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ISLAMABAD, July 27: There were red faces all around when the government reversed its decision to place the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) under the direct control of the interior division.

The retraction came in less 24 hours following reports of extreme tension between various sections of the government and establishment and as a result of intense back-channel efforts.

Sources told Dawn that the reversal of Saturday’s decision was the result of “immense pressure from defence circles” on the civilian set-up.

Just a day after placing the ISI under control of the interior ministry, the government issued another notification which said that the earlier notification had been ‘misunderstood’ and the ISI would “continue to function under the prime minister”.“The said notification (issued on Saturday) only re-emphasises more coordination between ministry of interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security.” It said a detailed notification would be issued later to clarify the situation.

The original notification had placed the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau under the interior division’s control but the new one reverses the decision only about the ISI and there is no mention of the IB, creating confusion whether it would continue to work under the prime minister or under the intelligence division.

The development, according to political observers, revealed civilian set up’s lack of vision about national strategic affairs because the earlier decision appears to be a move to make the prime minister’s adviser on interior Reham Malik the ‘most powerful’ head of the interior division ever.

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman, is reported to have hailed the decision and termed it a step to save the army from controversies and accusations.

Mr Zardari said: “No one will now be able to say that this agency is not under the elected government’s control. The interior ministry will now be able to respond to allegations against the ISI.”

According to sources, the decision was not taken in consultation with defence authorities, which caused “great concern among the army and other defence organs”.

They said the back-channel discussions had continued throughout Saturday night, compelling the civilian set-up to reverse the decision.

Director-General of the Inter Services Pubic Relation (ISPR) Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said the army chief and other defence authorities had not been taken into confidence on the issue.

“Although there is an ongoing debate that there should be close coordination between all intelligence agencies, placing ISI under the direct control of the interior division was never discussed.

“When we realised that the decision had been taken, we discussed the issue with the government and are thankful that there was a realisation of ground realities and our position was accepted,” the ISPR chief said.

He said the ISI was a “huge organisation” and the interior ministry could not have handled its financial, administrative and operational affairs. The ISPR spokesman cited examples of various global intelligence systems, including the agency working in the United Kingdom, and said: “In Britain, MI-5 looks after domestic intelligence gathering while MI-6 looks after external affairs. Similarly, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (Raw) is responsible for external intelligence while the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) looks after domestic security matters, but in both the models, the spy agencies report to the chief executives (prime ministers).” Like the British and the Indian models, the ISI also had a mandate to provide intelligence on domestic and strategic, external and defence-oriented affairs.

Meanwhile, Gen (retd) Hamid Gul, a former chief of ISI, said the earlier decision was merely a bid to please the superpowers without realising that it would only serve the interests of the enemies. He praised the government’s move to keep the ISI under the prime minister’s control.

He said that in 1990, the first PPP government had made a similar attempt but when the then prime minister Benazir Bhutto was informed about the “ground realities” she agreed that the agency should be allowed to continue to work under its previous command.

Gen Gul, however, stressed the need for establishing a “proper secretariat … to collect information and ensure coordination among all spy agencies”. Former ISI DG Lt-Gen (retd) Asad Durrani said the decision’s reversal showed that the authorities concerned had not been taken into confidence. He advocated greater autonomy for ISI and said it should work as a “separate and completely autonomous body, answerable only to the prime minister”.

PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said he did not know at what level the earlier decision had been taken. “I think a miscommunication had led to the mess.”

Warning that the government’s credibility was at stake, he said it should clarify at what level the earlier decision had been taken and why it had been withdrawn.

Former information minister Senator Nisar A. Memon expressed surprise over the sudden decision and said the government should explain the rationale and circumstances that had led to such a decision.

He recalled that during the 70s, ISI was mandated only to look after the country’s external security but former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had included internal security in its mission with a focus on politicians. Later, successive governments mandated ISI with external security.

“Today, the country is apparently governed by whims of leaders who do not take even their coalition partners into confidence,” he said.

AHMED HASSAN ADDS: Secretary-General of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q Senator Mushahid Hussain blamed the PPP government of making an abortive attempt to “to convert ISI into a partisan political instrument” and termed it yet another example of “PPP’s incompetence and ill-intentioned moves”. Talking to reporters here, Mr Hussain claimed that the government’s retraction on the ISI issue clearly indicated how serious the tussle for power between the prime minister and ‘extra-parliamentary forces’ had turned.

He called it “a fundamentally flawed decision … on all counts, political, administrative and national and from the national security point of view”.

“ISI and IB are already under civilian control since they report to the prime minister, and the move was an attempt to weaken the PM by handing both the intelligence agencies over to the interior ministry, whose head enjoys a PM-level protocol.”

Meanwhile, federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman told a TV channel that ISI was already under the civilian control.

“ISI is already under civilian control. It is overseen by establishment and cabinet divisions which work under the prime minister,” she said on phone from London.Ms Rehman said it was the government’s endeavour to provide smooth working conditions to all institutions functioning within a civilian set-up and to avoid any miscommunication.