The ISI and an SOS-By Cyril Almeida

FOR a few short hours the ISI had a new boss: Rehman Malik. Yes, the hyper-powerful, state-within-a-state, doer-of-all-things-bad-and-evil, Taliban-loving, government-slaying, election-rigging, tool-of-the-establishment ISI was going to report to a civilian, unelected adviser to a lame duck prime minister.

So confident were Messrs Gilani and Malik of the scheme that they scampered out of the country before the news was broken.

It may have been meant as a gift to appease the gods in Washington, who have long been suspicious of the ISI and were preparing to flog our hapless politicians. Or maybe Gilani and Malik were hoping to hide behind Bush, safe from the china flung out of the ISI HQ in a rage. But what really happened? Was the ISI blindsided by a PR stunt meant to placate Washington? Did the bumbling politicians in civvies really think they had what it takes to tame Pakistan’s original bad boys? The theories will flow thick and fast.

The ISI was blindsided, some will assert with confidence, else it would have dipped into its legendary collection of files in the Joint Intelligence Bureau and paid a visit to its nemeses. The conquerors of the mighty Soviets will never be the whipping boy of this government. They would sooner stage a coup. Others will argue that the ISI can never be tranquillised into submission. In Kayani the pols saw a new best friend, a general determined to stay apolitical for the sake of his beloved boys in uniform. Armed with its kryptonite, the hobbled coalition did the only thing it thought could tame the ISI — a bold, audacious strike against the evil empire. Dealing with the princes of darkness requires chutzpah. And fortune does favour the brave.

Some will see it as Kayani’s way of undermining Musharraf by humiliating his buddy, ISI chief, Nadeem Taj. Yet others will speculate that the folks over in the PM Secretariat got so sick of spies popping into their offices, putting their feet up on tables, lighting up cigarettes and ordering the PM’s staffers to make tea that the staffers thought it best to transfer the cowboys to Rehman Malik. One look at the hapless Malik and you will be inclined to believe this theory. He does seem like a bit of a masochist, trying as he is to fight a directionless counter-insurgency.

The more esoteric will mull the connection between Nadeem Taj, planes and changes in the army. He was a mere brigadier assisting Musharraf when the two were kept up in the air while Nawaz sought to end their careers. Eight years later, Taj’s job was being tinkered with again, this time by people flying off in a hurry.

Only of this can we be sure: we will not learn the truth of what transpired last weekend. As with the postponement of the by-elections, the disqualification of Nawaz and the CNG pricing fiasco or, on a grander scale and further back in history, the deaths of Zia and Liaquat Ali Khan, the truth is never uncovered. In a week another fiasco will occupy and agitate the minds of the people.

Yet, unwittingly, the government has exposed one of Pakistan’s key problems: the absence of a readily identifiable locus of power. Yes, we know the ISI won this round and the government lost. But whodunit? Was it Musharraf, protecting an old buddy and the keeper of many of his secrets? Was it Kayani, soldierly and professional but unwilling to tinker with army institutions at this stage? Was it Taj, furious at being kept out of the loop and swatting away any attempt to wrench control of his fiefdom? Was the original scheme cooked up by the PM, Malik or Asif — or even Kayani or Musharraf? The grocer at the corner is just as likely to have an answer as the men in the corridors of power. This amorphous locus of power is not just dangerous, it is inimical to any sort of governance.

Unfortunately, examples abound. When A.Q. Khan suddenly chirped up, the media giddily, and understandably, carried his story. Here was one of the most wanted men in the world gabbing about nuclear proliferation as though he was reminiscing about exchanging Disney cartoons with Kim Jong-Il. Yet nobody thought to ask why Khan was suddenly able to speak. For years if you rang up the Khan residence you were likely to be paid a midnight visit by spooks. Sure, the N-League wanted to make Khan a free man, but it wasn’t controlling anything. And it wasn’t as if Khan’s local SHO could decide to do the ageing nuclear mastermind a favour. Again, whodunit? There are only a handful of people in this country who could allow Khan’s mobile to be switched on. Some are in the media spotlight; others thrive in the shadowy world of power politics.

Or take a look at the anti-militancy policy. Who is in charge? Yes, the PM is chairing meetings but are the participants playing solitaire on their BlackBerries under the table knowing that the real orders come from elsewhere? And if so, where is that elsewhere? One of the numerous Zardari Houses that dot the cityscapes here and abroad? GHQ, Army House, Washington, Baitullah Mehsud’s lair, Osama’s hideout, the ISI HQ?

Inarguably the politicians are playing on a dodgy wicket. But they are compounding the problem by capitalising on the murky world of politics. The ANP’s supine, craven submission to the militants is based on the idea that blaming the establishment will keep them in the clear. Since nobody has articulated what the ANP is actually in charge of, the party has slyly worked out that a Pakhtun nationalist, anti-Punjabi army platform is good for it in the NWFP right now. Or take the N-League which realises the judges are popular and fighting militants is not, and so has jumped on the populist bandwagon. Never mind that the very establishment the N-League loathes nurtured the canard that the Taliban are one of us. Some lies of the establishment are convenient. The N-League has forgotten the point of the transition: ensuring that civilians become the real locus of power.

What happens in situations like this? The people begin to yearn for the good ol’ days. Like the ones of recent past where Dictator Musharraf issued orders and others complied.

Source: Daily Dawn, 30/7/2008

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