Syed Iftikhar Murshed (1946-2018)

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Syed Iftikhar Murshed passed away on 12 May 2018. He was a former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea and Russia, Additional Foreign secretary for Afghanistan, author of the book: “Afghanistan: the Taliban Years” and over 200 op-ed articles and the Founder and publisher of this journal.

Iftikhar Murshed had internalized a particular objective which would be the overriding reason and passion behind anything and everything he did in life. And that was to serve his country and help its people. That remained the driving force behind all his accomplishments.

He believed in the idea of Pakistan. Perhaps his grandfather’s contribution in the creation of Pakistan had something to do with that belief. That belief is the foundation that he built his life around. That belief is the reason that he chose to remain in Pakistan after the second partition, although his entire family was in Bangladesh. That belief drove him to choose a profession through which he could serve the country and its people.

He sat for the CSS exams and was selected for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to his childhood friend, Fiazullah Khilji, he had wanted to join the Foreign Service since school days, following his father’s, Ambassador Maqbool Murshed’s, footsteps.

Faizullah Khilji also recalls, “After Burn Hall, while many of us chose to study abroad, Ifti chose to remain in Pakistan. He wanted to prove that the education here was as good as anywhere else in the world. As far as his career is concerned, he proved it. That was his level of commitment to the country.”

After the academy, Iftikhar Murshed was sent to Madrid for a language course where, at the very beginning of his career, his belief in and commitment to the country would be tested to the extreme. There is no one who could have explained this better than Iftikhar Murshed, himself. In his article, “The Day that my life changed”, which was published by the News, he wrote:

“It was a nippy mid-March afternoon in Madrid when the telephone rang in my modest one-room apartment. The caller asked in Spanish, “Are you alone?” When I replied that I was, he introduced himself as Bedi, second secretary at the Indian embassy. He said that he was under instructions from New Delhi to “repatriate” me to Dacca (Dhaka), and he had a “huge amount of money” for me. With a touch of melodrama he added: “Bangladesh, your country, awaits you.” I told him that he should never even dream of calling me again.

Barely three months earlier, on December 16, 1971, the commander of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, Lt Gen A A K Niazi, and the commander of the Indian Eastern Command, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, convened at the Ramna Racecourse in Dacca where the instrument of surrender was signed. In an article, probably one of his last, the late Ardeshir Cowasjee recalled that it was all over “at one minute past five in the afternoon… Thus died the Pakistan founded and made by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a mere 24 years previously.”

For me the wounds of that fateful day 41 years ago will never heal, because I was to be separated forever from my entire family. And this brings me back to the chain of events that were set in motion with Bedi’s phone call. I rushed to the Pakistani embassy to inform the ambassador, the late Maj Gen Abid Bilgrami. He was a soft-spoken man with the remarkable ability of always speaking in phrases of masterly understatement. Bilgrami had lost his son-in-law, a major in the Pakistani army during the war with India a few months back, but he bore his grief with poise and quiet dignity.

The ambassador listened to me attentively, and then, after a few thoughtful puffs of his pipe as he paced the room, said: “Please phone Bedi back. Say you want to meet him, fence with them. I want to know what the Indians are up to here.” Bedi chuckled when I called him and said that he was certain I would re-establish contact with him. Later that night he telephoned to say that we should meet at noon the following day at the Sunset Bar, a restaurant in downtown Madrid. He would be accompanied by his ambassador and requested that I bring my wife along with me.

The Indian ambassador, an urbane middle-aged gentleman, advanced all the reasons in carefully measured sentences why I should proceed to Dhaka. When I said this was not immediately possible because my sons, aged one and two, were in Lahore, he was not flustered and responded that there was no hurry. In the meantime I could be of help in providing his embassy information about Pakistan’s relations with Spain.

And then, as if it was an afterthought, he asked: “Do you have any knowledge about the whereabouts of a PNSC ship named Sarfraz Rafiqi which, we know, was damaged off the West African coast and is now headed towards a Spanish port for repairs? Twelve of its crewmembers plan to defect and we need to contact them urgently.” I told him that I would try and find out and get back to him promptly.

At the Pakistani embassy, Bilgrami anxiously awaited my return. A despatch was quickly cabled to Islamabad about the Sunset Bar meeting. A week later the Indian ambassador invited my wife and me for dinner at his residence, and, without bandying words, said: “Some very important people are eager that you should leave for Bangladesh immediately, but I am convinced that you should go over only after you have your children with you.” He did not disclose who these “very important people” were.

