Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Balu Swami

The day after the bombing, I got a call from Rahman whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in years. He had been a good source for me for a number of years. He was one of the first few to set me straight on “suicide” bombing. More like homicide bombing, he said. These days, the “human” bomb is set off by remote control. Handlers sit in a vehicle at a distance from the target and trigger the vest when the bomber reaches a strategic location. This new development comes in the wake of dwindling supply of volunteer bombers. Even kids indoctrinated from the age  of 4 or 5 were unwilling to trade their lives for 72 virgins in Jannah (paradise). Rahman also told me about another development: Some Jihadi groups hunt for teenage lovers, rape and kill the girl in front of the boy and then rape the boy. When the terrified, traumatized boy begs to be killed, they would load him up with opium, strap a vest around him and send him on a “mission.”

When I first met him, Rahman was a minor functionary in Pakistan’s foreign press office. He was more voluble and cheery than the foreign press secretary who was a tightass. He was partial to a particular brand of blended scotch and enjoyed it especially when someone else paid for it. That someone else usually was a foreign correspondent with a liberal expense account, i.e., moi. That first meeting happened at the height of Operation Cyclone, the CIA’s covert program to fund and arm the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. What had started as a minor operation under Carter had ballooned to a billion dollar boondogle by the mid-80s because Reagan wanted to spare no cost in the fight against godless communists. There was recognition in Washington that the god-fearing mujahideen were religious extremists, but the belief that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” had become the ruling orthodoxy. My newspaper had sent me to report on the arms market in Karachi that was awash in newly minted American weapons.  While working on that story, I became intrigued by the connection between criminal gangs, terrorist groups and military officers. Rahman provided several leads that resulted in first page stories and near Pulitzers.

My second assignment to that region was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The mujahideen of the 1980s had now morphed into Taliban and Lakshar e (army of) this and Lakshar e (army of) that. It was difficult to tell where the terrorist groups ended and where the government began. According to local media reports, the country’s intelligence units had taken control of foreign assistance, i.e., US aid, as well as many terrorist groups. They funded the groups they favored, many of them on terrorist watchlist in the US. So US funds were being used to train and support terrorist groups that attacked US troops in Afghanistan. Some even gloried in taking American money to defeat America. It was a bizarro world. I chased several leads but no one would go on record; so I ended up with nothing that would satisfy my paper’s vetting process. Rahman was no help. He was extremely tight-lipped about anything related to the military. He would rather talk about girls’ soccer teams in Multan or food festivals in Lahore.

Then he disappeared. He wouldn’t return my calls or answer my emails. I asked the other foreign correspondents if they had heard from him. None had. We figured his weakness for scotch had probably gotten him in trouble with the higher ups.

This time, my paper had sent me to cover the winding down of the war in Aghanistan. I left Kabul the day before the bombing and arrived in Lahore via Doha the next day. When I saw Rahman’s name on my phone’s display screen, my first thought was: How did he know I was back in Lahore? Before I could ask him about it, he asked me to meet him at a dhaba (roadside food stall) outside the city. He wanted me to be tight-lipped about the meeting and promised a good story.

At the dhaba, he ordered beer and started to talk. He talked into the wee hours of the night. When he started talking about some eye-popping stuff, I asked for permission to record.

Here is the full transcript of my conversation with him:

Me: What happened? Why did you disappear? Were you in purgatory?

Rahman: Au contraire. I was reassigned to an important job in Directorate T.

(I couldn’t believe my ears. Dir T was a secretive, shadowy organization within Pakistan’s intelligence services. It was known to attract mostly fundamentalist types. What is a kafir (infidel) like him doing in a place like that? I asked him about it).

Rahman (laughing): While it is true that I enjoy a drink or two occasionally, my carousing was more of an act. I was actually spying on you guys. Besides Dir T has its share of gin and tonic generals. Their days may be numbered, though. That is one reason I wanted to talk to you.

(Okay, that explains how he knew I was in Lahore.)

Me: Yeah, I meant to ask you. Why me?

Rahman: Because you know John, if you know what I mean.

(I knew right away which John he meant. How the hell did he find out?  John, the CIA station chief, and I go way back, but I won’t get into it. The important thing is Rahman knew about us.)

Rahman: Big changes are coming to Dir T. Khalid will be taking over as the new director.

(I’ve heard about Khalid. He is the British-born Pakistani who had made his name in Jihadi circles as the beheader par excellence, more fundamentalist than any mullah in any madrassa in all of South Asia.)

Me: You haven’t had a director who hadn’t come up the military ranks, have you?

Rahman: That’s the thing. The new focus is on asymmetrical warfare. So Khalid is seen as the perfect choice even by gin and tonic generals. Things are going to get way ugly. Khalid is going to hire a bunch of jihadis from all over the world.

Me: Where does John come in? You want me to tell him about Khalid.

Rahman (laughs): Oh, believe me. John knows.

Me: So what’s the deal here? I don’t understand.

Rahman: Here’s the deal. My grandson is applying to colleges in the US. He’s a good kid. His passions are cricket and tennis – none of the religious crap. He is never going to get a visa because of who I am. I want you to talk to John and make sure he gets a visa.

 (Oh my word! How unreal is this! He works for an outfit whose primary mission is to destroy America and he wants to cut a deal to help his grandson come to America!)

Me: What’s in it for John? Why should he help your grandson?

Rahman: Oh, John knows I can be an asset. As for you, I know how valuable the Khalid story is to you. In the future, you’ll get many more Khalid stories.

* End of Transcript *


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