By Jahanzeb Hussain
Karachi-gate refers to the terrorist attack in Karachi on May 8, 2002 in which 11 French engineers were killed and a dozen other of them were wounded. The engineers belonged to the Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN), a French company that builds naval armaments. They were part of the team that was sent to Pakistan to work on the Agotsa 90B submarine project, which was signed between France and Pakistan in the 90s.
For many years that followed these fatal attacks, it was believed that they were carried out by Islamist militants for no other purpose than to demonstrate their ideological opposition to the West. However, in recent years, it has been revealed by journalist investigations in France and Pakistan, the state investigations in France into the financial affairs of the DCN, as well as against Nicolas Sarkozy and his associates that the reasons behind targeting DCN personnel are different and far more serious than previously believed. The hypothesis of an Al Qaeda-motivated attack is now dismissed out of hand, just easily as it was once taken for granted. It has progressively become clear that submarine deal involved a series of commissions and retro-commissions that went back and forth between France and Pakistan. It has yet to be proven in the court of law, but the ongoing case against Sarkozy and his associates is based on the belief that retro-commissions from the deal with Pakistan were used to finance the 1995 presidential campaign of Eduard Balladur, a former Prime Minister of France.
This is one end of the scandal; however, this is not the explanation of the attacks in Karachi. What took place in Pakistan’s largest city was possibly motivated by the resentment of the Pakistani establishment on the backtracking of France on its promises of technology transfer and overcharging for the upgradation of the submarines; and second, the fact that France signed similar arms deals with India, in violation of promises made to Pakistan that no such deals would be made with its arch rivals. In this article we provide the context of the attacks.
The Pakistan Navy is a long-standing customer of France. When the United States imposed an arms embargo on Pakistan and India after the 1965 war, the former turned to China and France for its arms imports. The first contract between Pakistan and France for the sale of submarines was signed in 1966 when Pierre Messmer was the Prime Minister of France. Under this contract, four Daphné class submarines were agreed to be sold to Pakistan. The first Daphné was handed over to Pakistan Navy on 1 December, 1969 in Cherbourg. It was commissioned as PNS M Hangor. It distinguished itself during the 1971 war with India by sinking an Indian frigate INS Khukri, killing the entire crew of 176 sailors and 18 officers. It was the only engagement of this war in which Pakistan could claim success. It was also the first instance after the Second World War of a submarine torpedoing a surface ship in a maritime engagement. The only other instance since then has been the sinking of the battleship General Belgrano of the Argentine Navy by HMS M Conqueror of the British Navy during the Falklands War in 1982. The feat of sinking an Indian frigate helped Pakistan Navy to salvage some of its lost honor after the sinking of two of its own ships by the Indian Navy with the help of Soviet-made Styx missiles.
With time, France became the leading supplier of Pakistan Navy: 4 maritime surveillance and submarine detection aircraft – the Breguet Atlantic; two Agosta 70-class submarines; Alouette helicopters, and the Eridan class mine-hunters make up the French contingent in the Pakistan Navy’s arsenal. Pakistan also acquired Exocet AM 39 and SM 39 missiles, which are launched from air and from underwater respectively. The prestige of the Exocet was greatly enhanced when the British Navy’s HMS Sheffield was destroyed by a AM 39 launched by a Dassault-Breguet Super Etendard of the Argentine Air Force in the Falklands War. The French equipment was a source of great pride for Pakistan Navy due to which Pakistan could claim superiority over India in the naval arena. With the new Agosta 90B, Pakistan was counting on further enhancing its superiority, for compared to the first generation Agosta, the Agosta 90B, a gem of the French technology, had many advantages: an air independent propulsion system that increases three to four times the dived endurance, anti-ship missiles, a double steel reinforced hull, a small crew of 36 men, one helmsman and absolute discretion.
Soon, however, France started negotiations with India in 1999 (the contract was finalized in 2005) for the sale of Scorpène class submarines. How furious must have been a country that swears only by its rivalry with India! Henri Guittet, the former negotiator of the Agosta contract signed with Pakistan in 1994, told Judge Marc Trevidic that the agreement with Pakistan was preceded by a secret engagement in which France promised not to provide equivalent equipment to India. Given the relations between Pakistan and India, Pakistan felt not just aggrieved but also betrayed by the French. This point is not lost on Alain Juillet who is of the opinion that the decision in January 2002 of selling Scorpène submarines to India might have acted as a spark for a part of the Pakistani security apparatus.
