During their Pakistan stay, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman Joints Chiefs of Staff and Richard Holbrook, once again reiterated their commitment to Pakistan’s stability and promised all they can to protect the country against radical forces. Speaking to a select group of Pakistani intellectuals and civil society organisations, Mullen in particular underscored the US’s long term commitment to Pakistan. We are not leaving Pakistan in lurch because it is so dear to us, Mullen told one of the participants. At the same time Mullen and Holbrook reiterated their concerns about the Inter-Services’ Intelligence (ISI). It needs reforms and its role has to be reviewed. That is of real concern to us. They most probably conveyed the same to Pakistani officials as well.
Only a couple of days before this, defense secretary Robert Gates also spoke at length of the nexus between the ISI and the militants.
‘The ISI’s contacts with some of these extremist groups with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani network, Commander Nazir (SP) and others are a real concern to us,’ said Mr Gates, adding we have made these concerns known directly to the Pakistanis.
It was in fact a continuation of the campaign kicked up by a New York Times report on the role of the ISI on March 25, that was followed by a series of similar statements on the subject.
On March 29, for instance, Admiral Mike Mullen, General David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, publicly indicted the ISI for its links with Afghan militants and said it must stop such activities.
“Fundamentally, the strategic approach with the ISI must change and their support for militants, actually on both borders, has to fundamentally shift,” Mullen told CNN television’s ‘Situation Room’ programme.
Mullen also gave the reason as to why the ISI might be so “deeply” involved with the militants; “Pakistan sees itself as fighting a “two-front” war, in Kashmir and against insurgents in the northwest. One of the reasons the regional approach is so important is to de-tension the Kashmir border so that the Pakistani military is not completely tied up on that border, and they are able to train, equip and fight on the western border in the counterinsurgency effort,” Mullen argued.
The same day , Petraeus, speaking on PBS television’s “News Hour” programme, noted some militant groups had been established by the ISI, with the US funding, with the aim of helping drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“Those links were very strong and some of them, I think, unquestionably do remain, to this day. It is much more difficult to tell at what level those links are still established.,” he said.
This string of allegations and statements essentially give rise to the question as to what is it that the ISI is doing differently. Complaints against this Pakistani equivalent of the American CIA, the British MI 6, the Indian RAW and the Israeli MOSAAD are certainly not surprising; soon after prime minister Gilani assumed charge in late March 2008, suggests that the US establishment has been wary of the ISI for quite some time, and Richard Boucher, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, had already had begun censuring the agency publicly.
In September 2008, Boucher vented his frustration in an interview (with Reuters news agency 16 September 2008) over the issue of reforms within the ISI. “There is no indication this is happening yet, it has to be done. Asked, if he had seen signs of reform, Boucher replied in negative by saying “No, I don’t have anything in particular I would point to right now.”
“The whole Pakistani state apparatus, the politicians, the security, economic development folks, is it properly lined up towards a single goal, and that’s beating the terrorists and stabilising Pakistan?” As long as you have organisations, or pieces of organisations, that work in different directions, then it’s harder for the government to accomplish that goal,” Boucher said.
Weeks after the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai, Boucher once again raised the issue of the ISI’s complicity in the Taliban militancy. On January 18, for instance, Boucher reiterated the charge of linkages between the ISI and “terrorist outfits based in the country.”
“Severing the link of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from Pakistan-based terrorist groups ‘is a work in progress’ and the United States will make sure that it is done effectively,” the Indian news agency ANI said in a report lifted off a Pakistani newspaper (Daily Times, Lahore) that had quoted Boucher on the issue.
In this context, the hasty attempt by Prime Minister Gilani, shortly before leaving for Washington on July 28, 2008 , to put the ISI under civilian control also smacked of the US pressure on the government to disconnect the agency from militant groups.
For historical reasons, most Indian analysts and officials desire the same; addressing a foreign affairs conference in Paris on February 7, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon described “organizers” of the Mumbai and Kabul embassy attacks as “clients and creations” of Pakistan’s ISI. “The perpetrators planned, trained and launched their attacks from Pakistan, and the organisers were and remain clients and creations of the ISI,” Menon said in a continuation of his charge.
The history of ISI’s involvement with groups that today have become a source of scare and insecurity inside the country obviously make it a direct target because all of them openly oppose the United States and its presence in Afghanistan.
But there is also little doubt that the ISI has been meddling – unconstitutionally – in domestic politics and is responsible for a number of distortions that currently plague our political landscape. The organisation certainly carries the blame for the current political turmoil – as General Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf used it and other agencies for self-perpetuation by dividing the political forces. Both Zia and Musharraf made their own contributions in engineering the political system and tailoring it to their needs – all in the name of national interest.
By indulging in domestic politics and using militant outfits as a cost-effective foreign policy tool, the establishment inflicted a heavy socio-economic cost on the country. Ever since the nascent years of Pakistan’s existence, the establishment has continuously undermined country’s transition to democracy through direct and indirect rule.
Having said that, the question arising out of the almost direct Indian and American onslaught on the ISI, is whether Pakistan’s wobbly and fragile political dispensation can afford to subject ISI to quick surgical reforms, without causing any harm to itself?
The answer is probably in the negative. Reform is a must but it will come most probably with the consolidation of the political process. That is where the US and other friends must stand by Pakistan. Confronting the establishment head-on will only fuel antagonism and resistance from within the establishment. The present political turmoil and the spiraling insecurity require a more calculated, pragmatic and patient handling of Pakistani institutions – both civilian and military. Conscious efforts to isolate this country through intimidation and offensive diplomacy might inflict economic damages on Pakistan, but the political fallout for its 170 million people and the region will certainly be far more damaging.
The international community needs to engage Pakistan on a permanent basis if it wants to prevent Pakistan from becoming another Afghanistan.