Spooks in the spotlight
WHEN long-forgotten skeletons start emerging from the basement into the glare of publicity, those who hid them have good reason to be embarrassed.
So when Younus Habib was wheeled into the Supreme Court, many people were shocked to see him.
But clearly, those who bankroll our spymasters are made of durable stuff. In Habib’s case, while his revelations had the power to titillate, they were hardly surprising. After all, Asad Durrani had already deposed before the Supreme Court that he had doled out millions to sundry seedy politicians in a signed affidavit in 1996.
The retired general and ex-director of the ISI now says that he paid off anti-PPP politicians in his personal capacity at the behest of Aslam Beg, then army chief, and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the powerful president of the day. This, of course, is rubbish. Would Younus Habib have obliged Durrani with large amounts of cash if he had not been the head of the ISI?
While this latest political scandal will no doubt keep our TV channels in a high state of excitement until the next one comes along, it has reopened long-simmering questions about civil-military relations. The National Assembly’s unanimous resolution to frame a law that will rein in our intelligence agencies is a foretaste of things to come.
However, simply passing laws is not enough to control our spooks. After all, forming political groupings, buying and bullying politicians and rigging elections is hardly in the ISI’s remit. And yet, all our principal intelligence agencies, including MI and IB, have been dabbling in politics for decades. Naturally, all this skulduggery goes on in the name of national security.
Indeed, the number of crimes committed in the name of this elusive security would fill several volumes. All countries have intelligence agencies, but few intelligence agencies have countries. In Pakistan, the ISI in particular has acquired such a fearsome image that the imminent change at the top has made headlines the world over.
However, the agency’s reputation has taken several huge knocks of late. The year 2011 began badly for the ISI: Raymond Davis gunned down two would-be robbers in broad daylight in Lahore, and we thus learned that CIA contractors and agents were operating in the country without the ISI’s knowledge.
The ISI was caught in a cleft stick when Osama bin Laden was found to be living in Abbottabad for over five years — and in Pakistan for even longer. The May 2 American commando raid placed the ISI in an untenable position: either it knew about the Al Qaeda chief’s presence and had concealed it from the Americans, or it had no idea about it. So it was either complicit or inept.
In the event, the ISI pleaded ignorance, but such is its reputation for duplicity abroad that to this day, many people continue to believe that it had sheltered Bin Laden all along. Personally, knowing the agency’s abysmal track record in its primary function of intelligence-gathering and analysis, I was sure that it genuinely had no idea that the world’s most-wanted terrorist was living in the shadow of the country’s premier military academy in Abbottabad, a major garrison town.
Then there was the kidnapping, torture and murder of Saleem Shahzad. Although the intelligence apparatus has always denied any involvement, the journalist’s earlier allegations about threats he had received have made it suspect. Meanwhile, allegations of double dealing with extremist groups have further tarnished its image.
Currently, the bizarre memogate scandal in which Mansoor Ijaz, once the ISI’s fiercest critic, has made allegations implicating the president in a bid to seek American support to block a feared army coup is occupying the limelight.
Both the army chief and the head of the ISI, Gen Pasha, insisted on a very public enquiry, aided and abetted by Nawaz Sharif who filed a petition before the Supreme Court, asking for a judicial probe. The resultant commission has not exactly set the Indus on fire with its findings thus far.
Indeed, the early enthusiasm seems to have faded, together with whatever credibility Mansoor Ijaz had to begin with.
Increasingly, the whole thing smacked of a deliberate attempt to destabilise the government before the recent Senate elections.
In any case, the ISI has not emerged with much glory from this latest confrontation with an elected government.
By the very nature of their work, intelligence agencies generally stay out of the spotlight. However, by constantly dabbling in domestic politics, it was inevitable that the ISI would feature largely in the media, and now finds itself in the dock. The days
when it could bully and bribe the media into silence are long gone.
But perhaps some good will come from this series of disasters that have befallen the ISI. Maybe there will be an internal review of the agency’s role. There needs to be a realisation that it cannot simultaneously be a covert organisation devoted to internal
and external military intelligence, as well as a political player.
More important is the need to establish political control over the ISI. When this government tried to place the ISI under the interior ministry, its ill-judged attempt was quickly rebuffed. But now, the top military and civilian leadership ought to sit down, out of the glare of publicity, and hammer out a new charter for the ISI, MI and IB.
Currently, there is no oversight over the ISI’s budget. Similarly, there is minimum information on military expenditure in the national budget. There is no parliamentary debate on the country’s largest single expenditure. Clearly, this needs to change, and our defence forces ought to justify their budgetary proposals to our elected representatives.
These suggestions need not alarm our generals. Given the propensity of our politicians to roll over before them, it is unlikely that their budgetary requests will be denied by the National Assembly. Let us not forget that when the ISI chief appeared before parliament in the wake of the Abbottabad raid, no politician had any words of criticism.
In an act of rage and frustration, the ISI has levelled Osama bin Laden’s house as if its demolition will erase its shame. And bizarrely, it has charged the dead terrorist’s widows and children with illegal entry into Pakistan. It’s a pity they couldn’t have included Bin Laden in this charge while he was still alive.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.