Carlotta Gall’s piece in the New York Times has caused a firestorm in the media and government circles and given the Pakistani state very bitter pills to swallow. Yet the allegations and assertions she raises, articulately wrapped in personal anecdotes, are nothing new. Analysts and journalists from across the spectrum have been obsessed with making sense of this curry – Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, cross-border terrorist attacks, why the US lost the War on Terror.
While anecdotal evidence is very useful in raising questions and gauging patterns, it cannot be taken at face value or deemed factual. Neither can hearsay.
Gall writes that several of the Afghans she met at bomb sites told her that the organisers of the insurgency were from Pakistan. “Even the Afghan police said the militants had crossed the border”. But she fails to mention that thousands of Pakistanis and Afghans move across the porous Pak-Afghan border daily. Lack of consensus on the demarcation of the border has been a thorn in the sides of both countries since long before the partition. Half-truths can accomplish so much more than the whole truth, which in this case, is that militants from Afghanistan too enter Pakistan, organise attacks and return to their safe havens that have continued to mushroom despite the decades-long scourge by the US and the Afghan National Army. Mullah Fazlullah of Swat fame fled the country to take refuge in Afghanistan and has planned and manned attacks on Pakistan from across the border. On who is providing whom refuge, Gall tells a one-sided tale.
Gall gets straight to the point – it has been the ISI all along. From engendering 9/11 to planning attacks, protecting militants, persecuting citizens under its reign of terror, and single-handedly organising and supplementing a global force of terrorists, the ISI has done it all. If this is truly the case, and if the ISI is indeed capable of such a masquerade, the CIA and the US government should simply resign on grounds of sheer incompetence.
As a war correspondent with the highest credentials, Gall knows the delicate nature of reporting in war zones, the moral ambiguity of war, the need to objectively report the accurate and ensure that every claim is attributable, authentic and far from hearsay. A war correspondent’s report needs to be supplemented with evidence that can hold its own in a court of law. Without its accompanying buttress of proof, the report becomes a mouthpiece with vested interests. Quoting unnamed sources is not enough to pass judgement on an entire country, Gall should know.
One cannot but feel sympathy for the ordeal Gall had to go through at the hands of security agents during her visit to Pashtunabad, Quetta. This is no way to deal with a lady, as the then information minister acknowledged and apologized for. This Gall fails to mention here, but ABC News reported when covering this incident in 2006: Gall said the Minister of State for Information, Tariq Azeem Khan, apologized for the incident and helped secure the release of the photographer and Gall’s belongings. But she says he told her to inform Pakistani authorities ahead of future visits to Quetta “to avoid such difficulties.”
When one is a foreign national war correspondent in a war zone, the least he or she could do is follow legal procedure and register themselves with state authorities before heading out to a notorious madrassah in Pashtunabad. Makes one think what the US or Afghan National Army would do to a Pakistani interviewing people and taking pictures close to Bagram Prison without a permit.
Gall should also know that ISI is not – cannot – be the only intelligence agency in the world with safe havens to interrogate suspects. It’s the tone of incredulous disbelief that throws one off. This cannot be news to Gall, she does after all come from the country that gave us CIA and Guantanamo Bay.
Former ISI chief General (r) Ziauddin has denied saying those things to Gall. In an interview with Dawn, Ziauddin says he was misquoted: ‘I told her that Musharraf should have known that Osama was hiding in Abbottabad. But in a bid to give credence to her thesis, the lady journalist misquoted me as saying that Musharraf knew about Osama’s presence’.
Peter Bergen writes that while US-Pakistan relations have been anything but smooth, Gall’s astonishing claims that the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden and that the US had direct evidence that former ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, cannot be proven. Gall cannot quote anyone on this, even when she demands more openness from the US government on the matter. A claim unsupported by even a shadow of evidence is at best a claim.
The bullhorn behind this apocalyptic painting of Pakistan becomes evident by the time Gall says that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s intelligence agency had a mole among General Musharaf’s top ten generals, who in a super-secret meeting, discussed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Gall’s article, apart from showing that she has no love lost for Musharaf, fails to mention that it was the ISI who warned Bhutto about possible attempts on her life. Furthermore, if the Afghan intelligence service had eyes and ears into Musharaf’s inner circle, the Afghan service should have also known where they were hiding Bin Laden.
The article, adapted from Gall’s upcoming book, has all the ingredients of a thriller Dan Brown would be proud of: intrigue, mystique, a larger-than-life villain, conspiracy theories that sound like new revelations, ending with a flourish. It is thinly sourced, draws inferences from circumstantial evidence and has been written off as a sensational teaser for her upcoming book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001- 2014. If this article was supposed to be an attention grabbing pre-launcher then it has backfired badly.