Former DG ISI , General (R) Zaheer-ul-Islam speaks out post-retirement.

By: | Muhammad Ali Azlan |



The Ex-General was shuffling files in a camp-styled office just besides the entrance gate, his stint saw the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being announced to the world as DG ISI and Pakistan witnessed the infamous sit-in protests of Imran Khan and Dr. Tahir ul Qadri, nicknamed Tsunami and Inqilab (Revolution) March respectively, to Islamabad.

In May, 2014 he was accused by Geo TV of an attack on its premier anchor Hamid Mir in Karachi, which was strongly denied by the armed forces and its public relations office (ISPR).

Later, Geo TV retracted the allegations and Geo/Jang Group printed a front page apology for their actions claiming that they were based on hearsay and lacked evidence for a direct and/or Indirect involvement of The Pakistan Army, ISI and its then Chief, General Zaheer ul Islam in the episode.

The apology came two days before an anticipated ruling by the broadcast regulator (PEMRA) on the debacle and marked a clear retreat by the media conglomerate after weeks of negative press and falsified criticism.

GEO/Jang group has not yet been able to substantiate their claims.

The General was asked to analyze the situation and give his observations in light of the current situation prevailing in the region, along with his assessment of what the future might possibly hold for South Asia.

For centuries, China, Russia and Central Asia needed a way out, as is the case with The Silk Route and the entire history encompassing the “warm waters” of Pakistan.

When Gwadar was bought from Oman in 1958, China started progressing towards its shores, A strife began in the late 70’s when an Argentinean company called BRIDAS moved in to supply natural gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the project now simply known as TAPI.

During the second Benazir Bhutto tenure, an agreement was signed between the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan. However, a US company ‘Unocal’ came in with a parallel proposal along with a Saudi oil company, ‘Delta’, both signed separate agreements with the government of Turkmenistan.

The move failed in 1998, when Unocal moved out of the consortium citing political problems with Afghan Taliban and the US Government’s accusations against the Taliban. One of the listed reasons provided by Unocal for not to proceeding with the project was ‘Gender inequality’ in Afghanistan.
TAPI was planned to move from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From Multan, the pipe line was to enter India at a place called ‘Fazilka’. The move was subverted because of US pressure. It should also be noted that the pipeline would have made India dependent on the gas coming through Pakistan, which was deemed a strategic benefit by default. However, with progress on CPEC, the geo-strategic positioning of Pakistan had come out strongly.

China with a population of over a Billion potential consumers along with it’s financial strength on one end and Russia on the other made for a strong mutually beneficial alliance in favor of Pakistan and a country like Afghanistan which is in need of massive development, Gwadar being the largest deep sea port is a natural gift to Pakistan and the region.

Had the BIRDAS project been successful, Gwadar by now would have already been a key economic center. The Ex-General looked hopeful, he continued, TAPI and CPEC are two projects which should have been started two decades ago.

He thinks Pakistan’s position in the future would be much stronger geo-strategically and economically, Pakistan cannot be ignored. Responding to a question, how? he asserted, “we need to put our house in order first.”

He was asked to elaborate on Pakistan’s Geo-Political situation in the future,
The Geography of Pakistan is very important, even China has to go through Pakistan and we provide access to the land locked countries of the region to our hot waters. He added, the potential of human resource is amazing.

He stressed upon the status of being the only nuclear power of the Islamic World as well as the only ‘justified’ nuclear power of the developing world.

This status provides a leadership role to Pakistan in the Islamic World. He thinks another important factor of Pakistan’s strategic position is signing ‘SEATO’ and ‘CENTO’ agreements versus ‘Warsaw’, thishis gave a clear edge to Pakistan over India during 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, he added.

He remarked, in recent history the only successful proxy war against the Communist USSR was won by Pakistan Army and ISI.

On the volatile situation of Balochistan, The former Spy Master pointed out, ‘if you analyze the so-called separatist movements in Balochistan which were clearly fuelled by Russians and Indians back in the 70’s, they used ‘Sardars’ (Tribal Chieftains) not common men. A Common man is always a patriot, so, when addressing Balochistan; one must never blame a common citizen. The Leadership needs to be rectified.’

