A War Within Pakistan’s Security Establishment? – Analysis


By D Suba Chandran

The kidnapping and subsequent killing of a Pakistani journalist – Saleem Shahzad, along with the testimony made by Headley, raises a pertinent question relating to a widely prevalent hypothesis: Is a section of the security forces, including the ISI, influenced by radical elements within?

For long, there has been a fear within India and elsewhere at the international level that radical elements are well entrenched in Pakistani security forces. This fear emanates from two primary sources – those who want Pakistan to fail, giving rise to bizarre theories within any factual substantiation, and from those who fear that Pakistan might fail, thus constantly analyzing happenings at the most coherent institutions within Pakistan. Both sources could not present a case, based on facts and evidence, of the radicalization of the Pakistani security establishment. These accusations and fear were based more on an inbuilt bias (in the first case) and conjecture (in the second case).


Two events during the last few days confirm the fear. First, the murder of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist and the bureau chief of Asia Times Online, who recently (in May 2011!) published a book titled: Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (London: Pluto Press, 2011). More than the book, his recent article in Asia Times Online on the attack on PNS Mehran was revealing and damning in its immediacy. According to him, “Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country’s largest city and key port.” Worse, Saleem Shahzad, in his report, quoted a senior navy official who said that, “Islamic sentiments are common in the armed forces…We never felt threatened by that. All armed forces around the world, whether American, British or Indian, take some inspiration from religion to motivate their cadre against the enemy…Nonetheless, we observed an uneasy grouping on different naval bases in Karachi. While nobody can obstruct armed forces personnel for rendering religious rituals or studying Islam, the grouping [we observed] was against the discipline of the armed forces. That was the beginning of an intelligence operation in the navy to check for unscrupulous activities.”

Following the above, action was initiated by the Navy, which was not appreciated by the al Qaeda. According to Shahzad, “At least 10 people – mostly from the lower cadre – were arrested in a series of operations.” Following the detention, the al Qaeda wanted these members to be released; however, when the negotiations between the Navy and the al Qaeda failed, the latter attacked the PNS Mehran. The fact of the existence of the al Qaeda’s sympathizers within the Navy gave them a blue print to target the PNS Mehran with precision.

If the above account by Shahzad is true (which seems to be the case, for he would not have been murdered otherwise), then it blows away two significant rhetoric often repeated within Pakistan on the PNS Mehran attack. First, it was a revenge attack for the killing of Osama bin Laden, which implies that had the al Qaeda chief not been killed, there would have never been an attack on the PNS Mehran. Second, the attack on the PNS Mehran was targeted at the US, especially the American reconnaissance aircraft, P 3C Orion. This was intended to affect the American supply line to Afghanistan via Karachi.

Clearly, Shahzad’s reports prove that the attack on PNS Mehran would have taken place irrespective of the killing of Osama bin Laden. In this case, the attack on PNS Mehran is less to do with anti-American sentiments and the disruption of the pipe line to Afghanistan. It appears that a section within the armed forces is under the influence of radical elements and that the top brasses are unaware of what is happening within their forces. This should be read along with Headley’s recent statement that the ISI chief may not have known what the Lashkar handlers were doing in terms of planning the terrorist attack in Mumbai.

This is a war within Pakistan’s security establishment, which should be seen differently from the war within Pakistan. From a regional perspective, what does this mean for Pakistan and Afghanistan? Clearly, such a siege within the security forces and intelligence agencies is not in the interest of Pakistan. Neither will it help regional and international security. The exit of international troops at this juncture will further complicate the situation, for this will be seen as a victory for the radical groups. Worse, after the exit, the international community may even ignore the region. From an Indian perspective, this will only make the situation worse and the resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue precarious.

D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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