The ISI flip-flop-By Nasim Zehra

Prior to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s departure for the US, a detailed meeting on Pakistan-US relations covering security matters was at the Prime Minister’s House and it was attended among other key officials, by the army chief and the director-general of the ISI. Asif Zardari, the man now with the last word on most key government decisions was also present In the said meeting. His political appointee, the National Security Advisor – a retired general, security analyst well-known to the Bush team and to President Pervez Musharraf and Gilani’s fellow traveller to the US – was also present.

It should be noted that both the army chief and the ISI chief have in the past acted as emissaries for Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto. And now in his capacity as the country’s final authority on national matters, Mr Zardari has to engage with them. There was a general consensus among the participants of the meeting (mentioned above) on how the prime minister and his team would articulate in Washington Pakistan’s concerns and how they would respond to America’s (oft-repeated) concerns. For a more effective response to the acute internal security crisis, there had been agreement on the need for better coordination among the various intelligence agencies. The growing external critique of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, especially of the ISI, by sections of the Indian, Afghan and US governments may also possibly have been discussed at this meeting. However, according to a source privy to what happened at the meeting, there was no discussion at all on altering the reporting line of the ISI.

Following the meeting Gilani departed for the US and Pakistan’s Press Information Department (PID) issued a circular announcing that through amendment in the Rules of Business the prime minister’s decision that the ISI and the IB would, with immediate effect, be placed under the control of the interior ministry. This decision, like all others, was undoubtedly led by the PPP co-chairman with input from other undisclosed sources. By all accounts the matter was not discussed in any cabinet meeting, it was not put before the Parliament or any parliamentary or Senate committee and none of the coalition partners were consulted. Similarly, the justification for alteration of the reporting line was not discussed with the ministry of defence or the three services chiefs or the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff committee who are the heads of institutions currently directly involved in the operations and the output of the ISI. The adviser on interior, to whose ministry the IB already reports, must have had an input in the decision.

While the constitution does allow the prime minister to amend the rules of business, his move to transfer the ISI to the interior ministry raised endless questions regarding what the decision was meant to achieve. The IB and the ISI were already reporting to the prime minister and what would changing the latter’s reporting line from the elected prime minister to a ministry achieve?

Also in violation of a basic rule of hierarchy and reporting lines that requires individuals and institutions with narrower mandates to report to authority with a broader mandate, the PID circular announced that the ISI would report to the Interior Ministry which constitutionally has a narrower mandate than that of the ISI. The ISI’s mandate is to provide strategic intelligence, including external threat perceptions and covert operations, to the prime minister, the three armed forces and to the Joint Services Headquarters. The ISI’s Internal security wing, however, does cover internal security matters, including providing security clearance for armed forces personnel, work on counter-intelligence to undermine intelligence assets of adversarial countries deployed within Pakistan. There is also the extremely notorious section of the internal security wing which has actively contributed to the mutilation of Pakistan’s political evolution. Hence, the ISI’s mandate is far broader than that of the institution the PID notification was instructing it to report to.

There were other issues regarding the institutional and operational impact of this decision, especially on the ISI.

Constitutionally and according to the Rules of Business, since ISI operations are sensitive and therefore secretive, they require the clearance of the prime minister and to some extent of the army chief.

Switching its command to the minister of interior would undermine the ISI’s working. Almost all national intelligence agencies report to the country’s chief executive. He must get input from all intelligence agencies without its being vetted by other ministries, to then enable him, with input from other constitutionally relevant individuals, to arrive at appropriate decisions.

How and why, then, was the July 26 decision made? Perhaps the defence of the decision by the PPP co-chairman is a revealing one. The press quoted him as saying that the decision was made to deflect international pressure on the ISI and enable the elected government to effectively defend it. Indeed, against the backdrop of the deadly attack in Kabul on the Indian embassy, the rising attacks inside Afghanistan on the ISAF forces, the firing along the LoC and the increase in attacks inside India, the increasingly harsh criticism of the ISI by the US, Indian and Afghan trio is unceasing. Conversely, there is Pakistan’s official claim that India and Afghanistan are supporting the attackers, conducting increasingly deadly attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in the tribal areas, the NWFP and in Balochistan.

So should external criticism of the ISI warrant a secretively taken, suddenly sprung and PID-notified decision to change its chain of command? Certainly not. Such a haphazard move, which was reversed within 12 hours, makes mockery of the functioning of Pakistani state institutions, as much of those who make such decisions.

The decision was reversed after the prime minister had flown off, but while the PPP co-chairperson was still in Pakistan. On advice from relevant individuals Zardari reversed the decision. Subsequently, a private channel, Business Plus, quoted him as saying that the earlier notification “had made it clear that the role of the ministry of interior would be of an assistant in the affairs looked after by the ISI, adding that the second notification had clarified all ambiguities in this regard.” Reportedly he also complained that some elements were trying to create a misunderstanding between the government, army and intelligence agencies which enjoyed good relations.

However, beyond this amateurish, thoughtless flip-flop decision-making there is nothing sacrosanct about any state institution and when required steps must taken to improve the accountable and effective functioning of all institutions. The ISI, as an institution, in addition to existing accountability mechanisms, has long needed stringent oversight by bipartisan elected authority to make its operations more accountable to elected authority. The IB, while under the exclusive control of the elected prime minister, has also functioned as a personal tool to fight political battles against the political opposition. If conducted within the constitutional parameters using institutional avenues, such oversight would streamline the workings of the ISI and the IB. As for external criticism, the governments managing the CIA, Mossad, MI5 and RAW seldom seek external popularity for their intelligence agencies!

The critique of the elected government’s move notwithstanding, there are specific issues that need to be addressed regarding the oversight and management of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agencies. Four are particularly important.

One, for more regular reporting to the prime minister a regularised system of the ISI and the IB reporting to the prime minister must be evolved.

At present, the initiative to report on the strategic environment and threat perceptions, etc., to the elected PM has, based on media reports, mostly been taken by the agencies. The elected authorities appear more proactive on issuing instructions to agencies on the domestic political front.

Two, for greater control of the workings of the ISI and other intelligence agencies, these should be put under the parliamentary review and oversight through in-camera briefings to the defence committees of the National Assembly and the Senate. The creation of intelligence subcommittees of these two defence committees is long overdue. This would enable parliamentarians with security clearance to receive briefings on sensitive issues. Three, greater coordination among intelligence agencies and the key policy makers are required.

Regular meetings of the defence committee of the cabinet needs to be held, essentially a constitutionally mandated body needs to be reactivated by the elected government.

Four, the elected government must arrive at a consensus to disband the notorious political department of the ISI’s internal security wing.

For decades this department has mutilated the political evolution of Pakistan.

Clearly, mature management of state affairs requires persons in decision-making positions to be politically credible, knowledgeable and competent. If the state and society are to be successfully steered towards stability, progress and internal unity, there is no room for reactive, secretive and cliquish decision-making. Far less in Pakistan which by virtue of the multiple internal crisis and the major security crisis that surround it, still remains in the eye of the storm.

Email: nasimzehra@hotmail.com

Source: The News, 30/7/2008

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