ASMA Jahangir, legal counsel of Husain Haqqani in the memo hearings in the Supreme Court, may have had in mind a robust defence of her client while making strong statements about the political role of the ISI but her remarks in Courtroom No 1 on Tuesday are worth reflecting on in a wider context. Also, while ‘memogate’ may have pitched the elected government against the powerful army, the hearings in the Supreme Court could become a way of addressing hitherto taboo subjects, such as the responsibilities of the ISI, official and otherwise. The rub of the present matter is that the ISI appears to have ‘investigated’ its own political leadership and determined that the political leadership has grave charges to answer. In fact, from the statements of ISI chief Lt Gen Pasha filed in the Supreme Court, it would appear that the army prima facie believes the allegations of Mansoor Ijaz regarding the role of Husain Haqqani, and someone more senior to him on the civilian side, in the drafting of the now-infamous memo.

Did the ISI itself transgress official boundaries in the present instance? Also, what is the ISI’s legal mandate: is it a counter-intelligence and external-oriented organisation or does it have a more expansive domestic role? Part of the problem is historical. While there is some irony that the PPP’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is believed to have given the ISI a larger role and ingress into domestic politics, the real boost for the organisation proved to be the Afghan war in the 1980s. Organising and equipping the Afghan jihadis while serving the domestic needs of dictator Ziaul Haq, the ISI was an infinitely more fearsome institution at the end of the ’80s than it was at the start. By the time the so-called decade of democracy rolled around, the ISI was confident and capable enough to aggressively intervene in the democratic process. As the self-appointed custodians of the national interest, the army and the ISI established their own rules that only as a matter of convenience appeared to fit into the scheme of a constitutional democracy. For the civilians to assert their control over the country’s armed forces and its intelligence apparatus, many years, much sophistication in approach and honesty of purpose will be required. Sadly, none of that has been evident to date on the civilian side.

Inevitably, perhaps, the courts also must shoulder some of the blame. Had the verdict in the Asghar Khan case, which looked into the manipulation of elections by the ISI in the 1990s, been handed down, the hearings into the memo affair may not have become necessary. Having said that, the present hearing could be used to try and establish the mandate and parameters of the ISI.

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