During the last week of July, the civilian government in Pakistan issued a notification transferring the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Interior Ministry. Within hours however, the order was withdrawn. Why did the civilian government attempt to bring the ISI under Interior Ministry and why did it back off? Is there support for this move inside Pakistan? Who supports the civilian control of the ISI and who opposes it? What are the implications of the government reversing its order?
A Brief History
The history of the ISI in Pakistan can be traced in five phases - from its creation in 1948 to 1958; in the Ayub-Yahya era; during the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; in the 1990s; and, in the aftermath of 9/11. The ISI was created with the primary objective to collect external and related domestic intelligence for Pakistan, besides coordinating with the other three Services. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) was to take care of domestic intelligence and report to the civilian leadership.
The personnel of the ISI are primarily drawn from all the three Services and even the para-military forces, but there is also a civilian component that provides secretarial assistance. Though the exact percentage of civilian and military components remains confidential, it is estimated that the civilians form 15-30 per cent of the total strength of the ISI. The military component of the ISI is not permanent, though it is also not entirely rotational either. Some officials stay for a longer duration thus providing continuity, even as others starting from the Director General downwards are chosen from their respective services for a certain period and return after completion of tenure.
Two factors have contributed to making the ISI more answerable to the Chief of Army Staff rather than the elected leadership of the country. Since the late 1950s, especially after Ayub Khan’s Presidency, the functions of the ISI blurred. Security of Ayub Khan and his regime became major priorities, resulting in ISI’s attention being diverted from its primary objective of collecting external intelligence to monitoring internal political developments, dissensions, conspiracies and countering them. The political upheaval in East Pakistan during the late 1960s, along with the policies and strategies adopted by Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, made the ISI the most powerful intelligence agency within Pakistan. The IB, which was expected to collect domestic intelligence, was relegated to the background.
The second coup in Pakistan by Zia in the 1970s, followed by the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, made ISI a powerful force in the region. After the coup, Zia extensively used the ISI inside Pakistan. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan and the American endeavors to force the Russians back led to the CIA using ISI extensively in the 1980s. Unlimited American funding and supply of arms to the Afghan Mujahideen was made through the ISI. The CIA (and the American establishment) not only closed its eyes to pilferage, but also allowed the ISI to use drug, money and jihad as instrument of war against the Soviet troops.
Thus, the ISI, which had been more focused on internal political developments and economically dependent on the government, became a regional force with international support. It also gained a measure of financial independence with its clandestine drug and arms resources. It was during this period that a section within the ISI started cultivating individuals and groups, ranging from militants to war and drug lords, for their clandestine activities. Certain posts became coveted, due to the income that one could generate for personal benefit. For example, it is believed that within the ISI, officers bribe their seniors to get posted to places like Chaman and Spin Boldak.
More importantly, the above economic, political and international support nudged the ISI to turn its attention towards India in the 1980s. The existing political deterioration in J&K in the mid and late 1980s provided it the necessary ingredients in terms of rationale and manpower.
Unfortunately, after the Soviet withdrawal, the US also withdrew from the region. Therefore, the ISI gained a free hand in the early 1990s, more by default than by design, to manipulate events and the course of history in Afghanistan and J&K. The trend continued in the mid 1990s when the ISI propped up the Taliban in Afghanistan and expanded its clandestine activities outside Pakistan, spreading towards the whole of India. Unfortunately, democratically elected political establishments in Pakistan in the 1990s were weak and instable. Worse, the ISI was extensively used by the military to manipulate political events – assembling coalitions and parties, and splitting them when necessary.
9/11 and the ‘War on Terrorism’ in Afghanistan brought the Americans and the international community back to working with the ISI. The war in Afghanistan and the ongoing militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) in Pakistan made the international community question the role of the ISI in aiding al Qaeda and Taliban. From the CIA to British intelligence, there have been regular reports on the continuing links between the ISI and the Islamic militants. While India has been complaining of this for the last two decades, the US in the last few years has taken these links seriously and has been pressurizing the Pakistani government to rein in the ISI.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government’s recent notification on the ISI should be seen in this background. Ever since Gilani became Prime Minister, pressure has mounted on him to check ISI activities. It is no coincidence that the notification was issued just before Gilani undertook his first ever visit to Washington as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
The July 2008 Notification
On 26 July 2008, the PPP led government surprised everyone, both inside and outside Pakistan, by bringing the ISI under civilian control, through a memorandum issued by the Cabinet Division. The memorandum, according to reports, placed the administrative, operational and financial control of both the ISI and the IB under the Interior Ministry. The IB, though a part of the Interior Ministry, is actually under the administrative control of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.
The stated objective of this change was to improve coordination among various intelligence organizations and the need to work with the civilian authorities. To this Zardari added another interesting justification – to avoid the Army from acquiring any bad name (by associating with the ISI). Only he holds the answer as to how one could separate the ISI from the three Services! However, in reality, the notification was born out of fear, pressure and an anxiety to control the ISI.
The PPP has always been uncomfortable with the ISI. Its role in assembling an anti-PPP coalition, the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in the 1980s to prevent Benazir from assuming power after the death of Zia is well known. Ever since, the ISI has worked against the interests of the PPP, especially its leader Benazir Bhutto. It played an important role in her removal from the post of Prime Minister – both in 1990 and in 1996. In turn, the PPP also attempted to curb the role and influence of the ISI. During her first tenure as Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto attempted to bring the ISI under control. There were a series of transfers and appointments, including that of the Director General of the ISI, which was reluctantly agreed to by the then Chief of Army Staff – Gen Aslam Beg.
