The ongoing debate about Osama bin Laden’s death reminded me of other moments of crisis in Pakistan’s short history. There are many but one occurred exactly sixty years ago, when on March 9, 1951 the Pakistan government brought charges of sedition and of plotting a military coup against certain leaders of its own military and members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). This incident is now remembered as the Rawalpindi conspiracy case. What is sometimes forgotten is how the secretary general of the CPP, Syed Sajjad Zaheer, after having avoided arrest, was eventually taken into custody. Respected journalist, (late) Hasan Abidi, was, as a young man, assigned by the CPP to be Sajjad Zaheer’s courier. Abidi was arrested around April 20, and, after being tortured at the Lahore Fort for a week, he gave the police Zaheer’s address. Surprisingly, when the police arrived at the given address on April 28, 1951, Zaheer was still there and he was subsequently arrested.
When Sajjad Zaheer came to Pakistan from India in the summer of 1948, there was already a warrant for his arrest. However, based on intelligence reports, Zaheer spent his first few months with friends and relatives, who were very much a part of the government machinery that he was ostensibly hiding from. For example, soon after his arrival in Karachi he stayed with his brother-in-law, Syed Imdad Hussein, who was a superintendent of police for the Sindh Province. On his arrival in Lahore, Zaheer initially stayed with advocate Fazal Rehman, the son of Justice Abdul Rahman, a judge of the Federal Court. The justice later presided over the special tribunal of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
Although, there was high level of communication between the Indian and Pakistani intelligence services during this time, the threat from a disorganised CPP may not have seemed too great in the initial few months of Zaheer’s arrival. Yet, this ‘hiding in plain sight’ did not continue for very long and eventually the political climate changed dramatically for communist activists. Zaheer had to find safe houses and other places to live while in Lahore, and he constantly changed places and his appearance to avoid being caught.
This changed climate was partly due to Pakistan becoming enmeshed in Cold War politics soon after its independence. British and US intelligence agencies worked closely with the higher echelons of the Pakistani state to curtail the ‘communist threat’. Archival materials indicate that these efforts were at times directed by a secret committee in the ministry of interior, which was set-up at the behest of the British Embassy. Yet, even in those early days, there was always suspicion on the part of the British and the Americans about whether Pakistani functionaries could get the work done and get rid of the ‘red menace’ that seemed to have plagued the country and the region.
Of course it was a different era from the one in which Osama bin Laden was found ‘hiding in plain sight’ in the tranquility of an Abbottabad suburb and they were different kinds of ‘couriers’ who ‘led’ the US to the May 1 raid on the compound. I clearly do not seek to draw any comparison between a person of Sajjad Zaheer’s ideological conviction, literary sensibility and non-violent political tendencies and that of the head of an ideologically nihilistic terror organisation such as al Qaeda. What I do seek to draw, however, is an analogy between the western security agencies’ deep interest in information about the communists then and Islamists now.
The Pakistani state has for decades continued to serve as a clearing house for information for the security agendas of western powers. While Pakistan’s political and military leadership entered the country into US-sponsored anti-communist treaties such as Seato and Cento in the 1950s, the high point of this relationship was in the 1960s when US surveillance planes flew over the Soviet Union and along the Chinese border, from the Badaber air station near Peshawar, with tactical support provided by the PAF. Recently declassified documents show PAF pilots themselves were involved in these covert actions to acquire surveillance data for the US government until the mid 1960s, when General Ayub Khan was in power
For his services, Ayub Khan was hailed by the US as a champion of the free world and was given a reception like no other when he visited the US in July of 1961. President Kennedy flattered the general with a state dinner and with an address to the Congress, of course there were also promises of military and economic aid. This evolving ‘special relationship’ depended on Pakistan agreeing to the US’ understanding of its security concerns in the region, while seldom paying attention to Pakistan’s own regional apprehensions. Even Ayub Khan eventually understood the ambiguity of this relationship when he chose the title of his memoir, Friends not Masters.
Since then, the relationship has gone through many twists and turns, from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s (the height of cooperation), to the ups and downs of recent years. Of course, the focus has now shifted from a surveillance of left wing activists and suspected communists to Islamists and suspected jihadists. There is also more volatility in the relationship since the days following 9/11, when another ruling general acceded to US demands to provide logistical support to the US military and to share up-to-date intelligence on Osama bin Laden and his followers. The Pakistani state has sometimes pushed back and created a national furor about sovereign rights and at other times shared vital information, aggressively pursued US aims in the region and also delivered high value assets to them.
As the pressure mounts on Pakistan once more to come clean, this time about what it did or did not know about Osama bin Laden, the US will necessarily demand a range of guarantees and concessions from the Pakistani government and seek to ‘redirect’ Pakistan’s focus towards its own security interests in the region. The US and Pakistani military have retained a long relationship, sometimes of mistrust, but mostly of mutual benefit. Rather than see the present moment as a ‘crisis’, we should perhaps consider it as the unfolding of another act in this now long-drawn play in which, over the years, many in Pakistan’s ruling hierarchy have been willing performers.
The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East studies and Asian studies at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin