New Age Islam
Fri Sep 30 2022, 02:37 AM

Islam and Politics ( 27 Jul 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan: Taming of the ISI?

An editorial in The Daily Times

The two mainstream parties, PPP and PMLN, have welcomed the placing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under the Interior Ministry, together with the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Both were heretofore working directly under the prime minister. The official line is that the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, signed the executive order about the new placement of the two spy agencies in the Interior Ministry “for better coordination” before he left for the United States. Needless to say, most politicians’ initial reaction is that of relief and approval because of the ubiquitous perception that the agency has, at some time or the other, fiddled with politics and undermined the development of a democratic civilian order.


There are some negative reactions too. Ex-ISI chief General (Retd) Hameed Gul, for instance, says ISI is the country’s premier strategic asset and its relocation would harm the country’s defence establishment. There were other remarks too made by officers affected by the transfer, like “the move will seriously undermine national security” and “it will lead to the ISI dabbling in the internal affairs while it is tasked with external security” and that “the armed forces personnel received the news with surprise”.


A late-night press release issued by the Press Information Department (PID), however, tried to backtrack. It said that the notification regarding the ISI had been “misunderstood” and that the ISI would remain under the prime minister. It tried to highlight that part of the notification which enjoined “cooperation between the interior ministry and the ISI for matters like war against terror and internal security”. This indicates a certain element of jitters and lack of consensus within the establishment. It seemed to justify the comment made by some insiders that “things will remain the way they are”.


De facto, the ISI is a military body more controlled by and answerable to the chief of the army staff (COAS) than the prime minister, who has traditionally said yes to the appointment of an army officer picked by the COAS as the ISI chief. When, in rare cases, the prime minister has chosen the DG-ISI on his/her own, as Benazir Bhutto did in her first stint in power and Nawaz Sharif did in his first and second stint in power, things have not gone smoothly between the civilians and the military.


Also, despite the formal tutelage of the prime minister, the civilian rulers have never been exempt from the hostile scrutiny of the ISI. Some ISI officials were actually caught trying to overthrow the prime minister they were supposed to serve as happened under Ms Bhutto in 1989-90. The ISI under other DGs has also impacted the fate of elections, evidence of this under Gen Asad Durrani in 1990 is lying with the Supreme Court pending a decision.


 Indeed, ex-ISI boss Hameed Gul has admitted that the ISI has a “political wing” that has interfered in internal matters and played a murky role in internal governance, especially during election time. When the ISI failed to properly analyse the security threats facing the country and seemed to stand aside when Ms Bhutto was assassinated last year, and seemed helpless when its personnel were targeted and killed in large numbers in the cantonment areas, questions were raised about its working.


The army gets a bad name when the ISI malfunctions. In her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, the late Ms Benazir Bhutto has written a detailed account of how leaks from inside a divided establishment warned her of her possible assassination at the hands of one Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of a jihadi organisation “minded” by the ISI. Thereafter, one ISI officer named by her in a letter to President Musharraf had actually to be removed from a high visibility post.


RAW is India’s counterpart of the ISI. But unlike the ISI, it has never been accused of acts of political manipulation or terrorism inside India. It is also considered more reliable internationally even though its own officers have written about its shady functioning. Fired with more ideological zeal than professionalism at times, some ISI officers — who return to it after retirement — leave behind too much culpable evidence, kicking up scandals, like the one attached to Dawood Ibrahim, that don’t die over time.


Islamist ex-officers like Khalid Khwaja have tended to attract international attention to the “reverse” indoctrination that ISI officers suffer from when duty actually obliges them to protect the state against such entities as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the question today is: can the ISI be turned around and made to correct its image inside and outside Pakistan — in fact, the inside image is more urgently needed — by mere relocation from the prime minister’s office to the Interior Ministry? Coordination is definitely needed, as past experience indicates. But will it happen in reality? That is one question.


Equally, another thing is clear. This decision reflects a consensus between the political parties to cut President Pervez Musharraf and the military to size. So the other big question is: will they succeed? The record shows that two prime ministers in the past tried and failed, even when they had solid majorities in parliament and public support outside. But today the federal government is besieged by all manner of crises, the coalitions in the centre and provinces are weak, and the public outside is alienated and restive. Unless this move is for cosmetic purposes, Islamabad should tread with caution. Internal and external security has never been so interlinked as today and it is debateable whether any one ministry is capable of retooling the ISI to meet the challenge of the times.

Source: The Daily Times, Lahore