From Benazir’s forced exile to Zardari’s arrest and the attempts to split the party, the PPP considers the ISI as the main force behind all anti-PPP activities. Immediately after the failure of the first attempted assassination on her in October 2007, Benazir Bhutto hinted at the role of the ISI or sections within it. Given the failure or ineffectiveness of the IB to provide alternative intelligence inputs or warn Benazir Bhutto of ISI manipulations, this fear plays upon the present PPP leadership. Perhaps except by the PML-Q, the PPP’s fear of the ISI is shared by most of the moderate secular political parties at the national and regional levels. In fact, most of the political parties from PML-N to ANP welcomed the notification.
Secondly, there has been enormous pressure from the US to rein in the ISI and end the ISI-Taliban nexus. The US administration, especially its intelligence organizations, are convinced that the ISI, or sections within it, is continuously in touch with the Taliban-al Qaeda elements which are responsible for the spurt in militancy in Southern Afghanistan in the recent years. Though the CIA concedes that the ISI has helped in targeting and arresting few al Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan, yet it also believes that there is a section of the ISI that provides safe havens and even shares vital intelligence information with Taliban-al Qaeda elements.
According to a New York Times report, Stephen Kappes, Deputy Director of the CIA made a secret visit in July to confront the Pakistani leadership with the evidence of ISI-Taliban linkages, especially with that of Jalaluddin Haqqani. Kappes had separate meetings with the Prime Minister, the President, the Chief of Army Staff and the DG-ISI. Reports in American media have also quoted intelligence agencies possessing evidence that the ISI-Haqqani nexus was responsible for carrying out the suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008. India and Afghanistan too have accused the ISI-Taliban nexus, but it was the American pressure, that acted as a catalyst
Undoubtedly, the civilian leadership in Pakistan was under pressure from the US to curb pro-Taliban ISI activities. The Prime Minister was well aware that he had to do something on this issue before he landed in Washington D.C. Since the PPP and the other moderate secular political parties share a genuine fear of the ISI, it is possible that Gilani and Zardari used the American pressure to justify their actions in brining the ISI under civilian control.
Why then was the announcement withdrawn in less than 24 hours? The government issued a new notification holding in abeyance the previous one. It also stated that the previous one had been misunderstood and that it only demanded better coordination between the Interior Ministry and the Intelligence agencies. Why this volte-face?
Though the Prime Minister had a meeting with Gen Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff, only a day before leaving for the US (and his decision to bring the ISI under civilian control), it is unlikely that the civilian leadership had an understanding with the military leadership. Maj Gen Athar Abbas, Director General of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), was reported to have stated that though there was a debate on coordination between all intelligence agencies, bringing the ISI under the control of Interior Ministry was not discussed.
Obviously, the military and the ISI were not happy with the decision, asking the PM to reverse it. Given the nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan, the military will have serious issues regarding any control on the ISI by the civilian government and its implications on the power relations among the troika.
Moreover, given the nature of the ‘War on Terrorism’ in Afghanistan, continuing attacks by local Taliban supporters in the FATA and the jihadi violence all over Pakistan, Pakistan’s security forces will prefer to have an independent policy in dealing with terrorism inside the country and across the Durand line. Even, if the security forces agree to civilian control over the intelligence forces (which itself is unlikely), they will certainly not agree to it at this juncture.
What are the conclusions one could draw from the failed attempt to bring the ISI under civilian control?
Firstly, the real question should not be whether the ISI is under the Prime Minister’s Secretariat or under the Interior Division. Rather, the question should be what ought to be its objectives and functions? Should it, like other intelligence agencies like the CIA and the RAW, focus exclusively on external intelligence gathering? The strategic elite in Pakistan, including the military and the political establishments, as also the strategic community should reach an understanding on the objectives of the ISI. Unfortunately, the July 2008 attempt to redefine the functions of the ISI did not arise from such an understanding.
Secondly, the military establishment has always viewed any such attempts by the civilian leadership with suspicion and contempt. Attempts by both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto to put the ISI under civilian control never went down well within the military establishment. A consensual approach, therefore, is essential.
Thirdly, there have been articles and reports underlining the professionalism of the present Chief of Army Staff based on his decision to keep the military away from political developments during and after the elections. Will he also bring professionalism inside the ISI? No one would understand the objectives, functions and operations of the ISI better than Gen Kayani himself. He has served as the Deputy Military Secretary to Benazir Bhutto, when she became the Prime Minister for the first time and was a witness to her attempt to bring the ISI under the civilian control. He was the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) during 2001-03 and participated in the 2001-02 military stand-off between India and Pakistan. He was appointed Director General of the ISI in October 2004, a position that he held till 2007, when the ‘War on Terrorism’, violence in FATA and the AQ Khan controversy were at their peak. Given the immediate reaction to the 28 July notification, one could only conclude that the military leadership prefers the status quo on ISI functioning.
Fourthly, the political establishment is not yet ready to redefine the functions and operations of the ISI. The fact that the Prime Minister could not even make his announcement hold for a day on this issue reveals who holds real power in civil-military-intelligence relations. Despite popular expectation and pressure from the US, India and Afghanistan on ISI activities, the political establishment in Pakistan is not in a position to assert itself vis-à-vis the military and intelligence forces.
Whatever be the reasons, the timing of the PM’s move to control the ISI was bad. The notification should certainly not have been issued just before the PM’s trip to the US. This only served to strengthen the position of the hawks that the government was becoming a puppet in American hands to further American interests. It should not also have preceded the major decision of the PML-N and PPP to impeach President Musharraf. But, if the timing of the announcement was bad, its withdrawal within a day was even worse. None of this bodes well for the internal power dynamics within Pakistan and its impact on the region and beyond.