­shawar, every­body was on edge as I en­tered be­cause mil­i­tants con­tin­ued to at­tack every few days. I spoke to a se­nior of­fi­cial who re­quested anonymity due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sub­ject mat­ter.

“Mo­ham­mad” was a wealth of knowl­edge about the role of pri­va­tised se­cu­rity and de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies in the area since Sep­tem­ber 11. He said that map­ping of local com­mu­ni­ties in FATA (Fed­er­ally Ad­min­is­tered Tribal Areas) had taken place, con­ducted by pri­vate com­pa­nies, that was then used by the US for in­tel­li­gence against sus­pected mil­i­tants.

It was a ver­sion of the “human ter­rain sys­tem”, a US army pro­gram that at­tempts to bet­ter un­der­stand local com­mu­ni­ties. Its record has been an ab­ject fail­ure, with ac­cu­rate cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity im­pos­si­ble when night raids, drone at­tacks and bomb­ings ac­com­pany friendly chats in the vil­lage.

Vil­lagers in FATA were asked per­sonal ques­tions about their chil­dren, ID num­bers, fam­i­lies and how many peo­ple slept in the houses. Local Pak­ista­nis were em­ployed by West­ern con­trac­tors to do the in­ter­views, due to lan­guage flu­ency, but lo­cals weren’t told how the in­for­ma­tion would be used.

Mo­ham­mad told Crikey the com­pany, Gulf As­so­ci­ates, did a sur­vey of Pe­shawar on water sup­ply and drainage. Every house­hold was asked ques­tions about fam­ily size but “peo­ple were told they needed to pro­vide these de­tails to get water”. This was the twisted logic of out­sourc­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices in the “war on ter­ror”.

The nexus in Pak­istan be­tween the ISI, fed­eral gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tants and pri­vate se­cu­rity op­er­ates with no of­fi­cial trans­parency.

Shaukat Qadir has been at the cen­tre of these dis­cus­sions for years. He was given of­fi­cial per­mis­sion in 2011 to visit the Osama bin Laden house in Ab­bot­tabad and in­ter­view some of the key play­ers in the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment and in­tel­li­gence in an at­tempt to un­der­stand how the world’s most in­fa­mous fugi­tive was able to live in sup­posed hid­ing for so long.

A re­tired Pak­istani Army brigadier, Qadir, in a white sal­war kameez, in­vited me to his home in Rawalpindi to dis­cuss his re­port’s find­ings. He said he be­lieved only a few ISI and Pak­istani of­fi­cials knew the where­abouts of bin Laden be­fore his death. “I refuse to be­lieve it was due to in­com­pe­tence or com­plic­ity,” he ar­gued.

His most ex­plo­sive al­le­ga­tion was that one of bin Laden’s wives even­tu­ally sold him out as a way to share in the $US25 mil­lion re­ward money. There was in­tense ri­valry among bin Laden’s wives (some of whom are soon to be de­ported from Pak­istan to Saudi Ara­bia and Yemen: but Qadir didn’t know if that re­ward had been paid.

He’d heard that al-Qaeda, “who were to­tally broke be­fore this”, had re­ceived — not di­rectly from the US al­though Qadir claimed Wash­ing­ton had un­wit­tingly paid al-Qaeda this money — about $US12 mil­lion and his wife $US1.5 mil­lion.

Al-Qaeda, which had seemed ir­rel­e­vant when the Arab Spring began and coun­try after coun­try over­threw au­to­cratic regimes, was now back in the game, he be­lieved. This was due to the crush­ing of the rev­o­lu­tions by US client states in Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain that showed Is­lamists as key fig­ures of re­sis­tance. Qadir wasn’t claim­ing that al-Qaeda was an all-pow­er­ful or­gan­i­sa­tion, too many lead­ers had been cap­tured or killed, but they re­mained a po­tent force.

Aside from the ISI, pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies were an­other state within a state. Crikey has been given ex­clu­sive ac­cess to a list of 62 re­tired mil­i­tary men who joined pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies. The na­tional se­cu­rity jour­nal­ist source told me that at least half of these men had been ar­rested and then re­leased for cor­rup­tion and work­ing for the Amer­i­cans. Al­though it was an open se­cret that many Pak­istani of­fi­cials worked with the US, these men were tar­geted briefly for push­ing the murky rules too far.

The most re­veal­ing com­pany name on the list was G4S Wack­en­hut Pak­istan. G4S is a British-based be­he­moth in the in­dus­try with atrou­bling human rights record. It re­mains the world’s largest se­cu­rity firm on rev­enues, op­er­at­ing in 125 na­tions and em­ploy­ing more than 650,000 peo­ple. I saw count­less men in G4S uni­forms across the coun­try.

