Belling the cat-By Ayesha Siddiqa

THE government’s decision to place the notorious ISI under the complete control of the ministry of interior created a furore in many circles. While some believed that this would have harmed the workings of the ISI, others felt that like any other strategic intelligence agency it operates better under the ministry of defence. Although the agency is under the administrative control of the prime minister’s office, its operational management and finances are with the MoD.

Why did the government act at this juncture, why did it reverse the decision, and should Islamabad have made such a move are three pertinent questions which will be considered in this space.There are two reasons why the government tried to bring the agency under a different control regimen. First, considering that the ISI is notorious for destabilising civilian governments, it was logical to take such action. The only problem was with the timing — the constitutional head of the government, Yousuf Raza Gilani, could not defend the decision as he was not in the country at the time.

Second, there should be little doubt that this was done under pressure from the US which appears extremely unhappy with the agency’s involvement in Afghanistan and other places. Sources say that even the army chief, Gen Kayani, admits that relations between the ISI and CIA have nosedived, which makes a US attack on Pakistan probable rather than possible. Although one sympathises with the military’s concern over India’s intelligence activities in and around Kabul, Pakistani insiders in critical places have also been spilling the beans about the ISI’s possible involvement in the bombing of the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital.

The government is under tremendous pressure to build confidence vis-à-vis Washington. Some might call it a conspiracy against Pakistan but considering the country’s historical dependency relationship with the US, doing what every other civil and military regime has also done is certainly not a sin. The US cannot be pushed out as long as we seek military and economic aid. So why blame Mr Zardari alone for catering to the US?

The reversal of the decision is less of a mystery because it would certainly have been done at the behest of the military which was uncomfortable with the change, especially when it was being seen as the result of US involvement. The only odd thing about the decision was putting the agency under the interior ministry. It would have made greater sense and been less of a shock had the operations and finances been shifted to the prime minister’s office. There are quarters who are not comfortable with the closeness of the ministry’s higher management to both the British and American governments, especially their intelligence agencies. The reversal yet again exposed the problems of the PPP’s over-centralised decision-making apparatus.

Now the issue is, should Islamabad have acted the way it did? Many experts have referred to other agencies, arguing that since the ISI is responsible for strategic intelligence there was no purpose in taking away its operational and financial control from the MoD. But then the counter argument one would like to make is that the ISI is not an ordinary organisation. And can one blame the political government for making such a change given the agency’s long history of political involvement? The fact that the ISI’s political activities were started by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto does not in any way prevent a PPP government from restructuring its management.

The ISI is an organisation which is not only notorious abroad but has an eerie reputation at home as well. There is no information regarding its operations or expenditure. It is known for running safe houses within the country, for picking up people and making them disappear, for rigging elections and destabilising governments, and for spending pot-loads of money from unexplained sources. Surely these activities do not fall in the ambit of strategic intelligence.

What is popularly known about the organisation is that the bulk of its officers comes from the armed forces, the majority being from the army, for a fixed period after which the military men return to their parent services. Then there is a small cadre of civilians that provides permanency to the organisation. Very few people amongst the civilians know which portion of the agency’s manpower is the keeper of institutional memory and how it operates in terms of shutting out its organisational head if the officer concerned is thought to be pursuing his own agenda, as has happened in the cases of Lt-Gen (retd) Kallu and Lt-Gen Ziauddin Butt. Finally, has it turned into a state within a state, as many argue, or is it a more disciplined force following the will of the army chief?

Given the ISI’s chequered history, it is not odd for people within or outside the government to ask for greater accountability of the organisation or its restructuring. Governments create new organisations as well and the ISI needs to be restructured to take away its bite. The fact that the ISI is technically under the prime minister’s office has never made any difference to how the agency operates. This means that there was a need for something more radical which, unfortunately, the government could not achieve.

This brings us back to the timing of the decision. Had Benazir Bhutto been alive she might have done it differently, perhaps when her coalition was strong rather than when there are rumours every day of the government’s imminent break-up. Including Mian Nawaz Sharif in the decision would have made greater sense. After all, restructuring civil-military relations was part of the Charter of Democracy and cutting the powers of the ISI is an essential part of balancing the power equation. Also, the move would have gone down much better had the government earned the moral authority to take this big leap by first taking other tricky decisions such as restoring the judiciary. Moreover, the series of recent faux pas which have proved expensive in terms of the government’s credibility has made it hard for people to swallow yet another reversal.

I hope the government understands that it is psychologically debilitating for its voters to see their elected government slipping towards disaster, as such blunders would naturally indicate. The intelligence agencies will now be keener than ever to plot against the government.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Source: Daily Dawn, 1/8/2008

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