Pakistan's unruly intelligence services

And, since the early days of the George W. Bush presidency and its so-called “war on terror,” US officials have vainly exercised continuing pressure on Islamabad’s successive governments to cut the ISI’s militant ties altogether. Over the years, this pressure has grown in strength as it became obvious that rogue elements within Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus were hampering US operations in Afghanistan and making reconciliation with India over the territorial dispute of Kashmir more intractable.

Questions over the ISI and its activities have assumed added urgency with the announcement last Friday by Pakistani military officials who said as many as 20,000 troops are being redeployed close to the Indian border amid rocket-rattling by both nuclear-tipped nations. Recent events such as the July bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul and the November terrorist attacks that hit Mumbai, leaving at least 173 dead, have been assumed by many analysts and officials to be attributable to groups aided, indirectly and in the past at least, by rogue ISI elements acting independently of the Pakistani government, but which nevertheless remain under its official control.

Long-overdue reforms

Because of the tragic consequences of these events and of the political and military risks they entail and are likely to further stir in the region, a long line of US officials of all ranks have quietly visited Islamabad to convey a single, resounding message: Pakistan must reform its intelligence agencies and put an end to the ISI’s underground liaison with several of South Asia’s Islamic militant groups.

In fact, it seems there would be obvious domestic and self-interested stimulus as well for Pakistan’s current civilian government, presided over by President Asif Ali Zardari, to rein in its intelligence apparatus, including risks from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism for Pakistan’s own social and political stability. Zardari publicly demanded in November that the political wing of the ISI be disbanded, something many observers think will do little more than demonstrate the limits of his power.

As Zardari pointed out in a recent op-ed, “[n]early 2,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives to terrorism in this year alone.” Pakistanis are the terrorists’ targets and victims as well. This backlash has been repeatedly evidenced by incidents ranging from the deadly July 2007 siege of Islamabad’s Red Mosque to the bombing of the capital’s Marriott Hotel, just a few months ago in which 40 people died when a dump truck full of explosives detonated as it was being checked by security personnel and sniffer dogs.

In essence, Pakistan has become a victim of its rogue intelligence services, and this conclusion would only be further supported if India takes steps towards a new military confrontation against its conventionally weaker neighbor, with possibly disastrous consequences for both sides.

Hence the question: why won’t Islamabad rein in its intelligence apparatus? Why won’t Zardari’s government move to reform the ISI and push out the agency’s militant-friendly loners? After all, it can be assumed, doing so would make Pakistan safer, partly quell India’s wrath, and ensure the continued support of the US. Yet, for the most part, the reform has yet to come. Why?

An impotent civilian government

In reality, as an analyst with the US-based country risk analysis provider Stratfor put it, “it is important to keep in mind that the civilian government would love to bring the ISI directorate under its control and has even tried to do so but doesn’t have the power to effect such changes” because of its weak position in relation to the Pakistani military, which has ruled over the country for much of its history.

“The military is a Punjabi institution, with its personnel drawn mainly from the Punjab state, Pakistan's largest and richest,” Nick Jones, an Asia editor at Oxford Analytica added. “It's an efficient and strong institution that sees itself as the nation's protector in a context where civilian administrations generally prove corrupt and inept.”

In this context, even at times when civilian governments have been at Pakistan’s helm, as is now the case, they have for the most part been weak in their reforms, particularly with regards to security matters.

This shortcoming, Raghav Sharma, a research officer at New Delhi’s International Centre for Peace Studies, added, has been compounded by the fact that “civilian control has often been short-lived and fragile” and that “politicians of all hues have in fact patronized the military at some stage of their political career.”

The current timing, one of economic and political crises, also appears to be of no help to President Zardari and his team. As Jones put it, “The economy will slow to 3.5 percent in 2009, the International Monetary Fund has said; Taliban militants are spreading their influence eastwards out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), getting quite close to heartland areas; and more people will be poor and out of work next year.”

"If you were Zardari, would you take on the Army right now?"

Despite fearing the consequences of a stand-off against the country’s military, however, several Pakistani civilian leaders have nevertheless tried to pressure Islamabad’s main intelligence agency into reform. They range from former and late stateswoman Benazir Bhutto in 1989-90 to the current Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as well as Zardari himself.

Just this summer, for instance, the newly-elected Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) government announced that it would place the ISI under the full control of the Interior Ministry, thereby taking it away from the military’s purview. The consequences of this move were “humiliating,” one observer said, as the government was forced to withdraw its statement less than a day later under pressure by the country’s generals.

Another such mishap came when Prime Minister Gilani had to renege on a promise he made to send the ISI’s chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to India as a sign of goodwill following the recent Mumbai terror attacks.

Miscommunications between Pakistan’s military and civilian leaderships have repeatedly been put forth to explain these reversals, but most analysts are prompt to explain that the situation is merely due to the fact that the government has had no choice, in each case, but to swallow the pill put before it by an uncompromising Army.

Hence the claim that “if the ISI is to be reformed then it will be done by the Army’s leadership alone.”


A job for the military

While the military has made it obvious that it will not relinquish its oversight of the ISI to Islamabad’s civilian leaders, it has at times been open to the idea of reforming them itself. Under the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, for example, one ISI chief was replaced, approximately 40 percent of the directorate’s forces transferred, its Afghan unit dismantled, and 2,000 militant suspects arrested.

More impressively, since his appointment to the post of Chief of Army Staff in November 2007, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a man called “formidable” by some Western officials, has worked to revamp the ISI from top to bottom.