The delicate game of balancing between hostile powers like Pakistan and India was defended by Alain Richard, Socialist Minister of Defense at the time of negotiations with India, according to whom the expansion of the defense relationship with India was a political choice which was based on the premises that France’s engagement with Pakistan was too exclusive and that the political partnership with India was consistent with France’s concept of multi-polarity.
However, it turned out that France possibly paid a heavy price for its concept of multi-polarity. What is most surprising is easiness trough which it was accepted that the DCN engineers were targeted by terrorists simply because they were from a Western country. In the beginning, Jean-Louis Bruguière, the anti-terrorist judge, who was entrusted with the investigation of the attack shortly after it occurred, had supported the thesis of Pakistani authorities, according to which only Islamist militants could have carried out the attacks. It is baffling that a French court could settle for an explanation given by Pakistani authorities who are known for their incompetence, lack of respect for law, obsession with the notion of Ghairat and Izzat (honor and respect, two ideologically loaded terms in Pakistani lexicon which mean that the outside world should not know or be told of the crimes of the Pakistani establishment), and above all for their support for terrorist activities. Nonetheless, in the words of two French journalists Fabrice L’homme and Fabrice Arfi who have carried out an in-depth investigation of the affair, the French judge reclined “on the Pakistani investigation as on an armrest.”
The irregularities in the Agosta contract were accidently discovered by another French judge, Van Ruymbeke, during the course of another investigation into DCN affairs. This subsequently led to the hypothesis that some disgruntled Pakistani intermediaries might have ordered the fatal attacks against the DCN engineers as revenge. The French courts now firmly believe that the attacks were related to financial dealings and arms contracts, instead of Al Qaeda terrorism. This turning point came in 2007 when Marc Trévidic took over from Jean-Louis Bruguiere as the judge in charge of the terrorist aspect of the case. Recounting their first meeting with the new judge in June, 2009, Magali Drouet and Sandrine Leclerc, two daughters of victims of the attack, who are bent on unearthing the responsibility for the death of their fathers, wrote: According to Marc Trévidic the, the trail of a Islamist attack targeting Westerners, fomented by Al-Qaeda was now put to sleep to make room for a political and financial settlement of accounts against the backdrop of arms contract, commissions and retro commissions.
With the dismissal of the hypothesis given by Pakistani authorities, the trial in Pakistan of the suspected perpetrators of the attacks was also finally understood for what it was: A complete farce. The whole procedure was based on a single proof and the testimony was totally fabricated. Ultimately no evidence was produced by the prosecution. In fact, those who were initially sentenced were later released, precisely because there was no proof of their involvement in the attacks.
When the attacks took place, the immediate reaction in Pakistan was predictable. In a country where conspiracy theories and victim mentality are abound, the Sindh police chief fittingly told Dawn newspaper that the “Involvement of foreign hand cannot be ruled out.” About the Indian secret services or any other group, he said: “When we are not ruling out the possibility of foreign hand, we mean that we will look into all aspects, including this one”. About the blast, the chief said: “It was a car bomb which went off between 7:40 and 7:50 in the morning. The Navy bus which was to carry the Frenchmen was parked at Hotel Sheraton’s entrance. As they came out of the hotel a car drove next to the bus and exploded.” He said that an initial inquiry and markings on the engine revealed that it was a 1973 model Toyota Corolla car. He also added that several parts of human body from near the wreckage of the car indicate that they were not of the victims, but possibly of the suicide bomber. Nisar Memon, the information minister, said that “it is because of the fact that Pakistan has participated in the war against terror.” In his view, “this is the price that Pakistan is paying [for participating in the war against terror].” In France, Jean-Francois Copé said that the attacks were obviously targeting “a Western power” and “a member of the coalition against terrorism.” One is baffled with such a statement from Jean-Francois Copé since France, at that time, was not a participant in the invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, France was not even a part of NATO in 2002. But it will be seen as we further go into the analysis, Mr. Copé had reason to blame the attacks onto Al Qaeda since it deflected attention from the dirty little secrets of the contract that was signed with Pakistan.
