The Game of ISI-bash­ing

In­stead of be­ing given high vis­i­bil­ity, the ISI should be left alone to per­form its role away from pub­lic glare.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Muham­mad Ali Eh­san

Is ISI a first-rate spy agency? Grudg­ingly, even its worst crit­ics and op­po­nents ad­mit its pro­fes­sion­al­ism and tall stand­ing in the league of leading spy agencies of the world. From its suit-wear­ing ex­ec­u­tives in aircon­di­tioned rooms to the thou­sands of field op­er­a­tives in­volved in the dirty busi­ness of covert war­fare, the ISI works un­der a sin­gle mis­sion state­ment that reads ‘Take the war to the en­emy’. Take the ISI out of the equa­tion and the na­tional de­fense against ev­ere­volv­ing threats would be blinded and crip­pled.

So, no mat­ter how dis­taste­ful to some, the vi­tal ac­tiv­ity of in­for­ma­tion and in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing that the ISI per­forms is es­sen­tial for Pak­istan’s se­cu­rity. It an­tic­i­pates sur­prises for the coun­try and feeds it with in­for­ma­tion of the in­ten­tions, ca­pa­bil­i­ties and ac­tiv­i­ties of the en­emy with­out which Pak­istani politi­cians and gen­er­als would hardly be able to take de­ci­sions to keep the coun­try safe and se­cure. Surely, only the en­emy of the state would like to see the ISI’s role di­min­ished and its power al­tered for­ever.

Why then is this im­por­tant and vi­tal na­tional in­sti­tu­tion be­ing lately ac­cused, re­buked and scorned? Do the ISI-bash­ers have an ex­ter­nal agenda? Or is it the do­mes­tic ‘rise of the rest phe­nom­e­non’ that is en­cour­ag­ing these ‘other play­ers’ and in­sti­tu­tions to chal­lenge the all-pow­er­ful and most dreaded in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try? At stake here is the real and im­mi­nent threat to the na­tional se­cu­rity of Pak­istan. Can the Pak­istani na­tion and the var­i­ous pil­lars of the state that rep­re­sent it af­ford to cir­cum­vent the ISR (in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance) ca­pa­bil­ity of the ISI that

helps de­velop the ‘real pic­ture’, based on which the coun­try sets its na­tional se­cu­rity agen­das? Cir­cum­vent­ing the re­sults of the ISI’s analy­ses and its sug­gested stand­ing on some of the is­sues is not a good op­tion. It can ac­tu­ally lead the coun­try into mak­ing some very bad po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary judg­ments, the con­se­quences of which can be dev­as­tat­ing in the long run.

One ex­am­ple of such po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing was the di­rec­tive by the govern­ment of Pak­istan to the Pak­istan Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton to is­sue visas with­out the usual vet­ting by the in­te­rior min­istry and the ISI. Re­port­edly, hun­dreds of visas were is­sued start­ing Oc­to­ber 2010 and up to Fe­bru­ary 2011. By late 2010, the re­la­tions be­tween the CIA and the ISI had al­ready gone sour. A civil law­suit was filed in New York against the then ISI Chief, Ah­mad Shuja Pasha, im­pli­cat­ing him in the 2008 Mum­bai blasts. The ISI re­cip­ro­cated by blow­ing away the cover of CIA’s sta­tion chief in Is­lam­abad who was im­me­di­ately pulled out of Pak­istan by the U.S. At the heart of the mat­ter were di­a­met­ri­cal po­si­tions taken by the army and the govern­ment on the level of Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Pak­istan.

Many a Ray­mond Davis was al­lowed to move into Pak­istan in the short pe­riod of four to five months. When Ray­mond Davis shot Muham­mad Fahim and Faizan Haider in La­hore, he rep­re­sented the CIA’s ‘unattributable force’ that made its way in­side Pak­istan with­out the for­mal vet­ting of their cre­den­tials by the ISI. Pres­i­dent Asif Zar­dari’s govern­ment was un­der pres­sure to rec­og­nize Ray­mond Davis as a diplo­mat but one man with a con­science came in the way. For­mer For­eign Min­is­ter, Shah Mah­mood Qureshi was asked to cer­tify Ray­mond Davis’ diplo­matic im­mu­nity but he re­fused to do so, say­ing ‘the re­quest did not match the of­fi­cial record.’

The for­eign min­is­ter went on to de­clare that there were 851 Amer­i­cans with diplo­matic im­mu­nity in Pak­istan at that time but 297 of them were not work­ing in any diplo­matic ca­pac­ity. Maybe if the govern­ment of the time had not cir­cum­vented the ISI in is­su­ing the visas to the Amer­i­cans and thus not al­lowed the CIA to en­large its foot­print and in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing ca­pac­ity of un­der­cover agents in Pak­istan, there may not prob­a­bly have been those two in­ci­dents that made a mock­ery of Pak­istan’s sovereignty – the Ray­mond Davis episode and the Ab­bot­tabad oper­a­tion by U.S. Navy Seals to kill Osama Bin Ladin.

