Among many revelations of the most recent Wikileaks release from the intelligence firm Stratfor, was a cache of emails between Kamran Bokhari, the Vice President for South Asia for Stratfor and his American colleague Fred Burton regarding the killing of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. In this email exchange Bokhari and Burton speculate, without any evidence whatsoever, that Shahzad was on “CIA dole.” This is a very serious accusation, particularly in the context of Pakistani politics and our hyper-nationalist elements on Twitter and particularly in the Urdu media have pounced on this unsubstantiated blame. By doing so they are essentially providing rationale for this brave man’s murder and could erode the Supreme Court’s recent motivation to pursue Shahzad’s tragic case.
Kamran Bokhari appeared to agree via Twitter that he should have been more careful about such speculation but noted that the emails were meant to be confidential discussions. In subsequent clarification, he noted that I misinterpreted his tweet, and he did not intend to reflect any error in judgement but rather was agreeing on the way Pakistani media handled the leak. Mr. Bokhari is a sound analyst but regardless of what he intended, there are lessons to be learned. What the emails reveal is a flippant culture of casual communication among supposedly professional and analytical firms such as Stratfor which charge huge sums of money for “intelligence” to multinational corporations and governments. Having observed many of the retired government operatives and suave smart-talkers who end up at such firms in Washington, one must take any advice they offer with a grain of salt. As we have seen from many recent episodes of bungled intelligence such as the “weapons of mass destruction” accusation against Iraq, the authenticity of claims emanating from such firms must be constantly questioned. Hard evidence should always be pushed by journalists rather than reliance on “unnamed sources.” Triangulation of facts and corroboration which are taught in journalism schools are seldom used in Pakistan but regrettably are also missing in many foreign journalism venues as well.
Now let’s get back to the issue of accusations that are so commonly made in Pakistan about “agency” connections. Such an attitude is prevalent across the full political spectrum. On the Dovish Left, there are casual accusations against people being agents of the ISI or the “deep state”, and among the Conservative hawks, the accusations are of being agents of RAW, CIA or Mossad.
To be fair, there may be legitimate reasons for having such concerns because during the Cold War there was indeed a shadow army of agents that operated and that legacy continues to this day. Foreign Policy magazine revealed recently how Mossad (posing as American spies) was using agents to recruit Sunni extremists in Pakistan for attacks in Iran. There is also the persisting case of Dr. Afridi and his shameful fake vaccination campaign about which I have written recently for the Huffington Post. However, such operations are highly circumspect and any accusation to that effect must be clearly substantiated and not used for casual dismissal of an argument or narrative.
What concerns me most is how such a conspiratorial culture of accusations is preventing honest individuals who want to help Pakistan from abroad to operate in the country. There are numerous sincere Americans who want to work in Pakistan for development goals and they can’t get visas processed because of this culture of accusations that is prevalent. Many of my students are willing to brave the threats and accompany me to help with environmental activities in Pakistan but it has become immensely difficult to have any constructive engagement due to this culture of blind accusations.
I am particularly sensitive when such accusations of being "agents" are abused by our media. Having endured such ridiculous accusations myself from across the spectrum (despite my vehement criticism of intelligence agencies where appropriate), the accusations against Shahzad strike a personal chord even though I did not know him at all. Such a foul culture of vile and vacuous accusations must be changed if Pakistan is to have a more civil political climate for introspection, debate and progress.