The ISI debacle – By Anwar Syed

ON July 26, 2008 a Cabinet Division notification announced that the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate had been taken out of the prime minister’s establishment and placed under the interior ministry.

This decision was rescinded the following day. Ten days later it was brought back to life but only to be held in abeyance.

The initial move may have been made to cause the impression that the ISI would henceforth be under stricter control, and this to allay the oft-repeated American concern that elements within the agency were giving aid and comfort to certain militant groups. It is not known why the interior ministry should have been thought to be more capable of controlling the ISI than the prime minister’s office had been.

It is more likely that the move was made to appease a certain individual’s appetite for power; that individual being Abdul Rehman Malik who is in effect the interior minister. His rise to eminence, like that of several others in the present regime, is puzzling. Once a middle-ranking police officer, he left Pakistan under a cloud in 1998, lived in London, then returned to Pakistan in 2007 with Benazir Bhutto as her chief security officer. He failed her in that role both when a hostile mob surrounded her upon her arrival in Karachi in October, and again in Rawalpindi where she was assassinated on Dec 27. A few months after her death, Mr Zardari made Mr Malik the guardian of law and order in Pakistan as head of the interior ministry.

Needless to say, he would have become immensely powerful had he been able to direct the ISI. But his ambition in this regard was to be in vain partly because, as we will see shortly, the ISI is not all that amenable to external control. The attempt to place it under the interior ministry failed also because it met intense opposition from the chiefs of the armed services, who had not been consulted before the notification of July 26 was issued. The ISI is their agency, not a civilian organisation.

That in a democracy the military should be under ultimate civilian control is indisputable. The same holds for the ISI. Since its inception in 1948 it has reported to the prime minister or the president. It may then be said to have been under the prime minister’s control, which is civilian enough. But control in this context does not denote the supervising authority’s permission for every action that the agency is taking. It is limited to a broadly defined charter of its missions. Intelligence agencies — such as the ISI, the CIA in America, MI6 and MI5 in Britain, RAW in India — will work within the requisites of the mission assigned to them, but they are not receptive to external direction of their specific operations.

The ISI was established to collect and analyse information concerning foreign governments, corporations and politically significant individuals, with special reference to India. President Ayub Khan extended its mission to include the opponents of his regime. The agency joined hands with those who engineered his victory and Fatima Jinnah’s defeat in the presidential election of 1965.

Since then it has routinely intervened in domestic politics. It keeps an eye on opposition politicians and also those in power. It has sponsored the formation and disruption of political parties and alliances. It has funded individuals and parties of its choosing in elections. It has given money and weapons to certain groups to fight other groups.

ISI operatives are posted in Pakistani embassies abroad as attachés, usually military or commercial. They watch Pakistani officials serving out there, and their colleagues at home watch foreign diplomats, businessmen and important individuals working in Pakistan. ISI agents abroad are expected to gather intelligence and, when appropriate, undertake covert operations.

Some observers believe the ISI is not performing these functions well. Even with regard to India, which is its principal concern, its knowledge of that country’s military capabilities, planning and dispositions, its political and social dynamics, and its industry and technology is said to be inadequate. Its information concerning Pakistan’s domestic politics, and its covert operations in that area, may be more newsworthy than its accomplishments abroad.

The ISI is a huge organisation. It employs nearly 10,000 persons, including hundreds of serving and former military and police officers, a number of researchers and analysts, administrators, and even some scientists and technologists. Its financial resources and its expenditures remain unpublished for the most part but one may be sure that they are far greater than those shown in its official budget.

What kind of control can the prime minister, or even the army chief, exercise over an agency so large and powerful, so abundantly resourceful? Let us take a quick look at its American counterpart the CIA, established in July 1947, employing twice as many persons as the ISI does (reportedly about 20,000), and doing the same kind of work: intelligence gathering, espionage, aiding or destabilising foreign governments, and other covert operations including ‘termination’ of an undesirable ruler or politician (albeit none of this within the United States).

The CIA, along with 15 other intelligence agencies, reports in the first instance to the director of national intelligence, but as and when necessary its director may report directly to the president. The president — aided by his national security adviser, defence secretary and occasionally the secretary of state — gives the CIA its mission set forth in broad terms for the world generally and, when necessary, with reference to specific countries. Within this general framework the CIA director, his deputies and officers in charge of various country sections make their own determinations of the actions to be taken from day to day. They do not seek the president’s permission for each operation they intend to undertake and they do not report all of their doings to him. Nor does he want to know all of what they do.

The likelihood is that the ISI’s modus operandi in Pakistan is pretty much the same as that of the CIA in the United States. The ISI, like the CIA, is a ‘state within a state’, an ‘invisible government’ and a ‘law unto itself’. That elements in the ISI are supportive of the militants means either that the government doesn’t really object to their activities, or that the Zardari-Gilani combination is too fragile to control them.

Source: Daily Dawn, 10/8/2008


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