Reform ISI? Not like this

The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Mr Richard Boucher, said Tuesday that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) needed to be reformed. He did not point to any specific flaw in the conduct of the ISI but the general impression is that his remark sprang from a deep US suspicion that the ISI “retained links to the Taliban”.

The initial reaction against the suggestion has been negative in the Pakistani media, and it was of a piece with the reaction that met Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s attempt in July to place the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry.

The American press had charged earlier that the ISI was allegedly using the privileged information it had about American attacks against the Afghan Taliban to forewarn the latter. In fact, the American government and most Western governments believe that a recent suicide-bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul was carried out by the ISI. In India, the case is even worse; the ISI is blamed for anything violent that happens inside India which the Indian government cannot explain.

There is no doubt that all state institutions need a periodic review of their performance and have to face internal changes to make them more effective and responsible. But the problem arises when someone else tells you to do it. The act of reforming the ISI has to be initiated by Pakistan and its elected parliament, and it should not be seen as prompted or “ordered” by another state. Since the US and Pakistan are partners in their fight against terrorism — and the success of this partnership in the past has depended solely on the ISI — it would be normal to consult on intelligence and its effectiveness. But it would be counterproductive to make public calls for corrections within the ISI. This is what has happened. If the idea was to bring the PPP government under pressure, the Boucher statement has in effect had the effect of putting it on the defensive. The PPP cannot afford to carry out any reform now.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that politicians across the political divide don’t have their complaints against the ISI. They have used the ISI against one another so many times that the ISI has to some extent become tainted because of the use that has been made of its “political wing”. (One suggestion of reform has been the clipping of this wing.) Political “signalling” has taken place through the sudden blowing up of a car’s tyres or the car catching fire all by itself; and the politicians have not minced their words in accusing the ISI of wrong-doing. The PPP has been specially targeted in the past and it has given proof that the ISI has its share of “rogue” elements. Remember Operation Midnight Jackals against the ruling prime minister, Benazir Bhutto?

Nor is evidence lacking about the ISI becoming subject to “reverse indoctrination”. Some retired ISI chiefs put off everyone when they appear on TV and speak unrealistically about what Pakistan should do to get out of trouble. If you dwell on the past, there is no doubt that these senior officers became infected with the dangerous virus of jihad they were handling. One army chief, General Asif Nawaz, had actually complained that an ex-ISI chief while still serving as a corps commander had advised the mujahideen to reject a change of policy mandated by the GHQ. Under General Pervez Musharraf, an ISI chief, sent out to Kandahar to advise Mullah Umar against war, gave him the opposite message!

Then there are some lower-ranking officers like Mr Khalid Khwaja who left the ISI to become mouthpieces of the very elements that the world associates with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Perhaps the most damaging aspect — which may need reform — is the amount of bragging some ex-ISI men do on TV channels, spreading doubt and disappointment about the ruling government by forwarding unrealistic prescriptions of what Pakistan could or should do but was “criminally” neglecting to undertake.

It is unfortunate that when terrorist blasts occur in Pakistan some people name the ISI as the culprit behind them. Just like the US, which has forgotten what the ISI did for it after 9/11, Pakistanis too often forget that the organisation has also done some good work in the cause of the security of Pakistan. (Daily Times)