The deadly violence Pakistan has been experiencing since the killing of Osama bin Laden explains the length and breadth of the asymmetrical war that the country currently faces; the security apparatus from Karachi to Peshawar and further north is stretched and clearly under attack. The ISI has lost almost 90 operatives in the last six years (the joint session of the Parliament was told on May 13th).
Embarrassed by American Navy Seals’ unauthorized intrusion to get Osama bin Laden on May 2, followed by intense US pressure “to demonstrate the will for peace in Afghanistan, the entire military and intelligence establishment today faces an unprecedented awkward situation; following years of almost unchallenged direct or indirect authority, the security apparatus, for the first time, appears under strain, and confronted with an ever-growing chorus of accountability, including questions on its credibility and competence as the guardian of this country’s ideological frontiers.
The major question arising out of these volatile circumstances is whether Pakistan’s intelligence establishment is professionally in synch with the unusual levels of threats rocking the country these days.
Historically, the ISI, the Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence, Special Branch, and Crime Investigation Department (CID) have had their own share of failures or oversight — advertent or otherwise. But rarely have they faced accountability. Mostly, they have stayed above the performance audit. The primary reason: the intelligence apparatus serves as the bedrock for the security state notions, which flow from the military’s continued obsession with the “geo-strategic relevance of Pakistan.”
This combination — security state notion and obsession with the geo-strategic relevance – therefore essentially rules out real censure of the intelligence outfits, which thus far acted as a supreme authority that can be intrusive, vindictive and overbearing as well. Of late, the Supreme Court did confront the agencies and admonished them in the case of political disappearances, but the apex courts are bound by their own limitations, and in many instances, helpless, primarily because the intelligence agencies remain tied into the military-led geo-strategic security paradigm, thereby precluding the possibility of a real scrutiny of the conduct of the agencies.
A closer look at the institutional capabilities and performance, based on personal observations with important players within the military and intelligence apparatus, leads one to conclude that these institutions, like so many other state entities, also suffer from the following problems that are inherent in their structure:
• Intellectually poor field operatives
• Poor technological capabilities
• Conventional, intrusive information gathering
• Lack or absence of inter-institutional coordination, (IB doesn’t interfere or is not allowed to interfere in matters considered or treated as exclusive domain of the armed forces, case in point: Abbottabad before and after bin Laden episode)
• Poor pay structures and too much power
• Politicisation of services – the tendency of the ruling elite, politicians and military leadership – to use intelligence outfits for political purposes i.e. making, breaking or destabilizing governments, or fixing opposition
Some of these factors directly undercut efficient information gathering and insightful analysis. The absence of intellectual insight, and little knowledge of the geo-political factors that are directly influencing Pakistan, makes the operatives at times look far-behind, stuck in a decades-old time-frame, which may have been good then, but has lost much of its relevance today.
It is because of this deficient institutional framework that our intelligence outfits still look at the threats emanating from religious militancy, largely in numerical terms. They usually assess the strength of militant groups in numbers, and do not weigh them against the ideological proliferation of the society that is taking place via these groups.
Secondly, the security apparatus, including the intelligence agencies, measures losses in terms of damage to physical assets (P3C Orion destroyed during the May 22nd raid on PNS Mehran Base is a case in point). Most of the armed forces leadership still seems oblivious to the damage that accrues from incompetence or complicity (for ideological, political or social reasons).
Besides structural obstructions, several socio-political factors also impede effective functioning of the intelligence apparatus. Let us identify some of them:
Firstly, the presence of supporters/ sympathisers of religious radical elements within state institutions, an element that provides the most probable explanation for precise attacks on PNS Mehran, GHQ (Oct 2009), or three regional ISI headquarters. Or the fact that Osama bin Laden and his family remained undetected for so long in Abbottabad, also suggests that some officials or low-key operatives were in the know of things.
Secondly, prevalence of social support for militants (sympathy, empathy, complicity out of fear or favour, ethnic or tribal affinities). Most of the religio-political parties, for instance, serve as the social safety net for persons or groups wanted by the state institutions. Even the Tableeghi Jamaat centres, considered out of bound for security agencies, offer a hide-out for wanted criminals or militants. This obviously places operational limitations on the counter-militant campaign, and thereby indirectly blunts information gathering or action against those wanted by the law.
Cumulatively, a cold-war era outlook heavily influenced by the security state mindset, and a porous socio-political environment results both in incompetence as well as direct or indirect complicity of state functionaries in matters that require extreme care and professional competence.
That is why the biggest challenge that the state of Pakistan is confronted with today is to how to:
a) Develop a clear vision for the role of intelligence agencies.
b) Define their socio-political limits.
c) Ensure merit and meaningful level of education for functionaries of intelligence institutions.
d) Empower these functionaries with modern tools of information-gathering.
e) Purge these institutions of functionaries whose loyalties rest with people and groups that are inimical to the interests and state of Pakistan.
f) Empower them with legal tools to keep all reglio-political groups and parties under scrutiny.
g) Ensure that intelligence agencies stay focused on their primary job and deals with all the groups across the board, rather than being selective (because selective handling has been one of the causes of their failures and incompetence.
h) Ensure greater and regular inter-agency syncrhonisation of planning and action.
Demonstrable efficiency and success are likely to remain elusive in the absence of coordination among various intelligence arms of the state. Unless they see eye-to-eye, develop a consensus on basic ingredients of national security and stand by one another on critical national matters, non-state actors will continue exploiting the discord and sporadic responses by the state, and thereby piling misery and humiliation on the state institutions.