The Coal Merchants
Parliamentary oversight mechanisms are needed to make the intelligence agencies accountable to a credible watchdog.
There is a pretty poignant proverb in Urdu that says “Koelay ke karobar mein haath tau kaalay hotay hi hein.” I am not sure if there is a similar and compatible saying in English, but loosely translated, it means when you deal in coal you are bound to get your hands blackened. Intelligence is one such business – a dirty business. In some ways, it can be compared to clearing sewerage lines. Someone must descend into manholes and clear the clogs so that the trash routinely clears out to keep the system clean and running.
No nation can work without a sound intelligence system. Even if a nation does not have aggressive designs, it will, at least, have defensive considerations against perceived threats from another nation. Another might just want to keep itself safe from internal threats. With a rather grim history of both its birth and conflicts, Pakistan has been in a most unenviable position because of external threats to its territorial and societal security. Added to it have been threats that have grown from within and caused it to look inwards for security.
Two parallel movements in Pakistan’s early years are notable in how a newly independent nation reverberated with internal convulsions. The very first signs of an internal disturbance came with the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy case of 1951. Some military officers, in collusion with some well-known names from the Communist Party of Pakistan, attempted to overthrow a government which was perceived to be heading into the U.S.’ orbit. This was perhaps the first attempt at a revolutionary change of the political and social order by replacing the apparently capitalist leanings with a communist preference. Clearly, such communist influences were around to form a conspiracy which was detected and foiled by the intelligence agencies to secure a fledgling nation.
The next such occasion was even deadlier. Bengali nationalism had increased during the 1965 war when East Pakistanis felt marginalized and vulnerable with the bulk of the Pakistani forces deployed in defending the western half. Perhaps the event and its consequence was a catalyst to something that was already brewing. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the head of the nationalist Awami League, was already known to be in contact with external influences and had paid a surreptitious visit to Tripura in 1964, working along nationalist lines seeking complete autonomy if not a breakaway from Pakistan – not yet at least.
That the matter was foolishly handled at the political and military level by Rawalpindi can only be an enormous understatement. Leaders of the Awami League were captured and tried for a conspiracy that forced a virtual shutdown of East Pakistan. The trial was called off under pressure which signaled a clear moral victory for the nationalists’ stance. The persisting breakdown of law and order followed, bringing down Ayub Khan’s government in 1969. Such domination of the nationalist sentiment instigated an insurrection that is largely recognized now as the handiwork of Indian intelligence that colluded with Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League. The collusion gave birth to the Mukti Bahini, finally opening the way for the Indian forces to intervene militarily. In the world of intelligence, there hasn’t been a greater success in modern times. Some years later, Indian intelligence repeated the exercise in Sri Lanka by fostering a prolonged Tamil insurgency but failed to emulate their success against Pakistan.
Pakistan’s current travails of a fullblown insurgency in FATA and another in Balochistan, with its national cohesion under serious stress, may be sourced partly as a consequence of fallacious policies and partly to external influences that continue to destabilize the country in an effort to weaken its potential as a nation. In a competitive regional environment, aggressive insurrection through surreptitious means is the established norm. Each nation in the region has always been known to possess strong and active national intelligence outfits. Proxy conflicts are a fact of life.
India accuses Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of interfering in Kashmir while Afghanistan holds Pakistan responsible for its own long years of duress as a nation embroiled in a debilitating war of terror. But Pakistan also has longstanding complaints against Indian intelligence for its role in supporting an insurgency in Balochistan as well as against Afghan and Indian intelligence
together, for their joint role in fostering and sustaining insurgency in FATA.
Add to it the recent revelations of how both Saudi Arabia and Iran might be engaged in parts of Pakistan in an ongoing sectarian war and it forms a full spectrum of threats that are arrayed against Pakistan. The conventional dictates of intelligence support to military operations are over and above this. Given Afghanistan’s precarious situation, the need for effective and diverse intelligence capacity on Pakistan’s western borders becomes an even bigger existential imperative.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is a military organization entrusted with most of the tasks mentioned above. Since Kashmir remains a bone of contention between India and Pakistan – with both nations having fought almost four wars over it – and water now an added impetus to the importance of Kashmir, as most rivers originate from there – it will be ISI’s prime focus to read Indian designs. In such a situation, if there is a need for defensive measures, the ISI will ensure that their institution provides them.
Mostly, offensive intelligence must marry with political and the military maneuvers, and the overall national objective. An intelligence outfit will, thus, not only have the capacity for defense, it must also have the capacity to orchestrate an offensive designed to weaken the enemy’s defensive capacity. This remains ISI’s primary function and focus, similar to that of many other intelligence organizations in the world. The CIA is credited with launching the Operation Olympic Games to interfere electronically with Iran’s efforts at nuclear enrichment; the Chinese are alleged to use their intelligence to either disrupt or steal information from many American technology development companies. Anything that such premium intelligence organizations undertake will feed into national objectives with dividends that add to the national cause.
Why then this hoopla over the recent episodes of a prominent journalist being shot at and the channel for whom he works laying the blame at the door of the ISI? Why is the ISI so easily the target of anything that goes wrong in India or Afghanistan? Why is it that the ISI remains a targeted organization for anyone who means to weaken Pakistan’s defensive potential?
In a nation where the form and nature of threats is multifarious, where a nation seems to be on the verge of implosion because of multiple faultlines, where external agents of instability seem to be pervasive and where the military and its agencies are perceived to be the final impediment in dissembling Pakistan, such pressure is routinely exercised by agents of destabilization within and without to strategically disarm Pakistan.
It is not to say that the ISI or any other agency has never faulted in conception or execution or in the manner of exercising its influence in the political domain of the country far beyond its conceived mission. But equally true is the fact that it was politicians who changed its scope of responsibilities and added domestic politics and other related issues of governance and politicking to its manifesto of duties. This is clearly marked by Mr. Bhutto’s authorization to form a political cell in the ISI to further his own political agenda.
What began in 1976 has been far difficult to shed, though in the last few years the ISI has made a clear deviation from any such involvement and has fastidiously attempted to remain focused on only the strategic challenges. At times, high on its newfound freedom, the media has irritated the ISI, blaming it for committing excesses. Added is another proclivity within certain sections of the media to turn the spotlight on the military and continuously force the issue of either disappearances or the entitlements that the military and its agencies may seem to enjoy. It seems that the aim is to hit at the credibility of the army as an institution and discredit it in the public – where it remains the most popular and well-supported institution.
While the media propounds the role of the fourth pillar of the state for itself, its pace is far too rapid for its own real capacity. An effort to place itself against an institution as wellorganized as the ISI to gain relevance and credibility is a wrong way of establishing institutional credentials. The fact that it also hits at a nation’s strength makes it an insidious play. What we need are parliamentary oversight mechanisms similar to those prevalent in the developed world to make intelligence accountable to a credible watchdog. What is currently being followed to that end through the media is flawed and dangerous.