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Can a Civilian Ever Control Pakistan’s ISI? By Manzoor Ahmed

The government of Pakistan recently announced that it was proposing to increase the number of civilian Director Generals in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate from one to four. This decree was made by the new and interim Prime Minister Abbasi. The response of the ISPR was that as the ISI functioned under the PM it was the competent authority to take such decisions. This was reminiscent of previous occasions when ISPR had admitted to civilian control, but took revenge for the government’s actions at a later date.

Let us face it, the ISI was created as a military organization and will continue to be one, despite the best efforts of all those around. But first a look at what lies behind the present move. It is obvious that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must have planned this move before his dethronement by the Court. In 2011, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif had demanded that the armed forces and Inter-Services Intelligence should be brought under civilian control, saying parliament should have absolute power to see and approve both institutions’ budget.

The heart of the matter is that efforts to civilianize the ISI, including placing it under civilian control have been going on since 2008 at least. In 2008, the PPP government notified the Pak Interior Ministry as the line department for the Intelligence Bureau and ISI, but had to backtrack within 24 hours when the military expressed its displeasure over the proposal. In 2013, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights had proposed that “the security agencies should be given the power to arrest and detain and at the same time they be put under parliamentary oversight.” This was the recommendation made by a three-member committee headed by Senator Farhatullah Babar. Unfortunately, the bill was withdrawn because Babar had ostensibly not got it approved by the Special Committee of the then Pakistan People's Party headed by Law Minister Farook H Naek.

There has also been considerable pressure from the US over Pakistan’s support to terrorist organizations and President Donald Trump’s recent speech on Afghanistan has only made matters worse. The US has tried for a very long time to get the ISI to reveal more of its secrets. This effort goes back to the cooperation between the CIA and ISI in the 80s during the creation of the Mujahideen which fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Subsequently, reports indicate that a T-Wing was created in the ISI to keep the West informed of the activities of the ISI. It was created in 2006-2007 to counter the ISI’s S-Wing which deals directly with terrorist individuals and groups. This wing acted as the liaison between the US CIA and Pak government. Earlier, in 2005 Gen Pervez Musharraf had approved the posting of a civilian as DG ISI in grade 21 for the first time.

All this of course, has not made any impact on the ISI and it seems to be no big deal if the present government tries to increase the number of civilian DG’s at the top at the rank of Major General. At present, all DGs in the ISI are at the rank of Lt. Gen. The present proposal put out by Prime Minister Abbasi also seeks to enhance the number of Deputy Directors General (DDGs) from eight to 15 in the ISI Directorate. The same recommendation has sought the creation of seven additional DDG posts for civilian officers in grade 20.

Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, aptly summed up the position of the ISI in the Pakistan Government in 2012 when he wrote, “This is the creeping growth of the ISI from a small arms-length intelligence directorate or department of the military (Inter Services Intelligence Directorate) in the initial decades of independent Pakistan to an omnipotent and invisible “deep state within the state” that now controls both military strategy and civilian policy.” This actually sums up the history of the ISI, which has moved from being a military intelligence organization for the three services of Pakistan to being a state within a state. It is in effect the deep state in Pakistan.

That is precisely why the ISI must be brought under civilian control. India has been making this point for several decades now to the Western capitals as also because it is the place from which Jihadi organizations are spawned and sent out across the world. Unfortunately, the West as well as Russia and China have come to be totally dependent on the ISI for intelligence on Afghanistan. The US has tried, with a little bit of success, to build its own networks in Afghanistan. The challenge of course, lies in being able to work in Afghanistan without the aid of Pakistan.

Coming back to the main point after that minor digression, it must be emphasized that efforts to get ISI under civilian control would only work if in the first instance, the Directorate is placed under the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pak Army and tasked to do only military intelligence. While in the past the Political Wing of the ISI was closed down it is likely that it retains the capability to do political work as was witnessed during PTI Chief Imran Khan’s long march to Islamabad.

The other challenge is cutting off the ISI’s umbilical cord to jihadi organizations like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and LeT. In reality of course, the ISI is a long way from achieving that goal and it is unlikely that it will ever want to totally disconnect from the religious right in Pakistan. In fact, it could be asserted that the ISI is today creating a new political monster in Pakistan, namely the religious right in politics and evidence of this will be seen in the 2018 elections.

The message that must go out of the West and perhaps India also, is that it is the ISI which is at the heart of the Jihadi exercise in Pakistan. While the Pakistani state is culpable, it is the ISI that must be hanged for its complete complicity in sponsoring terrorism the world over. Evidence of this link was shared by Prime Minister Modi to US President Donald Trump during his visit to America this year. That must continue to be the central theme of India’s diplomatic outreach. Perhaps this may then lead to a gradual change inside Pakistan to take the ISI out of military control. Till then one can only wait and watch what happens next in Pakistan.