All coun­tries con­duct in­tel­li­gence and es­pi­onage op­er­a­tions. The ones that draw max­i­mum ben­e­fits in line with their na­tional as­pi­ra­tions and goals are also the ones that al­low their in­tel­li­gence agencies max­i­mum se­crecy, lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity and to­tal flex­i­bil­ity.

The ba­sic chal­lenge that con­fronts the Pak­istani civil­ian lead­er­ship to­day is how to over­come its present ‘ISI ac­cu­sa­tion syn­drome’ which pri­mar­ily stems from some in­ci­dents of unattrac­tive and bad be­hav­ior of the agency in the past. Then there is the chal­lenge of how to run a se­cret in­tel­li­gence agency in an open democ­racy. How to rely on its meth­ods of ly­ing and de­ceit to ex­tend na­tional in­ter­est? How to al­low the agency to keep the se­cret de­ten­tion cen­ters, where de­tainees could be held and in­ter­ro­gated, away, in the words of Jeremy Sc­ahill, ‘from the pry­ing eyes of hu­man rights and civil lib­er­ties or­ga­ni­za­tions or any­thing that even vaguely re­sem­bles a jus­tice sys­tem?’

In the first year in of­fice, writes Jeremy Sc­ahill in ‘Dirty Wars: The world is a bat­tle­field’, Pres­i­dent Obama would hold reg­u­lar hour-long meet­ings to dis­cuss in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity threats. He writes that these early meet­ings had a ‘tu­to­rial’ char­ac­ter in which 'the Pres­i­dent was still be­ing in­tro­duced to the new ca­pa­bil­i­ties'.

Can the civil­ian lead­er­ship in Pak­istan also trust the ISI with the ‘role of a tu­tor’? Can it agree with the broader as­sess­ments and rec­om­men­da­tions of the pre­mier in­tel­li­gence agency rather than nar­rowly fo­cus­ing on how to counter the po­ten­tial of ex­ploita­tion and abuse sur­round­ing the na­ture of its work?

Shouldn't the coun­try’s lead­er­ship want in­tel­li­gence more than jus­tice un­der the cur­rent un­fa­vor­able en­vi­ron­ment in which it fights a borderless war against a state­less en­emy? Should the state not be fo­cus­ing more on im­prov­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the in­sti­tu­tion that mon­i­tors sus­pected in­sur­gents 24/7/365 across the length and breadth of the coun­try? These are some per­ti­nent ques­tions the an­swers to which will shape the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ISI and the civil­ian lead­er­ship that seeks to ex­er­cise greater author­ity and more con­trol over the ISI.

For the re­la­tion­ship to evolve pos­i­tively it must be un­der­stood that there was a pre-9/11 ISI and there is a post-9/11 ISI. There was an ISI that func­tioned, for the most part of its ex­is­tence, un­der mil­i­tary rule.

There is the ISI to­day that is seek­ing to find its way as democ­racy has taken root and the civil­ian lead­er­ship has be­gun to ex­ert and ex­er­cise more con­trol. It is im­por­tant that the cur­rent lead­er­ship in the coun­try makes a clear distinc­tion be­tween the two kinds of ISIs. Run­ning train­ing camps for the re­li­gious (free­dom) fighters, fund­ing and co­or­di­nat­ing their ac­tiv­i­ties, plan­ning and ex­e­cut­ing covert op­er­a­tions across both the western and east­ern fronts, di­vert­ing the course of na­tional elec­tions, dis­tribut­ing funds amongst politi­cians and buy­ing their loy­al­ties are some of the ac­tions for which the pre-9/11 ISI was charged. These may not be the at­tributes on the ba­sis of which the Pak­istani lead­er­ship should judge the post-9/11 ISI.

The post-9/11 ISI fights the war on ter­ror in which there is a lot that needs to be done qui­etly us­ing the tac­tics, sources, as­sets and meth­ods avail­able only to this in­tel­li­gence agencies. Call­ing and prop­a­gat­ing such tac­tics and meth­ods as il­le­gal, un­demo­cratic and dan­ger­ous will nei­ther help hunt down the ter­ror­ists that plot at­tacks against the state nor will it take the fight to them. Stalk­ing and ex­plor­ing tar­gets in some of the dan­ger­ous bat­tle­field zones, all in­tel­li­gence agencies, in­clud­ing the ISI, act as the van­guard in the fight against ter­ror. The in­tel­li­gence and in­for­ma­tion they col­lect for their civil­ian and mil­i­tary bosses en­sures that the re­quired prepa­ra­tions are in place to carry out both pre­emp­tive as well as re­tal­ia­tory strikes against the ter­ror­ists and their hide­outs.

There is no room to trum­pet the fail­ures of the agency that is the most vi­tal or­gan for Pak­istan’s na­tional se­cu­rity. Its suc­cesses and the un­sung he­roes who achieved them are many but un­like its fail­ures, which are loudly trum­peted, they only re­ceive mute recog­ni­tion to en­sure se­crecy and state se­cu­rity.

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