OUT there on the international stage, the past ten days must have proved rather trying for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. First of all, a gift he planned to take along in order to impress his American hosts was snatched out of his hands before it could be delivered. Partly as a result, when George W. Bush asked his Pakistani guests about who controlled the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, he is unlikely to have received a coherent response. Perhaps the least dishonest option for Gilani would have been to say, “Don’t look at me, I’m not sure what you’re talking about” - at which point Bush may have nodded in sympathy and aired a complaint or two about the Company.
However, last week’s leaks from the US intelligence establishment weren’t aimed at embarrassing the American president. If anything, the claim that there is reasonably clear-cut evidence of collusion between ISI employees and those who carried out last month’s attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul offered the Bush administration grounds on which to base its interrogation of the visiting Pakistanis. Chances are that it was planned this way rather than a serendipitous coincidence.
This is, of course, the very charge that was made by India and Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the suicide bombing, which claimed more than 50 lives, including those of two senior Indian diplomats. An Indian spokesman had, at the time, gone as far as to suggest that the ISI should be dismantled. Whatever the merits of that idea, the events of July 26-27 demonstrated that it’s easier said than done. Gilani, meanwhile, is likely to have been less than thrilled by the fact that, following his sojourn in the District of Columbia, his next big engagement was the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in the district of Colombo, where terrorism was identified as the region’s primary bugbear and where encounters with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai could not be avoided.
The precise circumstances in which Pakistan’s civilian administration decided to announce that the ISI would be brought under the aegis of the interior ministry, followed by the reversal of that decision within hours, are likely to remain shrouded in some mystery. Did the government really believe a measure of this nature could be accomplished without taking the defence establishment into confidence? That it would suffice to present the the generals with a fait accompli? And, if so, should the aborted attempt be construed as an act of breathtaking audacity? Of chutzpah based on hubris? Or should it be considered simply as evidence of foolhardiness, possibly based on the naive assumption that the army wouldn’t dare to openly countermand a move that enjoyed Washington’s imprimatur?
Given that credible information about such matters tends to be jealously guarded by those in the know, all that’s open to the rest of us is the path of plausible conjecture. The following scenario does not seem improbable. Amid mounting pressure from the US - including a visit from the Stephen Kappes, the CIA’s deputy director in charge of covert operations - to do something about the waywardness of the ISI, or elements therein, the government felt inaction was no longer an option. The suggestion that the agency could be placed under the control of Rehman Malik’s interior department may well have come from Malik himself. He was able to convince Asif Ali Zardari, who runs the government by remote control from his Dubai redoubt, and the decision was communicated to the PM.
Its public notification was followed in short order by Zardari patting himself on the back. He opted for silence after it became clear the move had backfired. He may, of course, have remonstrated privately with Malik along the lines of: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.” In fact, anyone with even a vague idea of how Pakistan functions ought to have realised that the army does not take kindly to being stuffed about (although it has few qualms about periodically messing with civilian institutions). Had the two of them been on better terms, Nawaz Sharif could have enlightened Zardari on this score, on the basis of bitter personal experience.
Bringing the ISI under civilian control is not a bad idea, but it’s plain silly to assume anything of the sort can be achieved without the cooperation of the military high command. The CIA has been reasonably well acquainted with the ISI since their close collaboration during the 1979-89 Afghan war, when the US was only too happy to fund jihadi militancy. It subsequently found it necessary to perform a backflip. The ISI turned out to be less inconsistent in its approach towards violence-prone Islamists.
In the aftermath of 9/11, General Pervez Musharraf struggled to purge the ISI of Taliban sympathizers. It now seems obvious he did not go far enough. This may have had something to do with the fundamentalist bias of recruitment policies and indoctrination under the previous military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, a favourite of the Reagan administration.
In Washington last week, Gilani described the ISI as “a great institution” and said that sympathy for the militants within its ranks “is not believable”. One can only hope he realizes how limp that sounded. And not all of his colleagues were singing from the same hymn sheet. Sherry Rehman, for instance, admitted the possibility that individuals in the ISI are “probably acting on their own and going against official policy”, and said that the authorities “need to identify these people and weed them out”. Other Pakistani officials frequently express similar views, at least in private.
However, the US intelligence sources quoted by The New York Times last Friday said the ISI officers whose communications with the militant group that attacked the Indian embassy were not renegades, “indicating that their actions might have been authorized by superiors”. A Foreign Office spokesman in Islamabad dismissed the NYT’s allegations as rubbish, before Gilani assured Manmohan Singh in Colombo that the charge would be investigated. The question is, where will Pakistan find a credible “rubbish” inspector? Will the ISI be requested to itself look into the matter? Would any other agency be prepared to explore the ISI’s darker recesses?
Gilani’s mantra that the struggle against Islamist militancy is “Pakistan’s war” is perfectly credible: there can be little question that the nation’s future is at stake. But can this struggle be coherently waged in the face of uncertainty about which side Pakistan’s premier spy agency is on? Military intelligence needs to be reorganized and the pro-obscurantist distortions of recent decades deserve to be swept away. A first step could be to collate all the evidence that the US, India and Afghanistan are able to supply, and to present it to Musharraf, army chief Ashfaq Kayani and ISI head Nadeem Taj as part of an urgent call to action.
The trouble is, a coherent approach to this potentially existential threat - as well as to most of the nation’s other problems - cannot reasonably be expected from an administration whose preferred modus operandi is intrigue rather than transparency, with decision-making powers restricted to an unelected co-chairman whose attitude frequently resembles that of an absentee landlord. A return to the murkiness of direct military rule would be a profoundly unsettling consequence for Pakistan, but that may well be what lies ahead if the people’s elected representatives once again make a complete hash of democracy.