The ISI Un­der Fire

It is un­der­stand­able that in­tel­li­gence agencies can­not be open but there are ar­eas in which they could be more trans­par­ent.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Talat Ma­sood

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.

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