Adjust Font Size
ies between Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders had been strained since the deluge of leaked US diplomatic cables earlier this year. The crisis following the killing of Osama bin Laden in an American raid on what appears to be a safehouse in the military town of Abbottabad has caused serious, if not permanent, impact on these ties.
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha made an unprecedented offer to resign, during an in-camera briefing to the parliament. He admitted that the presence of OBL in Pakistan and the failure to pre-empt the American raid were failures.
But when opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar took a tough line against the ISI, Gen Pasha said the PML-N leader had been targeting him since he had declined to extend “a personal favour” to him. One implication of the tirade, he said, was that CIA chief Leon Panetta said to him in an important meeting, “How can we trust you when your own country’s opposition leader is saying that you cannot be believed?”
The PPP government has distanced itself from this new PML-N led onslaught for a number of reasons, including ISI’s patronage in brokering a deal with the PML-Q. Sources in the government said the PPP did not plan to take on the military directly because of the fragile nature of this alliance, but it quietly supports any pressure on the establishment, which has blackmailed governments and hijacked foreign policy. “After all, it was the PPP which initiated the plan to take the ISI in control,” an insider said.
In the line of fire are the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, especially the ISI whose chief had recently been listed by Time magazine among the most powerful people in the world. The Americans are angry to find out that bin Laden had been living in Pakistan for years, and there is national and international pressure on the ISI to come clean.
The civilian-military distrust can also be seen at the level of intelligence agencies. The ISI and the Military Intelligence (MI) always seal off the K-Block headquarters of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) whenever there is a military coup. The IB often accuses other intelligence agencies of interfering in its affairs. Recently, 4,000-5,000 sacked IB officials previously profiled to be “unfit for service” due to political connections were recently reinstated by the PPP government with back salaries and benefits.
Understanding how our intelligence agencies work, and their roles, authority and limitations, might also help us understand how OBL managed to live in Pakistan for so long without being noticed, with or without institutional support.
“It’s true that the agencies were free from any real political and legal constraints up to the 1990’s, but the government of Pakistan has now tried to limit the influence of intelligence agencies and institutionalised them by writing rules to protect civil liberties,” Brig (r) Muhammad Irfan, a former ISI officer, told TFT.
But many security analysts believe the move is not productive. “There seems to be no mechanism at all in the intelligence community to even remotely appear to be transparent or accountable,” former IB director general said.
When the assertive interior minister did the unthinkable by trying to bring the ISI under civilian control, it did not work out too well. It is said that when a top government official went to an agency’s headquarters to close down its political cell, he was shown “compromising videos” of himself, after which he said, “officially, the cell is closed.”
There is an impression that the MI, the IB and the ISI are at times in a state of conflict. A former ISI official, who asked not to be named, said the MI “is principled and works under a set framework, but the ISI is only interested in results and does not care about the modus operandi”.
Most rivalries in the intelligence community are bureaucratic, often over budget cuts, turf wars and adjusting to new policy roles. They do not transform into serious conflicts. Some time after 2007-2008, an understanding was reached between the ISI and MI not to step on each other’s toes. The MI now looks after internal affairs and the ISI is concerned with external threats within and outside the borders.
“The ISI is working on Jihadi networks and other threats related to national security,” said Commander Naseer, a veteran intelligence official. He said intelligence officials “work like sub-inspectors and mostly tap phones and chase people. They don’t have any analytical skills.”
So is the Big Brother watching us? Yes. A former top intelligence chief told TFT that according to the Telegraph Law, “only Intelligence Bureau (IB) is allowed to tap someone’s phone, and that too, only based on real fears, only after the prime minister’s permission. But the IB director general often makes the decision himself.”
The ISI taps phones too, but under a special permission which was taken ‘forcefully’. The CEO of a top cellphone company said his company received up to two thousand requests to tap phones last year. He said the spies had access to the company’s data as well as NADRA records.
A former intelligence chief said if someone does not reveal the required information, “we tap your best friend too. He is probably going to talk about you.”
While the three top intelligence agencies have acquired state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and training over the years, courtesy the US, they can only tap emails and phones. They lag behind in VoIP decryption, which means, they cannot tap calls made over Skype. They do have a pool of hackers to work for them.
It is odd, however, that there are no intelligence training schools in Pakistan. Most mid-career officers have had no advanced intelligence education, except language courses and workshops that have no real impact. Several of them rise to seniority with little training and little exposure to outside ideas. That ultimately affects the behaviour of these agencies. Ground operatives also receive little systematic training and lack analytical, critical or administrative planning skills.
But there has been some investment in ‘counter intelligence’ operations, which, when successful, can create endless feedback loops and data.
Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad has raised questions about the capabilities of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, but it is not the first serious intelligence failure. The tragic assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by his own guard is one example. Another example of counter-intelligence failure is not keeping track of Sheikh Omar, Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar after they were released by India following the hijack of the Indian Airlines Flight 814. Sheikh Omar eventually played a role in the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and Masood Azhar orchestrated the attacks on the Indian parliament that cost Pakistan billions in a troop stand-off with India.
The finances and funding of the intelligence agencies are often dubious. Former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf gave out Rs 2.2 billion and then Rs 140 million to a premier intelligence agency from the Finance Ministry funds on November 10, 2007 in an effort to manipulate the elections which were to be held in 2008. Some operations are financed by a “secret fund”. There are no records. Questions have been raised about why Osama bin Laden’s bank accounts were frozen in 2004, three years after 9/11.
The lessons to be learned after the OBL intelligence failure is that the military must subjugate itself to civil control, not because political leaders are necessarily wiser, but because they are the elected representatives of the people and remain accountable to the people.
“It is only those who are elected by the people who have the authority and the responsibility to decide the fate of a nation,” a top foreign diplomat said. WikiLeaks and the OBL
affair could have as much as done the job for politicians in terms of
parliamentary supremacy for now, he said, “but let’s hope they can play
their cards right.”
Ali Chishti is a writer based in Karachi. He can be reached at