ON July 26, the PPP-led coalition government kicked up a dust storm with the decision to reign in the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) by putting it under the control of the interior ministry. Two weeks on the controversy generated in its wake refuses to die.
Retired generals, diplomats, defence analysts, TV anchors and other usual suspects have since ripped into the government like sharks, citing the decision and its quick reversal as evidence of the government’s incompetence, ineffectiveness, chicanery and, above all, its desire to appease the Americans angry over the ISI’s alleged support to the Taliban. In the words of one analyst, the episode was akin to “buffoonery with sinister intent”.
The few sane voices emphasising the principle of civilian control over the ISI were naturally drowned out in the deafening diatribe. Not that all the criticism of the decision was unreasonable. But neither was it all reasonable. The retired generals were quick to remind us ‘bloody civilians’ that internal and external intelligence are two distinct functions performed everywhere in the world by distinct agencies. Hence, the interior ministry has no business controlling the ISI, an agency primarily concerned with counter-intelligence like the American CIA, the British MI6 or the Indian RAW.
That is indeed true but in none of these countries is counter-intelligence run by the military. And unlike the ISI none of these agencies are in the business of rigging elections and destabilising elected governments. Neither do they run a foreign policy shop without civilian oversight. And above all, they are civilianised and actually report to their country’s chief executive.
In Pakistan the ISI too is responsible to the prime minister. Technically speaking, that is. It is common knowledge that the ISI chief is a military officer whose professional loyalties lie with the chief of army staff. When Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto appointed a retired general, Shamsur Rehman Kallue, to the post in her first tenure, he was reportedly kept out of the loop by his uniformed deputies. The same was apparently the case even with Lt Gen Ziauddin during Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure as he was considered close to the PM.
Prime ministers, in other words, usually have had little or no clue of what the ISI is really up to. After all, it was the ISI’s ‘midnight jackals’ who tried to engineer a no-confidence motion against the elected PPP government in 1990. Here is the problem: each civilian government finds itself in the unenviable position of claiming responsibility over the military and the ISI, as the prime minister did in Washington recently, but without the requisite authority to fulfil that claimed responsibility. Lacking an independent, reliable civilian source of intelligence, they rely on what the ISI tells them.
Is it not unfair that such a huge fuss was kicked up over one badly executed decision of an elected government which has the publicly mandated right to be wrong? One rarely hears loud protests when the army puts the entire constitutional structure of the state under its unlawful command as it did for instance in October 1999. The then ‘reluctant’ coup-maker Gen Pervez Musharraf was obviously well within his rights to lock up the elected prime minister under subhuman conditions and to usurp all executive powers by brute force. No blurring of institutional boundaries there. After all, how can the uniformed guardians of the state’s integrity do any wrong? They are always ready to protect us from ourselves and the politicians we put in office.
No wonder the civilian government has been in office for just four months and its funeral rites are already being delivered left, right and centre. The whispering campaign against it appears to be gathering momentum in and outside the electronic and print media. The army chief is being reminded by a few self-appointed patriots of his responsibility to save Pakistan from growing internal and external threats. The prediction in vogue: two more months and the present system is history.
Of course the civilian government has not done itself any favours by appearing rudderless and indecisive. Of course it should better communicate and coordinate its decisions with its coalition partners, the parliament and other stakeholders. Of course it should have carefully weighed and deliberated its options before taking the decision on the ISI and then stuck to its guns. But effective leadership and governance do not arise overnight in countries with long histories of military rule and entrenched military influence. The spectre of military vetoes and pressures haunts governments in post-authoritarian contexts. Where national leaders are routinely dismissed from office, jailed, exiled or killed, expecting the miracle of instant statesmanship from politicians is a fool’s dream.
Even as doubts about the coalition government’s survival abound, the PPP and the PML-N appear close to an agreement on the modalities of resolving the two key issues straining the coalition: restoration of the deposed judges and Musharraf’s impeachment. Their resolution will represent an important move towards strengthening democracy and civilian supremacy over the military, as will the repeal of presidential powers to sack governments and appoint military services’ chiefs. Once these critical bottlenecks are removed, the coalition government should be in a better position to expend more time and resources on the pressing economic, security and governance challenges facing Pakistan.
Regardless, we must not lose patience with democracy which is a cumbersome process. Mistakes are common, policymaking can be slow and often stalled, and even when its kinks are removed over time, democracy becomes ‘less imperfect’ at best. But to repeat a truism, any non-democratic option is hardly ever better. The patent failure of Musharraf’s authoritarian rule, if not those of his military predecessors, is here for all of us to see and it should serve as a dreadful lesson to anyone itching for yet another dose of ‘good governance’ under military auspices.
If our own experience with autocratic regimes is not sufficiently instructive for the coup-mongers amongst us, they should take a cue from the German and Italian intellectuals who initially welcomed fascism in the interwar period as an alternative to defective parliamentary democracy. They had nothing but regrets once fascism bared its ugly teeth. By then it was too late.
Source: Daily Dawn, 9/8/2008