Pakistanis doubt civil control of spy agency
Thursday, 31 July 2008

Reuters, Islamabad- Pakistanis doubt whether their new civilian leaders are capable of asserting control over a powerful military spy agency after what was widely seen as a botched attempt at the weekend.

The timing could not have been more embarrassing for Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in the United States for a meeting with President George W. Bush on Monday that focused on Pakistan's role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Last week, Washington demanded Pakistan investigate Indian and Afghan accusations that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in a Kabul suicide bombing that killed 58 people outside the Indian embassy, including two diplomats.

Gilani's four-month-old government has issued denials of ISI complicity but can say only what the spies and army divulge.

The United States and its Western allies have trusted the ISI to help combat al Qaeda, but there have long been suspicions that it takes a permissive line over the Taliban, allowing the militants freedom to attack Afghanistan over the border.

There is mounting apprehension that Pakistan's generals are becoming less cooperative because the country fears Washington has allowed rival India to extend influence in Afghanistan.

With Pakistan in a fragile transition to democracy after President Pervez Musharraf's eight years of military rule, Washington has been talking to various parties in the nuclear-armed nation about closer coordination on security.

On Saturday night, while Gilani was still en route to Washington, his government dropped a bombshell with a decree that the Interior Ministry would oversee spy agency activities.

The government said the ISI and its civilian counterpart, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), would be brought under the "administrative, financial and operational control of the Interior Division with immediate effect".

On Sunday, the government issued a clarification saying it had been "misinterpreted" and that the decree "only re-emphasises more coordination" between the ministry and the ISI on internal security matters.

It said another detailed decree would be issued later.

"I think the ISI immediately got into the act and did what they thought was best to have the decision reversed," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper.


Defence analyst Nasim Zehra said the government's action had been "amateurish, thoughtless and hasty", though there was a good case for streamlining the security apparatus and drawing more rigorous reporting lines.

Newspaper editorials saw the chain of events as farcical.

"Is it mischief, conspiracy or stupidity?" said the Urdu language daily Nawa-i-Waqt, while the English language News newspaper referred to the saga as the "ISI fiasco".

Sethi's Daily Times noted that two previous prime ministers with solid parliamentary majorities and public support had tried and failed to cut the military down to size.

It offered words of caution to a weak coalition, already under pressure from political, economic and energy crises.

"Unless this move is for cosmetic purposes, Islamabad should tread with caution," said the newspaper.

The initial decree certainly sent shudders through the ISI.

"This news without exaggeration shocked most of us because it could lead to a lot of problems, especially at the higher level," said a senior intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The ISI has destabilised several civilian governments, and generals, like Musharraf, have run Pakistan for more than half the 61 years since it was carved out of the partition of India.

Although Musharraf has taken a lower profile since the defeat of his political allies in an election last February, he remains close to General Ashfaq Kayani, the former ISI director who he chose as his successor as army chief last November.

Musharraf also appointed the present ISI director, Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj.

Aside from the ISI and the IB, there is also Military Intelligence, which unlike the ISI is solely focused on military affairs, and the Federal Investigation Agency, a civilian body that focuses on illegal immigration and counter-terrorism.

Several analysts criticised the plan to put the ISI under the Interior Ministry, saying it could perpetuate misuse of the agency for internal political dirty tricks.

They said the government could start reforming the ISI by disbanding its Internal Security Wing, which was created in the 1970s by the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, to keep tabs on rivals.

It did not protect Bhutto from the army. He was overthrown by General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and later hanged.

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