He was asked to give possible solutions or a way out of the mess in The Middle East,
‘Singleness of command was the reason behind Pakistan’s success during the Afghan Soviet War which is not present in the Syrian episode. “Pakistan-ization of Turkey” is a wrong term, because despite the fact, the West has been involved in arming and financing Syrian rebels against Assad but the success is a far cry from the damage. The failures in Syria are major, because of no apparent-coherent strategy and command which gave rise to the menace of Daesh or The Islamic State.’

‘Pakistan handled the Afghan situation very well and successfully made the Russians retreat out of Afghanistan.’

The General paused for a moment and exclaimed, ‘It was Pakistan who forced India to join the United States and leave Russia. Because of Pakistan, India realized that Russia is not enough.’

‘The region is anticipating a new shuffling, producing a China-Pakistan-Russia nexus soon.’

The Ex-Spymaster was further inquired about a possibility of a Eurasian Union in the future,

‘The Union is no longer a dream, an alliance is already on the way. Pakistan is emerging as a strong economy with enormous potential and in the past it has proved itself time and time again the lucrative trading and business opportunities it can produce, however Pakistan needs planned development which is sustainable and can yield employment opportunities for young people.’

‘Pakistan in its true sense is Rising Tiger.’

Does the Retired General see an end to the conflicts in the region?

‘The conflicts we see around us are not going to end for at least 10 more years unless there are leaderships who can sacrifice their personal and political gains.’

‘It was 2006, when President Musharraf actually gave an actionable solution to the Kashmir dispute which was agreed upon by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. If the same proposal comes to table today and both leaderships go towards the ‘solution’, their political careers will be over but they will be remembered for years to come.’

He is of the view that a third party intervention is needed to bring Pakistan and India to an agreeable formula on the impending Kashmir dispute. Conflicts in the region could end, if big powers like US and China sit down for realistic solutions.

Possible geo-strategic implications of CPEC on Pakistan and the region?

‘Establishing a Chinese Naval Base will be a point of worry in the later stages. With the advent of Chinese money, there are going to be implications.

“There is no free lunch in this world” he proceeded. So, “we have to be very careful in our minds that they are going to earn far more from us then we from them”.

He stressed upon the need for ‘balance’ in the relationship between countries. He emphasized that the burden relies on us when it comes to reaping the benefits of CPEC.

We could improve our infrastructure, facilities and set up industrial zones along the route. He believes that CPEC is a small part of China’s strategy for South Asia and Middle East.

“Traffic will flow all around, from Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and China will connect to all these countries”. China is not only investing in Pakistan, it is investing in the whole region, he added.
About Afghanistan he said, “We are feeding, clothing, providing them shelter in the form of undocumented export of Wheat, Cloth and Building Material”, “let us make it official”.

Afghanistan cannot survive without Pakistan and it is a fact.

“It is our own fault”. They realize and accept Pakistan’s importance but we have to be more active. He proposed that there should be Special Ambassadors to resolve issues with Afghanistan and help them with the Taliban issue. The big stakeholders need to sit together and plan something out.

Biggest threats to Pakistan’s internal and external security?

He categorized it with the responsiveness along with highlighting what needed to be done first, The former DG-ISI claimed that first category has to be immediate response and that includes TTP and Punjabi Taliban such as Lashkar e Jhangavi.

He pegs Lashkar e Jhangvi as more lethal an outfit than TTP as the LEJ have taken the fight into urban cities. According to him, our immediate response should be precise and deadly. These organizations are funded and supported by foreign agencies; however, efforts were directed towards cutting their support structure during my stint, he asserted. Next in line are organizations, which use our soil and harm other countries.

He pointed out that it is an unmistakable irony that the International Community point fingers towards them but terror outfits like Lashkar e Jhangvi and TTP were never on top of their agenda. They should consider our terrorist as their terrorist as well.