Perhaps because he ran the agency himself during a stint that lasted three years, Kayani has shown he knows which levers to pull within the ISI. In September, he raised praise for his decision to appoint a new chief for the Directorate, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Better yet, he replaced the heads of two key departments responsible for Islamic terrorism and internal security affairs.

As Stratfor’s director for Middle East analysis, Kamran Bokhari, said, “This is much better than what we saw under Musharraf when he would just replace the director-general.”

Since then and in a move that went largely unnoticed, the ISI has closed its “political wing,” known to many for its “making and breaking of political parties and alliances” over the years. Even for the military however, these reforms are not without risk. As early as March 2007, several ISI officials were killed in an armed attack that took place in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“The only way the attackers could have gained access to such information is through a tip-off from someone within or close to the ISI office in which the officials worked,” Stratfor concluded at the time.

What this means, the intelligence provider added, is that “at least some jihadists have declared war on their former handlers,” and that despite reforms “the middle and lower ranks of these agencies still have Islamist militant sympathizers” that will be hard to dislodge.

“Internal turmoil in Pakistan is in large measure a result of the ISI patronage to terror groups who are no longer willing to stick to a role scripted for them […] and are hence turning against their patrons,” Raghav Sharma added.

There are many structural hurdles to reform as well.

For one, ISI directors general are generally appointed for a limited period of three years. “That is not enough time for any meaningful changes,” Bokhari said.

Likewise, “the ISI chief is a manager who relies greatly on his subordinates to run the shop,” he added. “The underlings like the union workers in a factory know how to exploit the leadership’s dependency on them.”

This is reinforced by the fact that “many of these people are privy to sensitive information and even a lot of dirt that the Army has an interest in making sure does not get out into the public domain.”

Teresita Schaffer, a former US ambassador and current director for South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, confirms this and adds that a full ISI reform “would be a complicated and high-risk operation that would involve retiring or transferring people and creating a new cadre of intelligence officers.”

Most problematic, however, is the fact that there is very little consensus in Pakistan over the need to engage in such an intricate and unrewarding reform. Many key political players made themselves absent, for example, at a recent parliamentary debate organized to discuss the issue of Islamabad’s fight against Islamic militancy.

While few would openly defend the militants, there remains a feeling, for instance, that the Army can “fight the ‘bad’ Taliban while continuing to work with the ‘good’ ones,” as it did in the days when the US joined in the fight against the Soviet Union’s push into Afghanistan, Bokhari said.

A prime reason for this is that non-state actors have always been part of Pakistan’s defense strategy, against India in particular. “Since India is seven times its size and much more powerful in conventional military terms, Pakistan has looked to unconventional devices, like guerilla warfare and jihadis, as instruments of its foreign and Kashmir policy,” Schaffer added.

In fact, as Nick Jones put it, “this can be seen as a pretty rational policy given Washington’s very short attention span” when it comes to providing security guarantees in the region.

“Hence ISI’s continuing ability and, it would say, need to retain the ‘assets’ which might permit it to take a more aggressive approach if the occasion presented itself in the future,” Schaffer explains.

“Put another way, intelligence agencies often stop doing certain things when told to do so by their government, but they never want to give up an asset altogether.”

No end in sight?

Is this to say that there is no chance for in-depth reform? One possibility would be for an international push to pressure Islamabad’s civilian and military leadership into a full-out sweep of the ISI’s darkest closets. As Raghav Sharma said, “Any attempt to reform will have to be firmly backed by the international community which should mince no words in telling the Army and ISI not to initiate a coup for any action the government takes to reform the country’s intelligence services.”

That is a prospect that has become increasingly likely after last month’s Mumbai attacks. The US is wary of losing its Pakistani ally on the Afghan border and wants to avoid a redeployment of Islamabad’s troops towards India. It might therefore try, or have tried, to broker a deal in which Zardari’s government agrees to rein in the ISI in exchange for New Delhi’s settling down.

The problem is that such international pressure has already been put on Islamabad’s successive leaders for years and there is little to indicate that it could bear any more fruit now than it has in the past. The larger picture is that despite its fleeting quarrels with the ISI, the US’s Central Intelligence Agency needs the help of its Pakistani counterpart to support U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan.

Because the ISI’s strategy of using Islamist backchannels has in the recent past been used mostly to shield Pakistan against the real or perceived threat of India, perhaps nothing could better make this strategy redundant than a warming of relations between the two countries. Yet it seems that prospect too has recently turned sour.

In this sense, Zardari was not wrong to point out in a recent New York Times op-ed that “In the current environment, reconciliation and rapprochement is the best revenge against the dark forces that are trying to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India, and ultimately a clash of civilizations.”

Even if such a settlement were to happen, however, there would still be much reforming to do. Stratfor’s Kamran Bokhari has it right when he says that “there has to be a shift in the thinking in the Army that the Islamist militant proxy project is a Frankenstein’s monster out of control and has to be neutralized along the lines of what the founder of Saudi Arabia did with the Wahhabi tribal militia the Ikhwan whom he relied on to establish his kingdom but later had to destroy because the group took a life of its own.”

“This will not be easy because things were much simpler in those days and King Abdul-Aziz had far more political and economic capital than the Pakistani state of today. It will also require changes to the state’s ideology and identity through a modern re-interpretation of Islam that is in keeping with the realities of the here and now.”

Until that is done, there is much to fret about in uncovering the real state of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus.

Andrew D. Bishop is a freelance journalist and a blogger at