Apart from the knee-jerk reactions from the mainstream media and politicians, Pakistan showed its national characteristics such as incompetence and forgery when it came to investigating what exactly happened and why the attacks took place. The claim by Pakistan that perpetrator drove his Toyota Corolla was dismissed after elementary scientific analysis carried out by French medico-legal officer Dr. Dominique Lecomte who performed the autopsy of the dead bodies. According her report, the autopsy shows that “the person who was near the center of the explosion was in standing position.” According to the lawyer who is representing the families of the deceased engineers, this element “excludes that there could be someone driving the vehicle” that exploded against the bus carrying the victims of the attack, thus nullifying Pakistani claims. However, it should be said that similar (willful?) incompetence was also demonstrated by France, since Louis Bruguière, the same judge who reclined on the Pakistani investigation as on an armrest, failed to add to the investigation file this report concerning the bomb attack. The lawyer for French families has asked the Minister of Justice to order an investigation into the withholding of the autopsy report of the alleged bomber during the period when the investigation was in the hand of the Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere.
As far as forgery is concerned, it was manifest when the Pakistani police rounded up dozens of “militants” soon after the attacks took place. By now, such police operations have become a ritual in the War on Terror. In the following year, a Pakistani anti-terrorist court convicted Asif Zaheer, Rizwan Ahmed Basheer, and Mohammad Sohail guilty of planning the attacks and gave them death sentences. It was claimed that these men were from Harkat ul Mujahideen Al-Alami, a breakaway faction of the Harkat ul Mujahideen which is fighting Indian forces in the disputed region of Kashmir. However, after the three men contested the court decision, the High Court of Sindh reviewed the case and in 2009 acquitted them, for the original ruling, the court claimed, had insufficient proof for conviction. As Fabrice L’homme and Fabrice Arfi have pointed out in the above quoted book, “The judges were stupefied by the methods of the police and the lower court which accepted everything eyes shut. The verdict was clear: the entire case was built on a single proof – a testimony that is the result of a construction. Confessions of Asif Zaheer were not voluntary and were obtained after more than twenty-three hours of detention.” The initial court ruling was one of many instances where Pakistan has to conjure up some face-saving maneuver each time a scandal happens in the country. In fact, the first court ruling was programmed to synchronize with the arrival in Paris on 1st July, 2003 of President Pervez Musharraf.
So why would Pakistan not perform basic and proper legal and criminal procedures to find out why the DCN engineers were targeted and who carried out the attacks? Except for incompetence are there other reasons? One reason which is clear is that, because the attacks were ordered by the Pakistani secret services, there cannot possibly be worthwhile investigation into the affair, since the military establishment would not want its secrets to be unveiled. Not only Pakistanis were angry at the French arms deals with India, but they were also angry with the Pakistani civil government for its incursions inside a jurisdiction that, in case of Pakistan, normally belongs to the defense establishments. This incursion refers to the fact that the then civilian government of Benazir Bhutto promoted Admiral Mansur Ul Haq as the Chief of Naval Staff despite the recommendation of the outgoing Chief that a different Admiral should be selected. The reason why the Bhutto government opted for Mansur Ul Haq was because he was close to Asif Ali Zardari, the notorious husband of Benazir Bhutto. And this was done much to the consternation of the Pakistani military establishment. It is also possible that many in the Pakistan Navy were also unhappy at this decision, let alone the Pakistan Army and the ISI, its secret services agency. The French, not necessarily by choice were made to deal with people who did not sit well with the rest of the military establishment; therefore, France was seen as paying commissions to the wrong people. All of these new elements add new dimensions to the case and we take this opportunity to further highlight these aspects and why they might have been the reason for the attacks in 2002.
