Lt. General (R) Asad Durrani talks to Arsla Jawaid in this exclusive interview.
What is the genesis of the ISI and why is it called Pakistan’s first line of defense against the enemy?
Intelligence is generally the first line of defense against an external threat. It is the ISI’s first and foremost duty to make an assessment and give advanced warning to other institutions. Theoretically, there may be very many other things that it may have to also assess, such as internal threat and strength. However, the ISI’s main job is to make an assessment of the foreign threat and give warning. With a democratic government in power, rumors tend to circulate regarding an uneasy relationship between the civilian government and the military. Could you comment on that?
Throughout the history of this country, there has been a problem between the military and civilian government. One can go back and say that the military has always played a role in this part of the world. The fact is that since independence, the military came to the fore given the Indian problem and the Kashmir problem. Of course, the civilian structure was not in place to take charge of the situation and lacked the ability to create robust structures. So they started relying upon the military.
The military was expanding because of a very early relationship with the U.S., which essentially became a military relationship. The military discovered that it had powerful supporters in Washington and other capitals around the world. That gave the institution the status that it enjoys today. Regardless of what one says, on the strategic books, the ISI is not a military organization. It is a national organization but it did become staffed by the military. So the answer lies in the history of Pakistan in which the military played a strong role, because of which the ISI too played a role. The ISI is supposed to draw its operatives from all the three wings of the Armed Forces. Why is it identified with the Army alone and why does it always have an army general as its chief?
The Army constitutes the largest percentage, around 70-80%, of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Some others are from Air Force and Navy. In my time it was 10%. Because the Army constitutes a large percentage that is why an Army general is also the head of the ISI. That is the Army’s argument. But the actual reason is just that the Army commands an extraordinary status in the country, in the hierarchy, and in the polity. That’s just the way the country is. He may not be number one in terms of protocol, but he is of prime importance because of the Army’s role, and what he could do and has to do. What are your thoughts on General Musharraf’s trial and how do you see it playing out?
The ISI plays no role in military coups. It just happens to be more or less part of the military when it takes over. It does not play any role in the taking over. Later on, the military rulers rely more on the ISI, even for the internal work. It does them no good. It does the ISI no good. But they do that and the ISI gets involved in those operations and those matters where actually it has neither any business nor is it any good at doing. The ISI’s political involvement, whenever it resorts to that, brings some very temporary gains because it is not cut out to be a part of that.
As for Musharraf, there are two things which will determine the course. First is the legal process. I think it will get so complex that one will be looking for a way to get out of it unless you manipulate the judiciary. Second, despite all the good advice given to the government, one will be trying to see if it can be wrapped up. It is quite possible that some people may be obsessed with going through it for personal reasons. That is possible. Ultimately, whatever
may happen they must find a political, not legal solution. The media and the Afghan government have often accused the Pakistan government or the ISI of assisting the Taliban to gain power in Afghanistan or to counter an Indian threat in the country in order to maintain ‘strategic depth’. Can you provide a background to this?
The ISI acquired its extraordinary status because of the Afghan war. It was the instrument from the Pakistani side that became responsible for logistically and operationally organizing the Afghan resistance. Because of that it acquired a lot of capabilities.
The support of the Taliban has never been because of India. The Afghans will not fight on our behalf. The Afghans, when they are free and masters of their own destiny, look after Pakistan because of the stake that they have in this country. Where else do they go when they are trying to flee a war? They buy property here and they do their business here. Pakistan was also once the main window of Afghan survival. Now, with Karachi hosting the largest urban Pashtun population in the world, they have stakes there.
During the ’65 and ‘71 wars, they ensured peace on our western borders and asked us to take all our security forces to the East. So that is the reason for Pakistan trying to ultimately achieve a situation where the Afghans are free from dominance. That in a nutshell is the policy. Now, how it is portrayed and if covert help is being given to the Afghan resistance, is different. They will remain at our borders and we are not going to make enemies of these people. The ISI has also come into the limelight recently due to its standoff with the media. What were the reasons that led Geo to name the ISI DG as being behind the shooting on Hamid Mir?
I am not following that. I do think that the media had so much power and money that they were creating more confusion, poisoning people’s minds and may also have started believing they could get away with anything. Ultimately, it is better that this can be fought out and addressed within the media. The ISI can take a backseat. Relax. What are your thoughts on the overall Pakistani strategy of conducting peace talks with the Taliban, despite the fact that these talks were hardly negotiated from a position of strength?
‘Negotiating from strength’ is one of the broadest concepts I have ever come across. How do you achieve this? By military means or by any other way? In 2002, the Taliban told the Afghan regime that they were prepared to talk. The regime said ‘ Who are you? You don’t count.’ Their position was never weak around that time. So they did not talk. Now what happens when that is reversed? Essentially, it is a combination of military operations and persuasion. Call it political dialogue but it always happens behind closed doors. It’s a combination of everything that leads to some stage where one could say ‘the time now is right.’ The Taliban insurgents have been sufficiently weakened, pacified or are suffering from problems within, that reaching a deal might be possible.
But with the Federal government and the Taliban insurgency, it will take a long time. If this government thought that going open on the strategy of ‘talking’ would help, I don’t think it will happen that way. Some military operation or some clandestine operation must be underway. There must be a political reason for this unless of course they want to convey this message to those people who are advocating negotiations, to tell them ‘look we tried.’
I do not know what is the wisdom behind it; if it is political or security. Actually how it happens is how you determine what is the right time to strike a deal. It will not happen overnight. Negotiating is a continuous process. How do you see Afghanistan post2014 and Pakistan’s role in the region as well as with the U.S?
I believe Pakistan has positioned itself well to play a strong role. When future scenarios are so uncertain, you have to keep your options open. And this was possible not because of the army or the ISI but because of a combined civil-military policy that evolved under the previous government and probably continues under the present government. We have more stakes than anyone else in the region. We’ve had time to prepare in the last 5 to ten years and we’ve worked hard. We are poised to help or facilitate major Afghan factions to reach a consensus because that is the only way Afghanistan becomes vibrant and stable. That has been Pakistan’s policy ever since I have known it.
Over the last three years, Pakistan has reached out to all Afghan factions and regional neighbors to express a desire to work together. Whatever the Afghans come up with, will be acceptable to all of us. That is the policy.
In terms of the U.S., I am sure we are working to get their complete departure from the area. I have a problem with those who think that a complete departure will be detrimental to Afghanistan. I believe that as long as they stay here and if there is a military presence as outlined in the BSA, some Afghans will keep targeting it. If it is benign, in the sense that it is financial support, then of course that would be constructive. We position ourselves because we don’t know what will happen. If President Karzai signs the BSA, one can be quite sure that if the military or money comes in, the war continues. He has always known that but over the last two years he has been playing this card a little more openly.