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How our spymasters view the world

October 11, 2008

IT is difficult to read an article about Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the UK or the US without coming across a reference to Pakistan`s ubiquitous Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). In fact, the ISI has become our only instantly recognised brand name abroad.

Normally, spooks operate out of the glare of publicity. However, the ISI has become so intertwined with many of the region`s trouble spots that it is blamed for almost every terror attack, whether it is guilty or not. To listen to its many critics abroad, the ISI is a rogue agency that dabbles in Islamic causes from China to Chechnya, and from Bosnia to Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, its domestic record does not inspire the same sense of invincibility and competence. Take the recent attack on Islamabad`s Marriott hotel as an example. Here, a small truck loaded with over half a ton of high explosives was able to penetrate into the heart of a heavily guarded capital, a stone`s throw away from the presidency and parliament. And this is when friends have been stopped much further away, and their cars searched as a matter of routine.

This was only one intelligence failure out of many. Last year`s fiasco over the Lal Masjid complex is still fresh in our memory. Even more damningly, the country is struggling to cope with the extremist insurgency in the tribal and settled areas on our borders with Afghanistan. Unanimously, observers place this problem at the ISI`s door for having created the Taliban, and for having supported them all these years. The agency`s links with Al Qaeda have repeatedly come under the spotlight as well.

The recent changes at the top of the ISI might shift its direction, but the agency will remain opaque and unaccountable for the foreseeable future. All countries have outfits that spy for them, and do their dirty work. Not for nothing has spying been called the world`s second oldest profession. But generally governments have made it a point to separate the domestic (or counter-intelligence) tasks from overseas activities, usually by creating different agencies. Thus, while the FBI operates within the US, the CIA works abroad. Similarly, MI5 is the British counter-intelligence agency tasked with domestic security, while MI6 carries out Westminster`s secret foreign agenda.

Originally, the ISI was established to gather military information abroad, while Military Intelligence (MI) was the counter-intelligence outfit. However, as Shuja Nawaz makes clear in his extensively researched recent book Crossed Swords Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within, the ISI was heavily involved in domestic politics under Yahya Khan. The agency continued to play this role under Bhutto, and greatly expanded it under Zia to repress the dictator`s many political foes.

It was during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the eighties that the ISI attained its current reputation. With a vast infusion of cash from the US and Saudi Arabia, the agency was expanded and its budget raised to astronomical levels. Staffed almost entirely by military officers, it remains secretive and unaccountable. To this day, we know next to nothing about this enormous state within a state.

During her brief first stint in power, Benazir Bhutto made an attempt to reform the ISI by appointing a committee to make recommendations. Headed by Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan, it produced a set of recommendations. But frozen into inactivity by the constant attempts to destabilise it (by the ISI, among others), the PPP government was unable to act on them. Since then the agency has continued to accumulate power, and under Musharraf it became a powerful weapon against his opponents.

But these domestic activities have come at a cost. Deeply embroiled in national politics and quixotic adventures abroad, the agency has taken its eye off the ball. The result is a conflagration set off by its own creations among the many extremist outfits it created to fight our proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

However, before we blame the ISI for all our woes, we need to see the region and the world through the eyes of our spymasters. One problem with having army officers running the ISI, GHQ and the country for much of the time is that they tend to reinforce each other`s viewpoint. Suspicious and contemptuous of civilians, they are convinced that they, and only they, have the motivation and the strength to protect the country.

With this mindset, when they analyse threats to Pakistan, to the east they see a powerful India — a country that has locked horns rather successfully with our army four times. To the west lies Iran, a neighbour with which we have no territorial disputes. To the north and north-west is Afghanistan, a troubled, turbulent country that our army has traditionally viewed as its backyard, especially after the Soviet incursion and Taliban rule. This is where our generals have looked in their search for an elusive `strategic depth`.

In the post-9/11 world, Afghanistan has become the focus of the West`s attention, and serious attempts are finally being made to stabilise and strengthen our neighbour. However, an independent and strong Afghanistan is our GHQ`s worst nightmare with Indian influence there growing, our military planners fear an alliance between the two countries that would effectively encircle Pakistan.

To prevent this from happening, it is in the ISI`s interest to destabilise Afghanistan. In order to achieve this, the Taliban have to be covertly supported. However, as we have seen, this policy has caused serious problems with our home-grown extremists. Balancing the competing demands of a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and peaceful extremists within Pakistan, is testing the capabilities of our intelligence agencies, and exposing the limits to their power.

More and more, Pakistan is being blamed for the losses being incurred by western forces in Afghanistan. With mounting casualties, the Americans are being drawn into our tribal areas to combat militants our forces are unwilling or unable to take on. Against their wishes and interests, Pakistan and the US are being sucked into a conflict that can benefit only the forces of extremism.

If we are to step back from the brink, we need to seriously review our options and the threats we face. It is clear that India has no serious territorial claims beyond hanging on to the part of Kashmir it has controlled for the last 60 years. Thus, to keep nearly half a million soldiers on our eastern border when we face a mortal threat from within, as well as from our north-west border, is a strategic blunder of suicidal proportions.

It`s high time we took a close look at the dangers facing us; but to do so, we cannot look through military eyes any more.