Pakistan's Spies Elude Its Government

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Shawn Thew / EPA

U.S. President George W. Bush listens as Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani delivers remarks after a meeting in the Oval Office on July 28

Pakistan's new civilian leaders ought to have known better. One of the world's most powerful intelligence agencies, routinely dubbed a "state within a state," was hardly likely to submit meekly to the efforts of a newly installed government to bring it to heel. Less than 24 hours after it tried to put the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization firmly under government control last weekend, the struggling administration of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced to backpedal under pressure from the military, making clear the limits on the civilian government's power.

Pakistan has been under growing U.S. pressure to rein in the ISI over its alleged links to Islamist militants, and as Gilani boarded his flight to Washington on Saturday, his government suddenly announced that the ISI — Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency — and its civilian counterpart, the Intelligence Bureau, would be placed under the "administrative, financial and operational control" of the Ministry of Interior. Although until now the ISI had been nominally under the administrative control of the Prime Minister, it has throughout its 60 years operated in notorious secrecy and with negligible civilian oversight. "The move would have opened up the ISI's finances and operations to scrutiny," said Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent military analyst. And plainly, powerful forces within the Pakistani state were having none of it.

On Sunday, during a London stopover by Gilani and his retinue of ministers and aides, a clarification was issued. The earlier announcement had been "misinterpreted," it said, and had only intended to "re-emphasize more coordination between the Ministry of Interior and ISI in relation to war on terror and internal security." Pressure for the about-face had come from the army, according to Mushahid Hussain, a prominent senator and ally of President Pervez Musharraf, the former military chief whose supporters were beaten at the polls by the current government. "Two major phone calls were put in to the Prime Minister by senior khakis," he said, in a reference to senior generals. "The message was, 'This will create problems.' " And that was that.

No organization in Pakistan rivals the influence of the ISI, according to analysts. Lieut. General Hameed Gul, a former director-general of the agency, describes it as a "highly professional and disciplined institution." Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, alleges that "the Pakistan army, through its intelligence agencies, is the principal abuser of human rights in Pakistan." And there is evidence in support of both claims.

During the cold war, the ISI served as the key intermediary for channeling covert U.S. support to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. Some of these fighters were recruited and trained directly by the ISI, and the organization later helped bring the Taliban to power to end the intra-mujahedin fighting that followed the Soviet withdrawal. The ISI also built intimate links with indigenous jihadist groups, through which it fought a proxy war against India in disputed Kashmir. In domestic politics, the intelligence organization has been accused of rigging elections, intimidation and even overthrowing governments.

One party targeted by ISI interventions in domestic politics has been the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — and of Gilani. Lieut. General Asad Durrani, a former director-general of the ISI, said in a BBC interview earlier this year that he had taken personal responsibility for "distributing money to the alliance against Benazir Bhutto" during the 1993 election. "After seeing the period that she had ruled, I thought it would be better if the lady did not come to power," he said. On Saturday, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, welcomed the move to put the ISI under civilian control as an important "step towards civilian rule."

But many in Pakistan believe the move had come in response to U.S. pressure. "Failed coup against ISI was to appease U.S.," read one local headline. "They wanted to please Washington," said former spymaster Gul. "It misfired and became a boomerang to hurt them." The PPP did not help its case by the manner in which it proceeded. Neither the parliament nor the coalition's junior partners were consulted. And in choosing to cede control of the ISI to Rehman Malik, the effective Minister of Interior, instead of tightening his own grip, Gilani was left looking weak.

Washington has certainly grown increasingly agitated in recent weeks over the activities of the ISI. Last week, the U.S. demanded that Pakistan investigate charges by the governments of Afghanistan and India that the ISI had been involved in the recent bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. And the New York Times reported Wednesday that CIA deputy director Stephen R. Kappes had met with senior officials in Pakistan to confront them with evidence purporting to show that elements in the ISI has been working with the network of Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

"Relations between the CIA and the ISI are at their lowest," said Siddiqa, with growing mistrust leading to a collapse in intelligence sharing.

In a U.S. TV interview, Gilani dismissed claims of links between militants and elements in the ISI, although in Pakistan, some observers have consistently maintained that the ISI has not severed links with clients in the jihadist world. Others counter that last year's suicide bomb attacks on buses carrying ISI personnel should dispel such claims. "This is a lot of bullshit, really," Gul said of the claims. "They are saying these things because they cannot win the war in Afghanistan. The ISI has gone through a thorough cleansing, after I left. I was blamed for taking it in an ideological direction. I can say with certainty there is no one at the top level [with links to extremists]. Perhaps at the lower level there are some incidents."

There is only one way of establishing the truth, of course. "There has to be an arrangement whereby all of the institutions of the state are brought to work under the rule of law," said Hussain, the pro-Musharraf senator. "Like in any civilized democracy, the intelligence agencies should be held accountable to parliament." But last weekend's experience suggests such an arrangement may be a long time coming.