In many na­tions since Sep­tem­ber 11, pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies have too much power and often re­place func­tions of the state. In Pak­istan, how­ever, the gov­ern­ment uses for­mer mil­i­tary peo­ple to work for pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies, giv­ing them unique ac­cess to the gath­ered in­tel­li­gence. The war econ­omy fuels an elite group of com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als de­ter­mined to make money from po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. It is the de­f­i­n­i­tion of vul­ture cap­i­tal­ism.

Jour­nal­ists rarely re­port this deep col­lu­sion be­tween in­tel­li­gence, pri­vate se­cu­rity and the state be­cause they face threat of death or as­sault. Ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­ject Jour­nal­ists, Pak­istan is one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries in the world to prac­tise re­port­ing.

Hamid Mir is ar­guably Pak­istan’s most fa­mous talk-show host and jour­nal­ist. He in­ter­viewed bin Laden three times, in­clud­ing once after 9/11, the only jour­nal­ist known to have spo­ken to the al-Qaeda leader after the at­tacks: ”His words and deeds were very dif­fer­ent,” Mir told me. In per­son, he re­mem­bered, bin Laden was gen­tle and calm, far from the image of a rad­i­cal. But his ac­tions and de­sire to cause car­nage showed him a per­son ca­pa­ble of ex­treme vi­o­lence.

Mir has been the vic­tim of count­less ISI at­tacks and kid­nap­pings, loved and loathed at var­i­ous times by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment, Tal­iban and mil­i­tants. He has sent his son out of the coun­try to en­sure his safety. He takes big risks by nam­ing and sham­ing ISI of­fi­cials who threaten him and other jour­nal­ists. Very few oth­ers fol­low his lead.

He claimed that re­cently Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zadari called him per­son­ally and asked him to cease crit­i­cis­ing some mil­i­tary fig­ures. He re­fused. Zadari then urged him to or­gan­ise more se­cu­rity for his pro­tec­tion and use state-pro­vided ser­vices. Mir said he didn’t trust them but he had arranged a guard to ac­com­pany him day and night. “Zadari is only Pres­i­dent in the pa­pers,” Mir mused, con­firm­ing that the real power in Pak­istan lies with the mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

I asked him about the role of pri­vate se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence and he reached for his copy of the Pak­istani con­sti­tu­tion; clause 256 states, “Pri­vate armies for­bid­den”. Mir said they op­er­ated far more fre­quently in past years, mostly for­mer mil­i­tary men out to make more money in the pri­vate sec­tor, but less often today.

Mir’s story was sadly fa­mil­iar. If he was given a de­gree of pro­tec­tion be­cause of his fame — this didn’t save jour­nal­ist Syed Saleem Shahzad who was mur­dered by the ISI last year in all like­li­hood be­cause he had un­cov­ered a con­nec­tion be­tween al-Qaeda and the Pak­istan Army  — such com­forts were not shared by many other re­porters.

Jour­nal­ists who re­port on Waziris­tan, the area suf­fer­ing US drone bom­bard­ment, face some of the tough­est con­di­tions.

The New York Times em­ployee Ihsan Tipu is from the area and told me that in­ces­sant buzzing of drones is al­ways in the air, bring­ing deep anger to vil­lagers and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems to fam­i­lies. De­spite US claims that “ter­ror­ists” were tar­geted, count­less civil­ians were being killed, he said. “A main dri­ver there is re­venge,” he said.

Crikey met sev­eral jour­nal­ists who trav­elled from the tribal rea­sons to Is­lam­abad to tell their sto­ries. They felt threat­ened by mil­i­tants, the Tal­iban, al-Qaeda, ISI and local of­fi­cials. Lead­ing in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Umar Cheema told me that this in­se­cu­rity was ex­actly what the au­thor­i­ties wanted. Hav­ing been him­self kid­napped and tor­tured by the ISI in 2010, Cheema said the ISI wanted to in­stil fear in any­body who chal­lenged its be­hav­iour and in­di­vid­u­als to be­lieve they could be reached, ha­rassed or hurt no mat­ter where they were.

Amer­ica and the West have backed the Pak­istani state’s bru­tal­ity since Sep­tem­ber 11.

This is the enigma of Pak­istan. It is a nu­clear-armed na­tion that is seem­ingly al­ways on the verge of col­lapse due to a des­per­ate need for Amer­i­can money and to se­cure its re­gional po­si­tion against India and Afghanistan. The re­sult is a quasi- po­lice state, backed by pri­vate se­cu­rity, si­lenc­ing crit­ics of its pol­i­tics of ca­pit­u­la­tion to­wards mil­i­tants and Wash­ing­ton.

It is only brave jour­nal­ists and human rights work­ers who are show­ing a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.


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