The contract for the acquisition by Pakistan of three Agosta 90B submarines was signed on September 21, 1994. Benazir Bhutto was then the Prime Minister and Admiral Saeed Mohammad Khan was the Chief of Naval Staff. On the completion of his term, Admiral Saeed Mohammad Khan was succeeded by Admiral Mansur Ul Haq on 10 November 1994. As is the rule, the outgoing Chief of Staff puts to the head of the government the names of three most senior officers in order of seniority to succeed him but indicates which one of them is the most meritorious. Generally, the government nominates the officer recommended by the outgoing chief. The preference of Saeed Mohammad Khan did not go to Admiral Mansur Ul Haq because he did not enjoy a good reputation professionally or on the basis of personal integrity. However, Mansur had access to the “first man,” Mr. Zardari. This exception to the rule by the new government which came to power following the elections of October, 1993 was not likely to please the military establishment, which tightly controls any encroachment by the political power into its jurisdiction. Mansur Ul Haq was quick to return the favors of his benefactors. The military establishment was closely monitoring his ties with “Mr. 10%”, the nickname given to the “first man”, Asif Ali Zardari. Starting from 1995, not only the Islamist press, particularly the Daily Ummat Karachi which is known for its links with the ISI, but also liberals like Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly The Friday Times and the journalist Ardeshir Cowasjee of Dawn which is the leading English-language daily in the country, reported, with supporting evidence, many cases of corruption involving Mansur Ul Haq and his links with Zardari. A thing most unusual for Pakistan, where the armed forces never let civilians meddle in military affairs, the ISI submitted a file on corruption cases involving Mansur Ul Haq to the Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. There was little talk at that time of the Agosta 90B contract. Benazir Bhutto government was dismissed in late 1996 by President Farooq Leghari, and Nawaz Sharif, as the head of the Muslim League, the rival of the People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto, won the elections that followed. Soon after taking office, Nawaz Sharif dismissed Admiral Mansur Ul Haq for corruption in April, 1997. Pakistan Navy started investigations against several senior officers for corruption without much filtering to the general public. One of the charges against them was that they had received commissions from the “Frenchies” (term used recently in an interview given to the local channel Dawn by the Director General of Naval Intelligence during the tenure of Mansur Ul Haq and one of those who were dismissed from service after the investigations). Admiral Mansur Ul Haq was however able to leave for the United States where he settled down in a sumptuous villa in Houston.
On October 13, 1999 General Musharraf overthrew the Nawaz Sharif government. The Mansur-Ul-Haq case was reopened. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the national authority for investigating major corruption cases, dealt with it. It is at that time that we begin to hear the talk about bribes in the Agosta 90B contract. As noted by Fabrice L’homme and Fabrice Arfi in their book, on 29 August, 2000 the local daily newspaper The News ran the heading “The NAB has evidence of mass corruption in arms contracts “. Investigative journalist Kamran Khan wrote in his article that Pakistani investigators are “in possession of documentary evidence on how DCN-I of France had made a payment of approximately $ 5 million to Admiral Mansur Ul Haq for the highly over-invoiced upgradation project for the three Agosta 90B submarines”. A formal request was submitted to the U.S. authorities to extradite Mansur Ul Haq, which was accepted. The Pakistani press reported on 18 May, 2001 that “Pale and limping, in hand-cuffs and iron fetters, the former Pakistan Navy chief, Admiral Mansur-ul-Haq, was ordered by a Texas court to be sent to Pakistan immediately. The US District Judge issued the ruling in the wake of Mansur’s voluntary surrender of his right to contest the case. The court ordered that US Marshals “deliver Haq to the authorities representing the Government of Pakistan” for his expeditious return to his home country. Haq had filed an affidavit requesting that he be sent back to Pakistan. He submitted that his rights under US law and the extradition treaty signed between the US and the United Kingdom, which is applicable to Pakistan, should be waived.”
But was the former Chief of Staff brought back to Pakistan in order to find out more about the arms deal and its corrupt nature, and to bring those to justice who were involved in it? It became clear that Mansur Ul Haq was made a scapegoat for the entire scandal, while the rest of the officers who were equally involved in the deals – if not more – were let off the hook. Why? Because Mansur Ul Haq was to be punished for his links to Asif Ali Zardari, as well as to be a decoy for the cover up of the remaining officers who part of the ring, but were not rogue in the sense that Mansur was.
