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.
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.