The ISI’s relationship with civilian governments is at best problematic.
Was the PPP-led government’s keenness to involve an Indian company in the development of the Thar coal project a reason for its short-lived power struggle with the Inter-Services Intelligence?
At least one analyst believes it could have played a role in what most commentators have dubbed a major goof-up by the government, with the Daily Times describing it as the “fiasco of the year.”
Ikram Sehgal, a retired army officer and the editor of the monthly Defence Journal, said the government may have wanted to take control of the ISI, Pakistan’s India-centric spy agency, so that it would not obstruct the involvement of an Indian company in the Thar power project.
“Thar is a very important area. It’s an area that is very sensitive for Pakistan. In two wars between Pakistan and India, that area has been of great importance,” said Mr. Sehgal, a retired major. The Thar coal reserves are located in the Sindh province close to the Indian border in Rajasthan.
By placing the ISI “under the control of a henchman,” a reference to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari was ensuring that the spy agency would not object if an Indian company was selected for the project, Mr. Sehgal told The Hindu.
At least two Indian companies — Reliance and Essar — are among the participants at a World Bank-sponsored investor’s round table on Pakistan’s power sector during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s U.S. visit.
The ground work for inviting the Indian companies to take part in this big-ticket event was laid during the visit of Salman Farooqi, deputy chairman of the Pakistan Planning Commission, to India last month. The official went to Mumbai and met all the main players in the power industry including Tata, Essar, Reliance and Suzlon.
Mr. Zardari has made no secret of his desire to see Indian investment in the power sector in Pakistan, and this was one of the main topics of discussion when External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee met him during his visit to the Pakistan capital in May.
Mr. Sehgal said this was probably only “one of the many reasons” for the government’s sudden move. “No one commits such a monumental blunder on just one issue. There must have been a basket of issues,” he said.
The intriguing drama began on Saturday evening, a few hours after Prime Minister Gilani left for Washington, when the government issued a notification placing the ISI, along with the Intelligence Bureau, “with immediate effect” under the control of the Interior Ministry, headed by Mr. Malik, a confidante of the PPP co-chairman.
The development took many by surprise. The ISI, a quasi-military organisation, on paper reports to the Prime Minister. But its relationship with civilian governments is at best problematic. It is not known to have ever been answerable to even the Prime Minister, let alone the Interior Ministry. While it is tasked with gathering external intelligence, it is dreaded by Pakistanis for its influence within the country, including making and breaking governments.
Headed by a serving lieutenant-general, it takes its cues only from the Pakistan Army. Whenever a civilian government has attempted to take control of it, it has met with sudden death. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif experienced this in the 1990s. This government’s “attempted coup” against the country’s most powerful spy agency for both internal and external intelligence — it is known widely as “a state within a state” — was short lived. Just a few hours after the notification, it had to issue a humiliating “clarification,” that too at the unearthly hour of 3 a.m., saying its notification had been “misinterpreted” and that the ISI would continue to report to the Prime Minister.
By then, Mr. Zardari had already defended the decision to rein in the ISI as a “historic” step in the transition towards democratic rule, and said it would save the Pakistan Army from getting a bad name as the Interior Ministry would now be in charge of ISI.
According to media reports, the government’s hurried backtracking was the result of an intervention “from Rawalpindi,” a reference to the military headquarters located in that city. Mr. Malik, who functions as the country’s Interior Minister, has since said he had no knowledge of the notification. For now, the Pakistan Army has graciously accepted the government’s version by calling it a “misunderstanding.” Mr. Zardari made another statement that bore no resemblance to his first reaction: it was not the government’s intention to create a stand-off between institutions, all it had wanted to do was to coordinate its intelligence gathering, he said.
Tuesday’s The News depicted the entire episode in an evocative cartoon: a large cat glaring at a tiny mouse — the Interior Ministry — shivering and saying: “I never…saw…the notification.”
A number of reasons are being given for the government’s sudden decision to take over the ISI. One, of course, is that the newly elected government is under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to rein in the spy agency, which it believes still retains friendly ties with the Taliban. That pressure has grown since the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. The issuance of the notification within hours of Mr. Gilani’s departure for the U.S. buttressed that view.
Another reason is that Mr. Zardari wanted the ISI under his thumb and decided to hand it over to Mr. Malik, a close aide. A third reason being discussed is that the whole plan was Mr. Malik’s brainchild, as having both the ISI and IB under his control would have made him more powerful than the Prime Minister.
Needless to say, the “ISI fiasco” as it has come to be known, is being held up as another example of the government’s ineptness. “The humiliating back-pedalling of the government has also cemented its reputation for lurching from crisis to crisis, many of them self-made,” said the Dawn. The newspaper said it would undermine the government further as the ISI would view it with “renewed suspicion.”
While most commentators agree that the ISI needs to put under some sort of control so that it is accountable to civilian authority instead of trying to undermine elected governments as is its wont, the unanimous view is that a fly-by-night notification was no way to do it.
“The whole issue of the ISI is linked to the larger issue of civil-military relations and the nature of the national security state that we have built up over the years. Only a long drawn out and mature transition to functional democracy by wise civilian leaders will resolve that issue. Until then, it would be better to refrain from such half-clever measures,” advised the Daily Times.