Jun 072008

LAST Monday, I ventured out to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad’s bunkered diplomatic enclave to submit a visa application for a visit to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Anticipating harassment by intelligence sleuths, I was somewhat relieved when I didn’t encounter any hitches.

Yet it all seemed too good to be true. And it was. As soon as I walked out, a car pulled up right behind me. Two intelligence officials jumped out and accosted me. I handed them my ID card as requested. They were curious as to why I had not checked in with them before entering ‘enemy territory’. In my defence, I could only tell them that I had assumed they would approach me if they so desired.

As one of them copiously noted down information from my ID card on a small piece of scrap paper, the second one asked me who I was and why I was there. I told him I was pursuing a PhD in the US and intended to travel to India for a professional engagement. Obviously suspecting my motives, he wondered: “Do the Indians have books or materials you can’t find in America?” Not to be left out, his partner quipped: “This must be the task they have given him.”

So went the insinuations, followed by the expected volley of questions: Where do you live? Who did you meet inside? How many passports did you submit? How long will you stay in India for? Once they had the information they needed from me, the duo got in the car and sped away. I had no idea that while they were doing their good cop, not so bad cop routine on me, a car laden with explosives was on the streets of Islamabad in search of targets. Nor that a few moments later, it would rip through the Danish Embassy in the city’s high security zone a few kilometres away.

Security lapses are not just restricted to Pakistan. Suicide attacks are hard to prevent anywhere. But it is hard to believe that our security agencies don’t have a better use for their resources and manpower than the harassment of Pakistani citizens outside the Indian High Commission. In a world of finite resources, nobody can convincingly make the case that a few officials don’t make a difference. When it comes to counter-terrorism, even one human asset is one too many. Besides the intelligence benefits of the whole exercise remain unclear. Perhaps, they could enlighten the people of Pakistan by disclosing how many spies they have intercepted or co-opted through this channel.

The relative autonomy of intelligence agencies is a feature of the modern state, especially those controlled by authoritarian regimes. For reasons of state, intelligence budgets are often kept secret. But even if a certain amount of operational secrecy is warranted, the main rationale of intelligence is to collect timely information to deter threats to national security. To modify the most well-known proposition of the great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, intelligence is a continuation of politics and policy by covert means. In Pakistan, however, intelligence agencies seem more concerned with undermining politics by bribing or blackmailing politicians. Talk about misplaced priorities.

Born amidst acute insecurity, our paranoid national security state continues to inflate the India threat to incredulity. Even the ongoing peace and confidence-building process between the two sides appears to have made little difference on the ground. But India is not the India of yesteryears. Except for a lunatic fringe, its political establishment does not dispute Pakistan’s right to exist as a sovereign state. And even if it does, the global norm of mutual respect of state sovereignty is too deeply entrenched to allow conquest.

Any such attempt by India would mean Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) given that both sides possess nuclear weapons, and thus second-strike capability. In other words, India is neither willing nor capable of invading, occupying and/or absorbing Pakistan into the Indian union. In fact, India seems to be engaging Pakistan as part of its strategy to resolve regional conflicts and break onto the global map as a diplomatic, economic and military powerhouse.

Given that militancy and terrorism emanating from within are emerging as the most serious threats to Pakistan, the security apparatus should be redirecting its operational focus towards counter-terrorism. But it appears that its various elements are still stuck in a time warp. Their India-obsessed lenses appear to be blinding them to a reasoned analysis of the changing threat environment.

This is not to say that India’s security agencies are any more efficient or any less paranoid than Pakistan’s. But there is a difference: Indian agencies are subordinated to the elected government. Policy drives the security apparatus of the state, not the other way around.

It is imperative for both national security and political stability that we also subordinate our security apparatus to the needs of policy. Once the PPP-led government finds its footing, it should quickly reactivate the defence committee of the cabinet so that it can meet regularly to provide overall direction for defence policy. It should also consider a comprehensive overhaul of the intelligence establishment, as well as establishing parliamentary oversight committees on intelligence or making existing defence committees more robust by enhancing their expertise and resources.

Of course, it will not be easy to establish an effective system of intelligence oversight. If the past is an indicator, military-intelligence officials are likely to resist submitting themselves to democratic accountability. But the more routinely they are questioned, scrutinised and made answerable to the elected government and parliament, the more likely it is that their anti-democratic beliefs and attitudes would be eroded. There is a window of opportunity to set our security priorities right. It may or may not be open for long.

The writer, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting doctoral research in Pakistan.

Source: Daily Dawn, 7/6/2008

 Posted by at 5:26 pm

  2 Responses to “The misplaced priorities – By Aqil Shah”

  1. Aqil Shah who is a doctoral candidate @ Colombia in City of New York, NY. There is an Indian Consulate located at 3 East 64th Street NY,NY. Now why he has to venture into the Indian Embassy in Islamabad to get the Indian visa and to be stopped by the “intelligence sleuths”. Did he “Anticipated the harassment by intelligence sleuths”. I am baffled.

    • because Pakistani nationals are supposed to apply in Pakistan, dah. I myself went to the ny consulate and was asked to apply in my own country.

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