He claimed that Lashkar e Taiba were prepared along with Afghan Jihadi’s to operate against Russians. “When you provide a weapon to an ideology, it cannot be turned on and off at will, to unwind, it requires three times more efforts to redirect the ideology”.

“They have their own reasons, logic in committing these atrocious acts of terrorism, to finish it off, we need to rehabilitate them”.

He put forward example of Jamat ul Dawa (JUD), an outfit dedicated to the Kashmir cause and humanitarian efforts. He was convinced that there were no substantial evidences of their involvement in any terror plots in India; however, to integrate the members of JUD, their activities as a humanitarian organization are a perfect outlet.

“I have mentioned it to many delegations from western powers that it is Jihad that is center piece, by serving humanity they get satisfaction and that is there only Jihad.” .
Pakistan’s Capability to tackle new-age security issues?

‘With foreign funding they (banned outfits) have a budget of over PKR 2 Billion, and a mercenary gets a better salary than a soldier of Pak Army. People who subscribe to these outlets have an economic aspect as well.

“We have to put effort in economic revival, creating job opportunities and giving them an alternative narrative to choose from.”

Talking about Operation Zarb-e-Azb he said, the big fight was fought in the settled areas by cutting off the life line of terrorists, major sweeping operations of the tribal belts were already carried out during the tenure of General Musharraf and General Kiyani.

It was very unfortunate that a consensus was not reached and the media did not play its part along with the politicians after the APS tragedy with regards to NAP.

As Commander of V Corps based in Karachi, his tenure saw the first wave of the recent Karachi operations carried out in criminal hideouts such as Kemari etc.

He termed Karachi as ‘the alliance of Terrorism with Criminology.’

Karachi was a center for criminal activities because of it’s deep rooted historic and political factors. He claimed, ‘keeping criminals was a norm for political gains and there was a massive fight for survival in the metropolitan by the year 2011,’

Karachi should be tackled with a three pronged strategy; The most important aspect is “political will”, but it can’t be done without rooting out corruption. Secondly, law and order should be dealt in accordance. Terrorism and its facilitators should be eliminated. Third is the administration of Karachi, which is a next to impossible task given its present state of resources and area. The City should be re-established to work as a cosmopolitan. For example, there should be proper distribution of water, the illegal expansion of city should be stopped etc.

In response to, what is the nature of problems of Karachi? He opined, it was a game of influence and everybody was marking their turf after 2009.

How to counter TTP and India?

Foreign Policy should be based on national interest. The Foreign Office should be more active and vocal in voicing a very well-crafted policy. On the other hand, India staged events and its media became an arm to their foreign policy in propagating the narrative; whether it was right or wrong.

Pakistan should focus on conveying the original position and building a counter narrative for countries that matter, for example, China, US and UK.

As per General (R) Zaheer ul Islam, India can be dealt in two ways; first approach is being direct and hawkish in our attitude towards them. He thinks it is not the right time for that.

Second is to focus on our problems and let them do whatever they want and act responsibly.

Former DG ISI was critical of the Government’s approach towards Foreign Ministry, not appointing a regular Foreign Minister is an irresponsible act and this could be attributed to three reasons:

• Sheer incompetence
• Not trusting anyone.
• Not having any capable individual for the job.

Military-Civilian Relationship and Army’s role in past, of governing the country.

He said, “It is law of nature, when one organ of the system is weak, other organs take its place for optimum level of functioning. They cannot let the system or body fail. Meanwhile during the process, other organs get so functionalized that the weak organ remains no longer. So, when one office is weak, other offices fill in the vacuum for regular function”.
‘However, every pillar of state should subscribe to its own constitutional role and that is the way forward.’

Media’s role in nation building?

“Media must start acting maturely now”. Till the time, public does not support media and it stays dependent for earning, it will be the same. He proceeded, maturity will be dictated by viewership and it will change with the passage of time.

“Elections are not fought on the basis of issues and same is the case with our media”.
Lt. General ® Zaheer ul Islam is running a strategic Think Tank in Islamabad dedicated to strategic issues of Pakistan and the world.

The Interview originally appeared on:


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