The Need to Regulate Pakistan’s Use of Covert Action

May 28, 2008

Ever since the new democratically elected government assumed office in Pakistan, analysts have drawn up exhaustive priority lists of tasks before it. These range from restoring civilian pre-eminence over the military, countering terrorism, building democratic institutions, freedom of the media, and restoration of the judiciary. The new government, however, will do well to also order a review of the use of covert action as an instrument of state policy, which has been a major factor for the ills that afflict Pakistan and undermines its credibility in the international community.

Pakistan has been using covert operations as an instrument of state policy right from the time of its creation. In October 1947, a mere two months after independence, it pronounced that tribesmen had invaded the Kashmir Valley, whereas it was a meticulously planned military operation by a well organised force officered by Pakistan Army regulars. Later, though the India-Pakistan War officially began on September 6, 1965, in reality it had started much earlier in June, when Pakistani troops started infiltrating in large numbers into Jammu and Kashmir to induce a mass uprising and “free it from Indian rule”, as part of an operation codenamed GIBRALTOR. Subsequently, within hours of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, US President Carter had signed a Presidential order to allow the Central Intelligence Agency to covertly provide weapons to the Afghan mujahideen, which was achieved by striking a deal with Pakistan to establish supply lines to the rebels. Pakistan’s covert operations in Afghanistan, however, did not end with the withdrawal of the Soviets. Pakistan later launched a proxy war against India by abetting cross border terrorism in 1989 but denies any complicity, including the existence of terrorist camps on its soil. Further, the notorious proliferation activities carried out by the nuclear Wal-Mart run by AQ Khan could not have been possible without the knowledge, support and involvement of the government. Though the Pakistani establishment has denied out right any knowledge of these activities, a recent political biography of Benazir Bhutto by veteran journalist Shyam Bhatia reveals that she, as the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, carried critical nuclear data on compact discs in her overcoat to Pyongyang in 1993 in exchange for information about North Korean missiles.

Covert action has remained and will continue to remain a controversial instrument of state policy for many countries. Translated into execution, it amounts to the user country adopting the smoke screen of plausible deniability, wherein the action itself may be visible and verifiable but its links are concealed, so that it can easily deny any involvement. Covert action falls within the domain of the intelligence community. It is described as an activity midway between diplomacy and war on the continuum of conflict. The main disadvantage of covert action is that it can be overused and misused. It can also severely dent the credibility of the country using it and tarnish its image when linkages to various actions can no longer be denied or become public. Covert action could also lead to false perceptions among national leaders and security advisors that some action is being taken, even when it is not adequate to achieve worthwhile results. Covert action is usually the result of incapacity of a government to formulate a clear and effective policy in support of national interests, and can take the form of an easy and preferred alternative to foreign policy. In view of the secrecy associated with such actions, they are difficult to control over a long period of time and can escalate and get out of control leading to crisis situations. They also usually lead to the violation of basic humanitarian principles and human rights.

Pakistan could study the US model of authorisation, execution and monitoring of covert actions. The US has also used and misused covert action as an option to resolve security issues. However, it has an institutionalised mechanism and control structure. When the American intelligence set-up was revamped after World War II, the Central Intelligence Agency was mandated through the National Security Act, 1947 to conduct covert action and has since been closely associated with it. Considering the perceived threat of communism during the Cold War, the US National Security Council authorised the use of covert action programmes to contain the spread of communism - the most notable being the Bay of Pigs invasion. History has shown successes and failures of many US-led covert actions. However, rather than denying the conduct of covert action when failures such as Bay of Pigs and the Iran-Contra affair occurred, systemic weaknesses were identified to implement remedial steps for oversight and control of such activities. The US oversight organs are largely composed of citizens from outside the government to broaden the perspective for public participation and ensure responsible intelligence activities. Moreover, the requirements for the intelligence community are promulgated each fiscal year, authorising specific expenditure against each identified covert action, leaving little scope for misinterpretation that could result in embarrassment to the government. Despite these regulatory measures, Nixon was able to misuse covert action for personal gains as reflected in the Watergate scandal.

In contrast to the United States, Pakistan has consistently denied its conduct of any covert action and apparently has no clear guidelines or policy mandate for such actions to ensure political control and oversight. By remaining in denial mode, Pakistan is persistently offering opportunities to its security establishment to misuse power. There is a need to put in place structures to exercise proper control over such activities. Perhaps, the creation of a coordination committee at the cabinet level to approve and monitor covert activities could help. The people of Pakistan can also aid this regulatory process by demanding their own version of the Right to Information Act. People can demand transparency, access to information concerning national security and question government policy and approaches by informed public debate and create pressure groups to shape the environment for effecting better choices by the nation.