I had never imagined that my initiation to the diplomatic profession would be quite so dramatic. As a young third secretary I was naive enough to believe that I was rendering invaluable service to Pakistan. I was ready to walk through the darkest of valleys and climb treacherously steep slopes for my country. I did not know how daunting the challenges of the immediate future would be.

It was around this time that I received the first of several telephone calls from my mother in Dhaka. She wept and implored me to come over to Bangladesh. I was the only son, she said, and, in their old age, she and my father needed me. The calls became increasingly frantic and I could bear it no longer. I requested the foreign office to recall me to Islamabad and was told that I should withstand the pressure.

About ten days later, Ambassador Bilgrami hosted a dinner at his residence for embassy officials when a desperate message was received from the management of my apartment complex that I should come over immediately. We drove at breakneck speed, and, on reaching the building, found my mother at the entrance lobby.

She had travelled by herself all the way from Dhaka to take us back with her. That emotion-filled night was a turning point in my life. Things would never be the same again. I told her that I could never abandon the country which, despite its myriad faults, I loved so dearly. Then, as if to give vent to her innermost fears, she asked: “Are you sure they won’t shoot you if you return to Pakistan?” I assured her that no harm would come to me and the events of the last 14 months, so replete with hideous atrocities committed by all sides, was an aberration. She then gave me her blessings and made us promise that we visit them often in Dhaka.

I did not realise it as I saw her off at the Madrid airport that this was to be the last that I would be able to talk to her. Ten years later, when we were finally able to visit Bangladesh, it was too late. My mother was in deep coma and died two months later.” 1

Ashraf Jehanghir Qazi , a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan, is a close family friend. He, in his own sensitive manner, said about Iftikhar Murshed: “Those were tough times and tough choices he had to make after the second partition. Those were difficult decisions to make. Your mother must have been a tremendous support… Ifti believed. He saw Pakistan as an idea worth preserving. I am sure he thought that he didn’t make the wrong decision. The problem was that the people at the helm and the ones who had to run this country were morally inadequate. He saw all this. He saw the absurdity. He expressed his sentiments through the wry humor that he was known for.”

The “morally inadequate” so-called leaders “at the helm”, that Ashraf Jehanghir Qazi mentioned, have always craved for political laurels. For any of these people to take credit for something, there obviously had to be others working hard, behind the scenes, to make sure that there was something to take credit for. Iftikhar Murshed remained, throughout his life, as the one working behind the scenes.

His first Ambassadorial post was to South Korea (1990-1995). The land of chaebols. A chaebol is a family-run conglomerate in South Korea. “There are, now 45 conglomerates that fit the traditional definition of a chaebol”. 2 Hyundai, LG, Samsung are a few of the better-known ones.

General Park Chung-hee led a military coup in 1961. He then served as president from 1962 to 1979. 3 This is the time when he diverted government resources and policies in favor of these chaebols. These family run businesses began to dominate the S. Korean economy and the country prospered – just as Pakistan did in the 60’s under Ayub Khan and the 22 business families that “dominated the economic and financial life-cycle of Pakistan.” 4 But South Korea did not have a Bhutto who saw a grave injustice in the distribution of wealth to just a few chosen families. The process of nationalization began in Pakistan whereas the process of prosperity continued in South Korea. Pakistan is still recovering from that nationalization phase, whereas, by the 1990’s “South Korea was one of the largest newly industrialized countries” in the world. 5

That is the time that Iftikhar Murshed was Ambassador in Seoul. After submitting his credentials, he started calling on the Chairmen of these chaebols. Once he had convinced them on the business viability of investing in Pakistan, he invited businessmen from Pakistan and multiple MOU’s were signed under his supervision. Hyundai, LG, Daewoo, Kia, Samsung, etc. eventually became recognizable names in Pakistani households.

Then came the mega project – the Lahore-Islamabad motorway. Negotiations were already in their final stages with another company when Ambassador Murshed approached Daewoo for the project. He negotiated rates and terms with Daewoo for the Lahore – Islamabad motorway that could not be matched by any other company. Eventually the project was awarded to Daewoo.

When the project was being inaugurated, Iftikhar Murshed was asked by the prime minister to visit Pakistan and be recognized for the role he played in this project. He refused. This decision was influenced by the advice his father, Ambassador Maqbool Murshed, had given him years ago. He was told that as a civil servant it was his duty to serve the nation and the nation alone. That was his job. He should never be affiliated with any political party.