Mansur Ul Haq was aware that he was being turned into an animal ready to be sacrificed in order to mask the sins of the establishment he used to head. On May 23, 2001, journalist Kamran Khan wrote in the English-language daily The News that, “sources who have an access to the former naval chief’s friends and his family in America said that Mansur, on his return to Pakistan, would vigorously contest as to why the senior naval officials, who had actually finalized and scrutinized the submarine deal, were rewarded by the successive governments while he was made an scapegoat.” The senior naval officers in question were Rear Admiral A U Khan (Retd), Vice Admiral Khalid Mir, Rear Admiral Mujtaba and Admiral Saeed Khan, the former naval chief. The thrust of Mansur’s arguments revolved around the fact that the submarine deal had been concluded by his predecessor Admiral Saeed Khan and he had only dealt with the upgradation part of the deal.
In this background, the authorities thought that only two options were available to the NAB in order to prevent the former Chief of Naval Staff from settling scores with his former colleagues and the former top brass of military services by questioning their role in various defense deals in an open court: Either to strike a quick plea bargain deal with the former naval chief or to have him tried in-camera. The NAB was more interested in wrapping up the case through a plea bargain because it knew well that a fair and all-encompassing trial was impossible. As a senior NAB source privately conceded in a background interview in Islamabad recently, “any honest probe would result in the interrogation and subsequent arrest of scores of former and present naval officials and it will lead to calls for similar accountability in the air force and the army – and a military government would hate to face such an embarrassing situation.” It was known to the NAB that, besides Mansur, other naval officials were also involved in receiving kickbacks and commissions from foreign defense suppliers and were important members of the syndicate that operated under Mansur for about three years. However, as the official correctly stated, the top brass of the military was not going to allow itself to be touched. Moreover, as already mentioned, the purpose of the case against the former naval chief was to punish him and him alone because he flirted with the civilian government, instead of gaining power through orthodox ways. Two former senior officers of the Navy, Commodore Shahid Ashraf and Rear Admiral Tanvir Ahmed, who had been dismissed from the navy for their links with Mansur-Ul-Haq, argued recently on Dawn channel’s program that Mansur-Ul-Haq actually paid for the crime of others’ rather than his own alleged involvement in the Agosta case. According to the ex- Director General of Naval Intelligence, Commodore Shahid Ashraf, an ex- army officer Colonel Ejaz, who distributed stuffed envelopes coming from the “Frenchies”, was never questioned.
The Herald Magazine was correct in observing in its July, 2001 issue that the “Disclosure and transparency have never been the mainstays of the armed forces’ public policy. If spokesmen of the defense forces are to be believed, contracts for the purchase of defense equipment are signed after hectic deliberations and careful consideration, leaving no room for anyone – including the defense service chiefs – to manipulate the deals. This myth, however, was shattered by the corruption case against former naval chief admiral Mansoor Ul Haq, which exposed the rot within the supposedly incorruptible defense services. Interestingly, while Haq’s case may have shocked the general public, it came as no surprise to the office of the Auditor-General of Pakistan (AGP). The department had long been investigating defense procurement deals and believes that Haq’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the entire process of finalizing defense contracts is suspect and merits a high-level review. According to inquires made by the AGP’s office, the armed forces have caused the national exchequer a staggering loss of 20 billion rupees between 1987 and 1999 under the head of defense purchases alone. This does not include the millions of dollars paid out in commissions and kickbacks, Mansoor Ul Haq’s Agosta-90B deal being a case in point.” Therefore, this further gives credibility to what is a truism when you look at Pakistan that Mansur Ul Haq’s trial was used as a shield to protect the defense establishment of Pakistan.
As far as France is concerned in this delicate game, its role was that it was not paying the right people. Perhaps one cannot blame France entirely for this since it’s not the responsibility of the French government to figure out whom to pay and whom to avoid, but there is a price to pay when you deal with a rogue state like Pakistan. As the French daily Libération noted, “the criminal proceedings launched by Islamabad against the intermediaries showed a sense of defiance against France, accused of not paying the right people.”
