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A history of bungling

May 06, 2011

THE space between an admission of gross incompetence or of complicity in a major crime is full of humiliation and pain.

This is the place Pakistan's ISI finds itself in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad.

The country's premier intelligence agency is being accused by many of knowing where the Al Qaeda chief has been hiding for the last five years. His extended presence in Abbottabad, close to the country's elite military academy, has raised troubling questions.

But when faced with a choice between official bungling and thuggery, I'd go for ineptitude every time. While looking at a crime, the first thing an investigator asks is: ' Cui bono ?', or 'Who benefits?”

In the case of Bin Laden's long residence in Pakistan, the country's security establishment clearly had nothing to gain by concealing his presence.

In the past, several major foreign Muslim terrorists have been captured in Pakistan with the ISI's cooperation. The names of Aimal Kansi, Yusef Ramzi, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh come to mind. Lesser figures have been fingered for drone strikes, deportation to Guantanamo Bay, or for interrogation by the Americans elsewhere.

It has long been Pakistan's tacit policy that it would crack down on foreign fighters and terrorists, while maintaining an ambivalent attitude towards jihadi groups who might be of use in Afghanistan at a later date.

Bin Laden was clearly a distraction and an embarrassment. He was of no possible strategic value to Pakistan, now or later; 9/11 had made him a toxic liability, and he was too much of a hate figure around the world for the ISI to risk sheltering him. In addition, with a $25m reward on Bin Laden's head, do we really think our spooks are so high-minded that they would resist the temptation to turn him in?

So me, I'd go for the bungling option rather than for any of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds in Washington and around the world. To a Pakistani, this is much scarier than the notion that the ISI deliberately sheltered Bin Laden so close to the heart of the establishment.

While over the years the ISI has gained a reputation for being a top-notch intelligence agency, the truth is that much of its fame is founded on its role in the Afghan war. In their book The Bear Trap , retired brigadier Mohammed Yusaf of the ISI and Mark Adkin give a glorified account of the agency's efforts in helping the Mujahideen defeat the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Basically, the ISI took the money and arms supplied by the US, Saudi Arabia and a variety of other sources, and channelled them to its favourite jihadi groups. In the process, it set up training camps in the tribal areas, and helped thousands of Muslim volunteers from around the world to train and cross over into Afghanistan.While all this was instrumental in defeating the Red Army, it was scarcely classical espionage. Training is what the military does regularly, and fairly well. The ISI and our army also planned operations, and in some cases, our soldiers crossed over into Afghanistan to conduct them. But again, these were straightforward military tasks, carried out reasonably competently.

The other area in which the ISI has gained a fearsome reputation is in internal politics. Since around 1970 when Gen Yahya Khan set up a political wing within the military agency, successive rulers — especially those in uniform — have used the ISI to bully and buy opponents.

In this, other intelligence agencies have also been similarly deployed. But this again is not espionage or counter-espionage, the tasks the ISI was originally established to perform.

In these highly professional areas, the ISI has not exactly shone in the past. In the 1965 war, the Indians were able to bring up an entire armoured division to the border a few miles from Lahore without our spooks having a clue.

Similarly, in the 1971 conflict, our government and our army were constantly wrong-footed by the Indians, both politically and militarily, because they had little advance warning of our foe's plans. While the ISI might have been good at killing and torturing Bengali rebels in erstwhile East Pakistan, it proved to be woefully incompetent in obtaining strategic intelligence.

Even the scene of its greatest triumph — the Afghan war — has proved to be our Waterloo. While the Soviets might have been defeated, we won a pyrrhic victory. The very instruments of our success turned against us. By using the local and foreign jihadi groups set up and supported by the CIA and the ISI against the post-Soviet regime led by Mohammed Najibullah, we sowed the seeds of the jihadi menace that has claimed some 30,000 Pakistani lives over the last decade.

These groups were also unleashed in Kashmir against India in the late 1980s to take advantage of the popular uprising there. But this again was not an espionage or counter-espionage operation, and consisted of recruiting jihadis, and arming and training them, often using religious groups as intermediaries and proxies.

In the Kargil disaster, the ISI failed to warn the government of the consequences. Finally, against the jihadi terrorists infesting Pakistan, its performance has been less than stellar.

One major problem the ISI refuses to address is that it remains a military agency to which serving officers are seconded for three years, and then sent back to field units.

There is thus no hard core of professionals who rise through the ranks to the top positions. Consequently, the experience and knowledge gained does not stay within the organisation. This military hierarchy also discourages debate and disagreement.

Spycraft involves obtaining information, sifting through it, forming patterns out of seemingly unconnected facts and rumours, and then analysing the results. Much of this is unglamorous and painstaking work. Over the years, the ISI's internal political involvement has distracted it from its more serious and difficult tasks.

So rather than worry about whether Bin Laden was shielded and sheltered by the ISI, I am more concerned that the agency had no idea about his presence in the midst of a large military cantonment in a major Pakistani city. We are spending a vast amount — the figure has never been disclosed — on our intelligence agencies, and the question we ought to be asking is whether we are getting value for money.

An unnamed ISI spokesman has been quoted as saying the agency is “most embarrassed” over the discovery of Bin Laden's whereabouts. It ought to be, as it has much to be embarrassed about.