ISI in the crossfire

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has felt compelled to bat repeatedly in defence of the ISI in recent days. On Wednesday, he had to mount his third defence of the premier intelligence agency in the National Assembly in response to Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali’s continued hammering of the issue. The redoubtable Chaudhry has kept up his tirade over the last few days against the government for its alleged apathy on several issues, in particular the ISI, drone attacks and the Raymond Davis affair. Chaudhry Nisar demanded answers why the ISI chief’s recent visit to Washington was cut short to one day instead of the scheduled three, and whether this had contributed to the recent low ebb in ISI-CIA relations and the refusal by the CIA to halt drone attacks. The opposition leader claimed he had substantial evidence regarding the Davis case and who had facilitated his release. Stating that he was ready to share the evidence, he qualified it by saying he would not share it with the government but with the house, either in open session or in-camera. He ended by asking the government to summon officials of the country’s intelligence agencies in a session of parliament and ask them to clear their position in the Davis issue.

The prime minister, for the third time in as many days, reiterated his by now well known tune. He asserted that the ISI was under the control of the government, reports to the government, does nothing without the government’s knowledge or against the national interest, and has never ventured into any ‘project’ without proper governmental authorisation. In other words, and in short, the ISI was under the government’s instructions. The prime minister repeated these arguments in a public rally near Islamabad the same day. On the Davis affair, the prime minister stated in the house the usual argument about the case having been decided by an independent court, with no role played by the federal or provincial government.

After this ringing endorsement, lest we are lulled into a soporific confidence in everything being under the government’s total control, including the ISI, it may be useful to contemplate that in our history, rightly or wrongly, the ISI has acquired an unenviable reputation for straying beyond its mandate. Not only does this charge hinge on what critics allege is the ISI’s manipulation of national politics in the interests of the military establishment’s (permanent) agenda, the ISI has also figured centre-stage whenever the question of Afghanistan or domestic terrorism comes up. It may be argued that not all this notoriety is deserved, but the fact remains that inside the country, the region, and the world at large, the ISI has become too prominent for an intelligence agency expected to operate ‘quietly’. A parallel example may be culled from US history in the last gasps of the twentieth century, when the infamous CIA lost its sheen and was finally shackled by new oversight procedures to avoid illegal activities. We in Pakistan may not be at the stage of the kind of ‘glasnost and perestroika’ that struck the CIA in the post-Vietnam war period, but it would arguably be in the best interests of all state stakeholders to put their heads together and refigure, if not curtail, the ISI’s political role (acquired incrementally since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto set up the first political cell in the ISI in the 1970s) and return it to its original mandate: an internal services intelligence arm organised on highly professional lines and freed of the burden and accompanying calumny of being accused of interference in politics, internal and international. – Dailynews