Is Col. Habib a Tit for Tat for Kulbhushan? – Naveed Iqbal Yousafzai

Nathan Hale was an American soldier and a spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War in the 17th century. He volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City but was captured by the British and executed. His last words before being hanged were reported to be, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country’. In another instance, when in 1965 the Arab-Israel tension was brimming, the Syrian counter-intelligence busted their own Chief Advisor to the Minister of Defense. He was Eli Cohen, an Israeli undercover agent working for Israeli spy agency Mossad. Israel ran from every pillar to each post for his release and was ready to pay any price for his return but Syrians were simply not flinching and so he was hanged in Marjeh Square, Damascus. Israel could capture Golan Heights mainly because of the information provided by him.

If star agents like Nathan Hale and Eli Cohen can be hanged for being involved in reconnaissance only, why not Kulbhushan for being involved in the killing of innocent people? India has always demanded to ‘do more’ against the terrorists. Now when Pakistan is ‘doing more’, the question begs to be asked why is India making so much noise then?

India set the same precedent by hanging JKLF member Afzal Guru in 2013. However, when the hour of Sarabjit Singh’s case came, whose only mission inside Pakistan was to detonate as many bombs as he could at public places, ex-President Zardari commuted his death sentence into life imprisonment. This was a clever move to set him free as life sentence in Pakistan lasts mostly fourteen years, while Sarabjit had already spent twenty-two years in captivity. One day Sarabjit developed a ‘grudge’ with some ‘fellow prisoners’ and the fight that ensued left him fatally injured resulting in his death. This happened in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore. Soon after this, Sanaullah Haq, who was a Hizbul Mujahideen affiliate, was also attacked by a few ‘fellow prisoners’ and killed in the same manner in Kot Balwal Jail in Kashmir.

While India and Pakistan’ relations normalized for a period,  the election of  Prime Minister Modi and the appointment of his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval brought about a resurfacing of aggression in India’s policy towards Pakistan. It seems that after Kulbhushan’s conviction, New Delhi tasked its spy agencies to find a similar prized possession who could be exchanged for Kulbhushan and, from what it appears, they tagged Lt. Col (Retd) Muhammad Habib Zahir by his detailed resume as uploaded on LinkedIn long ago. As was evident from his credentials on LinkedIn, he had served in the ISI from 2003 to 2009. Following his retirement, while he was working in the Rafhan refinery, he seemed to have been lured into a trap by a ‘simple’ job offer where he made a blunder and walked straight into it.

The apparent abduction of Col. Habib from Nepal by India appears nothing else but an act of desperation on India’s part pressurize Pakistan and its armed forces into a prisoner exchange. The challenge for India now, however, is to establish that Col. Habib was indeed a threat to India such as Kulbhushan has clearly proven to be However, seeing that an undercover agent simply does not upload his resume with correct credentials on the internet and does not photograph himself posing in front of the plane he just boarded off, it would be quite difficult for India to prove such.

Moreover, if India could abduct a retired officer of Pak Army in Kathmandu, Pakistan should perhaps also play its cards accordingly. The illegal capture of Col. Habib from Nepalese territory by India might also have put India in an uncomfortable situation with the Nepalese government. It is yet to come to surface whether Nepal is in cahoots with India on this or not. It should be reminded that Col. Habib traveled to Nepal with a valid passport and passed through the immigration checks legally. As he is now missing, isn’t it the responsibility of the Government of Nepal to trace him and recover him safe and sound to Pakistan? To add to that, the Nepalese police also confirmed that an un-identified man met Col Habib at the airport. That ‘un-identified’ man is coincidentally also missing now. While tracing this missing man could be the key to Col. Habib’s missing status, surprisingly, the photo of this ‘un-identified’ man is nowhere on the state TV nor in the press.

It is time that the Foreign Office, Prime Minister and the Armed forces of Pakistan come on one page on this matter and mobilize the international community to investigate whether India is indeed involved in the abduction of a Pakistani citizen or not. It should also be conveyed to India that, in case it is responsible for the abduction of Col. Habib, it would not save the neck of Kulbushan but rather tighten the noose around his neck even more. What’s more, it might in fact even foster Pakistan to set its own precedent by hanging Khulbushan Sudhir Jadhav- who is allegedly a serving Colonel of the Indian Navy and due to retire in 2022. What India is going to do to a retired Colonel of Pak Army is yet to unfold.

The author is a Defense and Security Analyst and can be reached at naveedeusophzai@gmail.com

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