ISI’s role: the debate within and outside Pakistan

Pakistani military and the allegedly murky role it plays in the country’s political landscape has always been a subject of great interest in the US and around the world. The military’s intelligence wing, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has taken the flak more often than not for not allowing the democracy to flourish and for its handling of the country’s foreign policy.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the subsequent events like the terrorist attack on PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi, seemingly not without some inside information, and the brutal killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, with fingers again being pointed towards ISI, have brought Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency into sharp focus yet again. The arguments against it have been aplenty and not always without substance.

With this kind of a background, if there’s a debate on ISI in Washington, DC, who would want to miss it? The topic itself “Inside Pakistan’s ISI’ sparked huge interest, so much so that the organisers, Middle East Institute and Johns Hopkins University, had to change the venue to accommodate the overwhelming participation requests.

Now, most of us walked into the hall expecting it to be an extraordinarily fiery session with the speakers taking pot shots at the ISI in no uncertain terms. The way it turned out, an objective and rational discussion, was a pleasant surprise though.

The president of Middle East Institute and former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain as well as the Associate Director of South Asian Studies Program at Johns Hopkins, Walter Anderson set the tone with some on-the-dot remarks about Pak-US relations that put the picture in perspective and leaving the panelists with some pertinent questions to answer in order to determine whether the ISI was indeed a rogue institution?

The panel, as it turned out, was unanimous in articulating that ISI was not a rogue institution but the involvement of some elements in its rank and file in shady activities could not be ruled out. The presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was repeatedly mentioned to support the argument.

They also stressed that it was wrong to assume that ISI was a separate institution from the Pakistani army and was very much a part of it, particularly because several corps commanders now serve in ISI before assuming important posts. The political role of ISI and its definition of ‘national interest’ came under the hammer too.

Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, criticized all civil and military regimes for using ISI as an arm-twister to manipulate the system. The situation has led to the point where the ISI folks don’t even realize when and why they tread on the civilian domain, he argued!

The associate editor of Washington Post, Karen DeYoung referred to the serious disagreements between the Pakistani and US military over the offensive against Haqqani network in North Waziristan despite the fact that the terrorist outfits had started targeting the Pakistani military as well.

Arturo Munoz, formerly with the CIA and now with the RAND Corporation, valiantly answered this conundrum in his remarks. “The Pakistani army wants a second line of defence when the US leaves the country to fend for itself after withdrawal from Afghanistan”, he said while correlating it to the situation after the end of war against Soviet Union.

Throughout the course of the discussion, there were some very interesting points raised. The military’s perceived threats from India in Balochistan and Afghanistan were analysed thread-bare while its attempt to reach out to the media, local as well as international, with its viewpoint was viewed positively as well.

Notwithstanding the objectivity of the debate, the eternal question whether the ISI is subservient to the democratic rule in Pakistan or is beyond anybody’s control was not adequately answered. The discussion on this very subject is underway much more vociferously in the Pakistani media and intelligentsia these days.

This, to any independent observer, could be the most defining moment in Pakistan’s history that will determine the future path of the historically troubled civil-military relations in Pakistan. Any clear-cut answers may not be immediate but the ongoing debate and the involvement of a very vibrant civil society and media presents an opportunity in itself.

This also serves as a timely wake-up call for the ruling elite, let alone the military establishment, in Pakistan that the tide is slowly but surely turning and they must not remain oblivious to it. The sooner they reach a decision, with a firm hand on public pulse, the better for the country’s future.