One might ask which of above mentioned factors weigh the most. Are all of these factors responsible for the killing of 11 DCN engineers? Is there a hierarchy among them? Should we measure all of them equally? Further, we might also ask if the dispute was between Pakistan and France or was it only an inter-Pakistani dispute. Was the purpose of the attacks simply to send a message to France? Or was it also to punish those in the Pakistan Navy who tried to be independent and worked in cahoots with civil politicians on the deal and shared the spoils amongst themselves? These questions are perfectly legitimate and need to be answered. Of all the points that have been enumerated, there is only one of them that stands out and provides soundest rationale for the killings that took place a decade ago in Karachi: The manner in which France signed the contract for Agosta 90B with Pakistan, and then violated the written and unwritten terms of the contract. It was agreed upon that Pakistan will buy three Agosta submarines at a discount rate of 875 million Euros. The proper price of the three submarines was 1 billion Euros; however, the motley crew of Nicolas Sarkozy, Eduard Balladur and others pushed DCN to sell the submarines at a lower price because these politicians were desperately in need of money in order to finance the campaign of Mr. Balladur. It is worth repeating again that commissions were legal at that time and retro-commissions were only banned by Chirac in 1995. The irregularities in the DCN contract that the French judge later discovered were that the commissions were paid to Pakistan even before Pakistan had made the payments for the submarines. Moreover, the retro-commissions also started coming simultaneously and were rather deducted from the commissions. The retro-commissions were used and digested long before Pakistan started to make the payments for the contract. The terms of the deal were broken by France when the DCN tried to recover its losses by overcharging Pakistan when Pakistan needed upgradation. As already mentioned before, it was Mansur Ul Haq who was the chief of the Navy when upgradations were demanded. The persecution of former Chief of Staff adds another dimension to the case since Pakistan resented the fact that France dealt with these rogue elements in the Navy, as well as with several politicians. In fact, it is believed that France paid heavy commissions to people who were disliked by the Pakistani defense establishment. Moreover, France bagged the contract by tricking Pakistan: It was promised to Pakistan that advanced technology would be transferred to Pakistan, the type of arms technology that has never been transferred by an advanced country to a Third World country. The technology in question is “MESMA”, the oxygen free propulsion system which gives the submarine an extended dived endurance (more than 90 days instead of 45-60 days in conventional submarines). The initial engagement was to install this system on only one submarine but they had unofficially promised to later on install it on all three. However, not only France retracted on some of its initial commitments but it also broke a more important understanding with Pakistan when it decided to sell and transfer better technology and submarines to India. France had made all these promises to Pakistan in order to out-maneuver Germany in race for the contract; however, it would appear that France out-maneuvered itself.
So to answer the question whether the financial scandal – the commissions and retro-commissions – alone explain the attacks, the answer is no. In fact, the commissions and retro-commissions are a regular part of military dealings all over the world, which is why they were legal until not very long ago among OCED countries. Pakistan was unhappy that the wrong people were getting paid inside Pakistan, but that was an inter-Pakistani matter and it cannot be said that it had a direct bearing on the decision to kill the DCN engineers. The money was paid long before 2002. If it was a question of commissions then why the engineers would be killed eight years after the deal? The need for the commissions and retro-commissions was mainly for getting the deal done and to finance the elections of Mr. Balladur. It had no worth so many years down the road. In fact, by focusing only on the financial aspect, as it is being done in France, the core of the matter is being hidden. The core of the matter is that France made a corrupt deal with a corrupt country and in which the entire French establishment was involved, be it the Left or the Right. It is rather unfair to only blame Nicolas Sarkozy because when it comes to arms export to rogue states, the French Left is as guilty as the Right. But what the anti-Sarkozy zealots are doing is precisely to hide these facts by focusing solely on Sarkozy. Last but not the least, France knows well that it cannot push Pakistan too far, for Pakistan is a valued ally of the US in the region and Pakistanis also have a predilection for terrorism if pressured too much. In the end, it was those innocent engineers who paid the price for the corruption of these two countries.
“Karachi : le contrat indien en détonateur ?” Libération.<http://www.liberation.fr/societe/01012311225-karachi-le-contrat-indien-en-detonateur>.
Drouet, Magali, and Sandrine Leclerc.On nous appelle “les Karachi”: deux filles des victimes de l’attentat de Karachi témoignent. Paris: Fleuve noir, 2010. Print.
Arfi, Fabrice, and Fabrice L’homme. Le contrat: Karachi, l’affaire que Sarkozy voudrait oublier. Paris: Stock, 2010. Print.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of the magazine. He is a 22 year old student based in Vancouver, Canada, where he goes to Simon Fraser Univeristy. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans for Peace.
Photo credit: France24