Later, as foreign additional secretary exclusively for Afghanistan (1996-2000), he had been given an assignment to, through shuttle missions, narrow the differences between the warring Afghan factions in order to bring them to the negotiating table for sustainable peace.

His diplomatic skills would be tested to their extreme. The mistrust and hatred between the warring factions was irreversible. Players outside Afghanistan – Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – only exacerbated the quagmire within. Within this web of intrigue and international conspiracies, Iftikhar Murshed and his team attempted the impossible – sustainable peace for Afghanistan.

Nawaz Sharif had become prime minister for the second time and wanted political laurels early in his tenure. His lack of understanding – “ he never read the briefs and position papers that the foreign office sent him”- was never more apparent than the time when he told Iftikhar Murshed that he wanted the Afghan issue to be resolved in a week. 6 Whenever this statement has been recounted reactions have ranged from chuckles to raised eyebrows at the absurdity.

To date, sustainable peace has not been achieved. Perhaps Iftikhar Murshed was aware, at that time, that it was not possible. But, he and his team worked tirelessly and, at times, risked their lives to neutralize the agendas and efforts of the countries and factions that were working against the interests of Pakistan.

In the process, Iftikhar Murshed met and enhanced diplomatic ties with the key players associated with Afghanistan. Apart form meeting Mullah Omar, Mullah Rabbani, General Malik, Burhanuddin Rabbani , Ahmad Shah Masood, and many more, he travelled to Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, etc., with the sole purpose of alleviating their misgivings regarding their preconceived threat perception from a Taliban dominated Afghanistan.

Ayaz Wazir, who was a part of Iftikhar Murshed’s team and Pakistan’s consul general in Mazar-e- Sharif said the following about him: “Being a non-Pushton, he knew a lot about Afghanistan…. their tribes, ethnicity… which ethnicity is where… tribal customs and traditions… their sensitivities.”

Abdul Hameed had worked with Iftikhar Murshed in the Pakistani consulate in Moscow. He also wrote, Ambassador Murshed’s “interlocutors had to be very alert, particularly when speaking about Afghanistan, as most of them would start their interventions with a surrender, saying, ‘Ifti you know far better than us…’”

Iftikhar Murshed has chronicled the knowledge, expertise and insight that he gained throughout his tenure as special envoy to Afghanistan in a book that he wrote, titled: “Afghanistan: The Taliban years.” (First published in 2006 by Bennett & Bloom, London). Bennett & Bloom chose to publish this book not because it would be a bestseller, but because it would be used as a reference book by the present and future generations.

After his tenure as special envoy for Afghanistan he was posted as Ambassador to Moscow (2000-2005). Ambassador Murshed wrote in one of his articles, “ ‘You are a Dushman (enemy) and we know all about you! I’m just joking. I hope you will be able to present the correct facts about the Taliban to my government,’ said Boris Gromov, the former Colonel General of the 8th Army and the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan. These were the circumstances under which I began a daunting but delightful five-year ambassadorial assignment to Moscow in the autumn of 2000.” 7

In his book, “Afghanistan: The Taliban years” Ambassador Murshed further elucidated the level of animosity that Russia had for Pakistan when he joined the mission. He wrote, “Deputy foreign minister Alexander Losyukov who was responsible for Asian affairs and later became ambassador in Tokyo, told my colleagues in the diplomatic corps on multiple occasions that ‘the most difficult job in Moscow is that of the Pakistan ambassador!’ There were several demonstrations outside my residence with the encouragement of the local authorities in Moscow. On one occasion we received a phone call threatening a rocket attack on the embassy…” 8

Ambassador Murshed made a breakthrough in his first year there. He prevailed upon Sergie Yastrzhembsky, the Russian presidential spokesman for Chechnya, to visit Islamabad in September 2000. Ambassador Murshed wrote that Yastrzhembsky later described this visit “as an important development in Pakistan-Russia relations. He told me that he had briefed Putin on his return and there was now a better understanding in Moscow about Pakistan’s “historic concerns” vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In turn, Islamabad also had a more accurate assessment of the Chechen problem. He said that he had come back convinced that Pakistan and Russia were against religious extremism and their attitude towards Islam, which was a moderate religion, was the same.” 9

The recognition by the Taliban of Chechnya and the opening of the latter’s offices in Kabul and Kandahar remained an issue for Pakistan-Russia relations. Moscow accused the Taliban of sheltering and training Chechens and accused Pakistan, despite the lack of proof, of sending Pakistani military officers to Afghanistan to help the Taliban in their military operations.

