The ISI Under Fire
It is understandable that intelligence agencies cannot be open but there are areas in which they could be more transparent.
Parliamentary oversight mechanisms are needed to make the intelligence agencies accountable to a credible watchdog.
The Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) is the premier intelligence agency of Pakistan and clearly the first line of defense since it acts as the eyes and ears of the nation. Its primary function is to collect and collate both foreign and domestic intelligence using human and technological resources. Another of its important functions is to provide threat assessment to the military and the government. Being a trilateral service, it also coordinates intelligence between the army, the air force and the navy. A British officer Major General R Cawthome founded the ISI soon after partition in 1948. At the time of partition there were few Muslim officers on higher ranks and even the first C-in-C of the Pakistan Army was a Britisher – General Frank Messervy.
Initially, the ISI was a relatively small unit, but over the years it has grown into a large organization and since the late 1980s, a lieutenant general (or equivalent) heads it. It is now supposed to have a strength of about 10,000 officers and staff.
On the internal war on terror, the ISI, like all other security institutions, is on a learning curve. Like the rest of the security and intelligence organizations worldwide, the ISI generally takes a short-term view but overlooks long-term interests. But we have to understand that the ISI in principle is not a policy-making body but merely an instrument for carrying out the decisions taken by the government. It
is a different matter that it wields far greater power than similar intelligence agencies in more mature democracies because of the imbalance in civilmilitary relations and prolonged military rules in Pakistan.
Both military and civilian governments have used the ISI for expedient political purposes. In fact, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who officially gave the ISI a political role to oversee the activities of politicians. This was a radical departure from the wellestablished principle of not involving intelligence agencies in politics. Later, it was alleged that General Aslam Beg as COAS, with the help of the ISI, created a political alliance against the PPP-led government of Benazir Bhutto and succeeded in toppling it. During times of direct military rule, the role of the ISI in influencing politicians and keeping an eye on them has been even greater. It is only after the leaders of the two major parties – the PML (N) and the PPP – agreed through the Charter of Democracy that they will not use security institutions for undermining each other, that the ISI and other intelligence agencies relatively distanced themselves from direct political manipulation. However, if the civilian government fails to make policy or falters on governance due to its incompetence, then of course the army fills the vacuum either through the ISI or directly.
The exaggerated role of the ISI in Pakistan’s internal and external affairs owes much to the geopolitical and geo-strategic environment that Pakistan has been trying to leverage ever since its inception. The hostility with India and the simmering dispute of Kashmir resulting in two wars, in 1948 and 1965, and the unfortunate insurgency in the former East Pakistan that eventually led to its separation gave the ISI a significant role and importance in shaping events in Pakistan.
It was, however, the Afghan jihad against the occupation of the erstwhile communist Soviet Union that truly multiplied its responsibilities and gave it a profile beyond borders as a major regional actor. Working closely with the CIA and intimately involved in mobilizing Afghan militant groups against the communist regime in Afghanistan, provided it great experience as well as power that it would not have normally exercised.
In addition to performing its core functions of intelligence and counter intelligence, the ISI was also assigned a political role that later became highly controversial. During the Afghan jihad, its area of activity expanded far beyond its borders, right up to Afghanistan and to parts of Central Asia. This duty was over and above the ISI’s normal professional responsibilities of focusing on India, Afghanistan and the Iranian border. These events on the one hand increased its influence and power in the country and on the other made it the prime target of Pakistanbashing by its neighboring countries and the West.
In recent times too, the ISI has three major fronts to keep a vigilant eye on. The India-Pakistan relations remain in a state of flux; the volatility on the LoC and the constant Indian accusations of cross-border infiltration give the ISI an important role. Similarly, on the western border, as the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces start to withdraw, Pakistan needs to keep itself wellinformed of the unfolding situation. The ISI also acts as a communication link to the Taliban and other Afghan militant groups based in Pakistan. The internal challenge is no less. It has to keep a close track of the TTP and other militant, sectarian and ethnic groups that are attacking the state. As government control in areas in North Waziristan and certain other parts of FATA is either minimal or non-existent, it increases the burden of responsibility on the ISI.
The ISI is a convenient scapegoat for the U.S. for their failures. The Afghans have also used it as a whipping boy to cover their grave inadequacies. The ISI also takes the blame for the policy differences that exist between Pakistan and the U.S. and for supporting the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani network – although to support or tolerate these groups is a policy decision of the military and civilian leadership and the ISI acts primarily as the implementer of this policy.
The reputation of the ISI suffered badly because of the Mumbai bombing incident and later when it was discovered that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in Pakistan for nearly seven years, close to the Military Academy in Kakul. Its involvement at times in domestic politics remains another sore point.
It is also true that the international news media and foreign governments have been deliberately exaggerating the ISI’s influence to serve their own ends. This is a Machiavellian and nihilistic approach to cover their failings or to put pressure on Pakistan. A glaring false myth about the ISI is that it created the Taliban. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The Taliban were born inside Afghanistan and were an indigenous creation due to indigenous social, political and cultural factors. They were a local phenomenon and represented one distinct face of Afghanistan. No doubt the Taliban movement got a boost from the support they received in the 1990s during the late Benazir’s government from the then Minister of Interior, Major General Babar. But to attribute this development to the ISI would be a distortion of history. However, the ISI remains the interface between the Pakistani security establishment and the Taliban leadership.
The most effective way of improving the ISI’s image is by making the organization more transparent and accountable. The parliament has no committee to monitor the activities of intelligence agencies. One does fully understand that it is not in the nature of intelligence agencies to be open but there are areas in which they could be more transparent. For instance, they can publish information on the insurgency situation in FATA and Balochistan and the threat posed by militants in Karachi without compromising in any way on the country’s security. Like other democracies, we could also establish intelligence committees in the Senate and National Assembly to oversee ISI’s performance. Most of the hearings could be in secret, but a certain level of oversight is necessary at the cabinet and parliamentary levels in the larger interest of the country and the organization.