The Friday Times: Najam Sethi’s Editorial
Senator Farhatullah Babar (PPP) has drafted a bill to bring the ISI under civilian control and stop it from manufacturing public opinion, formulating foreign policy and manipulating politics like “a state within a state”. The proposed bill also aims to empower the ISI to deal with terrorism, separatism and other anti-state activities in a legally effective manner.
The bill has not yet been tabled in the Senate. But even if it is put up as a private member’s bill at some stage, it is highly unlikely that it will go any further. The PPP leadership is so besieged by the courts and opposition at the moment that it would be foolish to step on the toes of the powerful military and provoke it to heave it out of office.
The ISI’s reputation as a state within a state is well established. It became an autonomous and powerful arm of the Gen Zia state during the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets in the1980s when its DG was upgraded from a Brigadier to a Major General and organized the multi-billion dollar arms and funds pipeline from the USA and Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, after the restoration of democracy in 1988, DG-ISI Gen Hameed Gul helped form the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to try and stop Benazir Bhutto’s PPP from sweeping into power and, failing that, later conspired to destabilize and topple her government through various strategies, including Operation Midnight Jackals. The ISI under General Asad Durrani helped bring Nawaz Sharif to power in 1990, courtesy Mehrangate, and under General Javed Ashraf Qazi nudged him out of office in 1993. In 1999, two pro-ISI generals, Mohammad Aziz, CGS, and Mahmood Ahmed, Corps Commander Pindi, the former an ex-ISI man and the latter a future DG, carried out a coup against Nawaz Sharif, installed General Pervez Musharraf in office and interviewed and hand picked members of his new cabinet. In due course, the elevation of Gen Ashfaq Kayani to DG-ISI and then army chief, an unprecedented act, opened the route for a complete merger of the ISI with GHQ, with officers routinely to-ing and fro-ing from one headquarter to the other. Henceforth, the right of the prime minister to nominate the DG-ISI was negated by the right of the army chief to nominate his own man to such a sensitive job. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha (DG-ISI 2009-2012) was nominated by Gen Kayani, promoted by him to the rank of Lt General and given an extension in tenure.
To be sure, the civilians have tried and failed to seize control of, or reform, the ISI. Benazir Bhutto replaced Gen Gul with Gen (retd) Kallu. But the ISI rank and file rendered him ineffective. Nawaz Sharif sent DG-ISI Gen Asad Durrani back to GHQ, handpicking Gen Javed Nasir as DG-ISI over the head of COAS Gen Asif Nawaz. But Mr Sharif didn’t stay long enough in office to make the change stick institutionally. When he returned to power in 1999, he handpicked General Musharraf as the army chief and Gen Ziauddin Butt as DG-ISI. But General Musharraf made Gen Butt ineffective by packing the ISI with his loyalists. When Asif Zardari set up the PPP government in 2008, he tried to seize control of the internal political wing of the ISI by proposing its command and control in the interior ministry. But GHQ and ISI manipulated the media and opposition to thwart his move. Under Gen Pasha, the ISI became larger than life, at home and abroad, formulating foreign policy, disobeying, embarrassing and even destabilising the Zardari government on many occasions, until the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, a self-avowed benefactor of the ISI and GHQ, was provoked to bitterly decry the existence of a “state within a state”.
Therefore, the motive behind the proposed bill – that there can be no state within the state in a democracy – is justified. Indeed, there is a civilian consensus on the issue, Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi who has been stung twice, being the most ardent advocate of civilian supremacy over the Punjabi-dominated military. But the PPP is too weak and discredited to bring the military to heel. More significantly, the media and judiciary have also made common cause with the military against the discredited politicians whose popularity ratings in the polls are far below theirs.
The proposed bill is, however, relevant in other ways too. It would enable the ISI to get legal cover to detain and act against terrorists and other anti-state elements without running foul of the courts and constitution by making people “disappear” – an Ombudsman and bipartisan parliamentary policy-making and review committee is built into the bill. This would truly strengthen the ISI to defend the national interest as defined by elected and accountable civilians. But, given the electoral probability that Pakistan is likely to be ruled by weak and bumbling civil-coalition governments in the face of a powerful military, the ISI is fated to remain a state within a state in the foreseeable future.