However, Ambassador Murshed wrote, “after the ouster of the Taliban at the end of 2001, there was a substantial improvement in Pakistan-Russia relations… the two countries established mechanisms for regular structured consultations on counterterrorism, Afghanistan, as well as between their respective audit chambers to deal with such issues as money laundering. President Musharraf paid a landmark visit to Moscow on 3-5 February 2003. His schedule thirty minute meeting with Putin extended to two-and-a half hours plus three hours of further talks in which the respective delegations of the two countries also participated. After their tete-a-tete, when Musharraf introduced me to Putin as ‘my ambassador’ the latter quipped ‘you’re wrong Mr. President, he is our ambassador.’” 10

Within three years, Ambassador Murshed had converted the initial greeting of “You are my dushman (enemy)” by Boris Gromov to Putin’s comment to President Musharraf saying, “You’re wrong Mr. President, he is our Ambassador”.

The challenges in Iftikhar Murshed’s personal and professional life were many. So were his accomplishments. His razor-sharp intellect (without any intellectual pretenses – he considered the word ‘intellectual’ to be superficial) his innate quality to fight on – no matter what the odds – his ambition to serve his country and its people and his faith guided him and helped him persevere.

The one thing that he believed in more than the idea of Pakistan was his faith in Islam. He had read multiple translations of the Holy Quran. His favorite exegesis of the Quran was by Muhammad Asad. His Quran was underlined and highlighted. He studied it with a passion. He regretted not being fluent in Urdu, otherwise he would have been on a mission to take on the extremist elements that dominate this country’s faith related narrative. This ambition and passion too remained with him throughout his life.

In fact, the main objective behind launching this journal was Islam. In his inaugural note – which has now been posted on the journal’s website as a mission statement – he wrote:

“The two overarching objectives of Criterion are to emphasise: (i) the need for Muslims to re-establish the fundamental tenets of their religion, so that there can be genuine reform in line with modern concepts within their societies, and; (ii) the need for the international community to understand the doctrinal emphasis on rationalism in Islam as well as its worldview which is based on peace and harmony.

“These objectives encompass a vast canvass because Islam is much more than a mere personal faith. It signifies a will to political expression in the form of laws, judicial principles, polity, economics, education, social advancement, human rights especially those of women and minorities, culture, science and technology, environmental issues and foreign policy.” 11

This part of the mission statement was not just for his journal but was also a mission statement for his post-retirement life. Apart form single-handedly establishing a journal which was considered by some as the best of its kind in South Asia – he wrote over two hundred op-ed articles and was in the final stages of completing his book on Islam.

The overarching theme in most of his writings was the projection of Islam within the parameters defined in the mission statement. In his discussions with family and close friends he would, on many occasions, relate what he had observed or heard to particular verses from the Holy Quran. The beauty of these discussions was that we never felt that we were being preached to. On the contrary, we, inevitably, felt as if we had gained a deeper insight into our religion and our lives.

Two nights before he passed away he asked me if I knew why he did not write Syed with his name. When I did not answer he explained that it was out of respect. Although he had inherited the title through family lineage, he believed that he needed to earn the right to use it.

After we had buried Iftikhar Murshed, we had to decide on what we wanted to inscribe on the headstone. I was stuck on the name. The conversation that I had with him two days earlier made me think, “would he have wanted Syed before his name after he had explained to me that he did not write it before his name out of respect as he felt that he needed to earn the right to do so.” I spent two days thinking about this. Eventually, I decided that to me my father was a Syed. The inscription therefore reads:

Syed Iftikhar Murshed

son of

Syed Maqbool Murshed

References

1- Iftikhar Murshed, “The day my life changed,” The News, 16 December 2012

2- https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/republic-samsung

3- https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/south-koreas-chaebol-challenge

4- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahbub_ul_Haq

5- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaebol

6- S. Iftikhar Murshed, Afghanistan: The Taliban Years, Bennett & Bloom, 2006, p.116

7- Iftikhar Murshed, “Pakistan, Russia and the Taliban,” The News, 30 December 2012

8- S. Iftikhar Murshed, Afghanistan: The Taliban Years, Bennett & Bloom, 2006, p.225

9- Ibid.

10- S. Iftikhar Murshed, Afghanistan: The Taliban Years, Bennett & Bloom, 2006, p.228

11- S. Iftikhar Murshed, “Inaugural Note,” Criterion Quarterly, Volume 1 Number 1, Oct-Dec 2006