DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — On December 2, 2017, 40-year-old Raza Khan, a Pakistani political activist, disappeared from his home. When Raza wouldn’t answer his phone, Khan’s brother went to his residence in Lahore. He found the lights on, the curtains drawn, and the doors locked — but no sign of Raza.
It wasn’t until one of Raza’s activist colleagues visited the house that they found a clue to why he’d disappeared: Raza’s computer was missing. Diep Saeeda, Reza’s colleague, immediately thought that one of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agencies had taken him. “It could be no one else,” she told me.
Saeeda visited police stations, hospitals, restaurants, and the morgue, looking for any trace of Raza. But she turned up nothing, and the authorities had no information either.
Almost three months later, Raza is still missing, and it’s become clear that his disappearance is part of a larger trend.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for activists and reporters: According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, nearly 10,000 people have gone missing in the country since 2001, with nearly 3,000 still unaccounted for. In 2016 alone, there were 728 disappearances. The HRCP and human rights activists say these numbers are significantly underreported.
Pakistan’s powerful and secretive security establishment — which ranges from its feared intelligence agency, the ISI, to the country’s military, which has carried out three coups since its inception in 1947 — has long used abductions to silence anyone who dares to question and expose their actions. This matters, of course, for ordinary Pakistanis, who can’t speak freely about their government. It also affects Pakistani lawmakers, whose ability to craft legislation is hampered by the lack of information.
But the disappearances have real consequences for the rest of the world as well.
In his first tweet of 2018, President Trump took aim at Pakistan’s government and what he called their failure to assist the US in the global war on terror. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” he wrote. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”
While many may disagree with the US president’s view, his tweet speaks to a larger issue: Pakistan, which is a nuclear power, is battling its own war on terror. Many parts of the country, including Waziristan, on its porous border with Afghanistan, have turned into safe havens for militants and terror groups. The Pakistani military has been accused of working closely with and even aiding terrorists there.
So as Pakistan becomes a black hole of information due to the lack of reporting and independent voices on the ground, we lose sight of what’s actually taking place. This not only complicates global efforts to counter terrorism but puts the region and the world at large at risk.
In January, the Trump administration announced it would suspend $900 million in security aid to Pakistan until the country got serious about cracking down on terrorist groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network. But without objective observers and reporting in the region, there’s no way to verify if this is happening.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies operate like an independent arm of the state
Back in 2015, I experienced the power of the country’s deep state firsthand.
In April, Sabeen Mahmud, a friend of mine and one of the country’s most prominent free speech activists, hosted a panel about disappearances in the country’s largest province, Balochistan. The Pakistani government is fighting a separatist uprising there of Baloch nationalists, and though accurate numbers are difficult to find, more than 20,000 people have reportedly gone missing. The same evening, after the panel concluded, Mahmud was shot and killed by unknown gunmen.
I wrote about her death for an Indian magazine and started receiving threats myself from agents with ISI, Pakistan’s infamous government intelligence agency. They repeatedly told me, both in person and over the phone, that I was going to be killed like my friend Sabeen, “and no one will find who did it.”
I also learned that killing one person and then using their death to generate more fear was a common tactic that the Pakistani intelligence agencies used against journalists. It leads to self-censorship, and it works almost every time.
I was no exception. Since the ISI threatened my life, I’ve been too afraid to live and report in Pakistan, and currently divide my time between New York and Turkey.
It’s important to note that Pakistan’s government, although democratically elected, does not have the power to control or influence the far-reaching and powerful military establishment. Intelligence agencies gained more power after 9/11; the ISI in particular received funding and resources from the US and Pakistani governments to help fight the war on terror. The new resources helped the ISI expand its influence and freedom to act however it saw fit, and it began operating much like an independent arm of the government.
The intelligence agencies hold so much power that even the police can’t touch them. An officer at Peshawar’s police headquarters told me the police see several abduction cases a week but can’t write up official police reports. “We have orders not to meddle in such cases that might be part of an anti-terror campaign,” he told me. “The military … is an institution with higher power.”
And despite criticism and warnings from international groups, and pledges by the government of Pakistan, these disappearances seem to be getting worse.
Last year, Pakistan’s Commission on Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances “received nearly 300 cases of alleged enforced disappearances from August to October 2017, by far the largest number in a three month period in recent years,” according to the commission.
And in early 2017, three Pakistani bloggers who were critical of the government disappeared for weeks, without a trace. When they were released, all three described torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Pakistani security personnel.
Waqass Goraya, one of the bloggers, said he was detained by a government organization with ties to the Pakistani military. “More and more people are being harmed — our friends, our colleagues — so how can we stop [speaking out]? Someone has to stand up,” he told the BBC. Goraya currently lives in the Netherlands, where he continues his activism from afar.
Reporting on the Pakistani military’s abuses is important. It’s also really dangerous.
Trump alluded in his January tweet to the Pakistani military’s reputation for working closely with terrorist groups. This extends back several decades: In the 1980s, the US covertly sent about $5 billion to Pakistan to fund militant groups to help fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan continued to train and fund militants to help in the fight over Kashmir, a disputed border area between India and Pakistan.
The US ramped up funding to Pakistan again in the wake of 9/11 in exchange for Pakistan’s help in fighting the war on terror. US officials say, however, that they have not seen results and that much of the money has been lost due to corruption, or ended up in the hands of terrorist groups.
In 2011, Saleem Shahzad, a freelance journalist, reported about how Pakistani naval officers were involved in aiding a terrorist attack on Pakistani naval headquarters in Mehran, a short distance from the capital of Karachi. Afterward, Shahzad was brutally murdered. His death received much publicity, and since then, it appears that no Pakistani journalists have dared to report in depth about the military’s links with terrorist groups.
“Anyone who reports on Balochistan, or terrorism in Pakistan, knows that the military agencies will come after them,” said Khushal Khan, a research officer at the HRCP.
Waziristan, the restive region on the Western border with Afghanistan, is one of the most underreported places in the country. There’s almost no information that hasn’t been vetted or censored by the military going in or out.
The Pakistani military has claimed several times that they defeated terrorism in this area and forced out the terrorists — but the military refuses to let journalists or NGOs visit the area to verify their claims.
Anyone who attempts to report on what’s happening in Pakistan now runs the risk of disappearing. When I was investigating abductions of civilians from Waziristan in 2015, my sources were threatened and told that they “should not speak to journalists.”
A leading activist in the region, Manzoor Pashteen, told me that hundreds of people who have been critical of the military in the region disappeared in 2017, and dozens more have vanished this year. “Every other day I get a call … [someone] is missing or someone’s body has been found,” Pashteen said.
In December, when I visited Dera Ismail Khan, a city near Waziristan, I met with more than a dozen civilian sources who said they knew people who had been abducted from the region. The people who were taken had direct knowledge of the alleged close relationship between the Pakistani military and terrorist groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, my sources told me.
In November 2017, Pashteen was abducted by intelligence agencies that told him to stop working as an activist and speaking out against the military establishment. But Pashteen said he would continue to be vocal against the continuing abductions.
“What kind of state is this, against its own people?” Pashteen asked me. “This country is also ours, and the state needs to stop treating us like terrorists.”
Kiran Nazish is an independent journalist covering South Asia and the Middle East. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, and other news outlets. She is a former senior fellow at New America.