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Strange days

Updated March 29, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

It's been another one of those weeks. So much happening, so little making sense. Is reality catching up with perception or is it all just make-believe?

Who knows and who knows if we should care. In a time of the seemingly random but predictably dramatic, let’s try a bit of randomness of our own.

Tap, tap, tappin’: The conversations are almost always real ­— it being harder to splice or fake a recorded conversation than just grabbing the real thing. The eternal question: who released it and to what end?

When everyone has skeletons, they all fear the man with the key.

You always have to start with the ISI and IB, and often don’t have to look beyond them: both having the technology and, in most cases, a motive. Since we don’t yet know anything about the IK-Alvi tape, let’s not bother with speculating about who and why.

Instead, a few vignettes, culled from the occasional interaction, direct and second-hand. Imran you can understand, Alvi too — not in a principled sort of way, but in a practical, that’s-how-the-world-works kind of way — after that though it gets murkier.

In Islamabad, you stumble across it in the strangest of places. Once upon a time — much before Snowden, etc — some folk would remove the battery from their phone, gesture for you to do the same and then dump the phones and batteries in another room or in a drawer somewhere.

Now, folk have caught on there’s much more sophisticated stuff out there. So old favourites reign supreme: tapping your fingers on your shoulder while saying “them” in reference to the boys; mouthing certain words; and, apparently, the paper-and-pencil routine, the paper being torn into little bits immediately afterwards and, for the really secret stuff, pocketed to ensure no one finds anything if they sift through the waste bin later.

Sometimes, discounting for the super-paranoid, the pantomime can give away things about your partner in conversation: the loud, open, direct ones, who scoff at secret signals and secrecy in general, are usually in a good place with the boys; the more careful ones usually have more interesting things to say.

But what do they want from, say, the random journalist? They hardly have access to national security secrets, at least not in this place. Once upon a time, a journalist did have the occasion to ask why. Oh, we’re not listening to you, we’re keeping tabs on who’s talking to you and what they are saying.

Fair enough. But what rankles is the indiscretion. Most here are eager to befriend the shadows and the sotto voce types, having possibly never heard of John Keegan and his caution: “Anyone who mingled in the intelligence world, in the belief that he could make use of contacts thus made, would more probably be made use of, to his disadvantage.”

And so when they befriend, they pick up tidbits. Often of the salacious, but disquieting sort. X is having an affair with Y’s wife. A is doing Z with C. B has this habit, D that one. And then, to prove that it’s all not made up, a teaser is offered: snippets of a recorded conversation; tales of how rendezvous are arranged and where; a detail on a health situation or whatever.

Because this is Pakistan and because trading in information is a sign of access and privilege, soon enough the snippets make the rounds. Before you know it, you know things you never wanted to know and never thought to know — even if you’re several degrees removed from the purveyor or the original recipient.

And that’s why many know just how broken and lawless the system is. But when everyone has skeletons, they all fear the man with the key. Witness the cautious response of IK and Alvi.

Nuclear logic: It’s one of those things that everyone assumes: when push comes to shove, when the chips are down and the Saudis have their backs to the wall, Pakistan will hurry over to Saudi Arabia to drop off a nuclear bomb or two or use some of the gazillions of Saudi petrodollars to quickly build them a spanking new nuclear-weapons conveyor belt — presumably as a deterrent or possibly to use immediately in a crisis.

But hang on a second. If a nuclear weapon goes off in the Middle East, dropped by the Saudis on a country or people they don’t care for too much, that’ll pretty much be goodbye to the rest of us soon enough.

So let’s scratch the ‘bomb to use’ transfer idea and go with the ‘bomb as a deterrent’ transfer idea. Now, try and follow this chain of thought:

Pakistan will transfer nuclear-weapons technology — whoa, hang on, you’re thinking, Pakistan has already done that, been burned for it and is still living in the nuclear woodshed for its sins of a decade or two ago.

In what part of which world would Pakistan transferring anything nuclear to anyone not bring down the wrath of the gods and the nuclear haves upon us?

Still, let’s try this again. Pakistan will transfer nuclear weapons technology to Saudi Arabia — whoa, whoa, hang the hell on, you’re thinking, and Iran, Israel, Russia and sundry other countries will just say, go ahead, you Pakistanis, you, be your roguish selves. Here, we’ll even help you do it.

That’s plain delusional. It is hard to see any scenario in which Pakistan tries to transfer anything nuclear weapons-ish to anyone and not be pounded into economic, and possibly military, oblivion.

And yet the idea is bandied about like gospel itself. Why? It’s easy to guess: while the few who matter know the truth, publicly they prefer the charade. After all, the myth of us having the Saudis’ nuclear back is worth a lot more to us than shattering the myth.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2015

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