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Imperative of Exercising Control over the ISI

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 11, 2008

    The deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai is set to derail India-Pakistan bilateral relations. With all the evidence pointing towards Pakistan, it has become difficult to advocate that India must go ahead with the composite dialogue. The Indian government is understandably frustrated with Pakistan’s reluctance and/or inability to act against radical groups within its territory. In spite of repeated Pakistani assurances, radical groups are still operating openly in Pakistan, raising funds for jihad, and imparting armed training to jihadists. In the past, the Inter Services Intelligence and the Pakistan Army had been hand in gloves with the jihadi terrorists – training them, funding them and helping them infiltrate into India. Without the support and knowledge of the ISI, an attack on this scale against Mumbai would not have been possible.

    The civilian government does not seem to be in control of the ISI and the Army. After assuming power, it did try to exercise some sort of control over the ISI especially after the United States presented evidence about the intelligence agency’s support to the Taliban. It placed the ISI under the Ministry of Home Affairs but soon was forced to reverse this decision. And after promising to send the Director-General of ISI to India to help investigations into the Mumbai attacks, the civilian government had to backtrack under pressure from the military establishment. The civilian government’s lack of control over the ISI and the Army is nothing new in Pakistan’s politics. But considering the fact that the Army was highly unpopular only a few months back and there was consensus among political actors to work together for strengthening democratic institutions, there was an expectation that this civilian government has popular support to assert the supremacy of a democratically elected government. However, as recent developments suggest, the democratically elected government has a long way to go before it can begin to exercise control over the military establishment, which has ruled the country more than three decades of its existence and retains a stranglehold over Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies. This situation must change for Pakistan’s own struggle against terrorism to succeed. The umbilical chord that ties the ISI to the jihadists must be cut to ensure that the situation in FATA and other parts of the country do not get out of control and threaten the very survival of Pakistan.

    President Asif Ali Zardari is correct in his assessment that “supporters of authoritarianism in Pakistan and non-state actors” have “a vested interest in perpetuating” conflict between India and Pakistan. In recent months, he has spoken boldly about the need for close India-Pakistan relations. He condemned terrorism in Kashmir in an October 2008 interview to the Wall Street Journal, which drew flak from right wing political parties as well as from jihadists and prompted the Ministry of Foreign affairs to issue a clarification. In his telephonic address to the November 2008 Hindustan Times conclave, Zardari reformulated his country’s entire security perception by saying that Pakistan does not perceive any threat from India and ruled out the first use of nuclear weapon against India. And in the face of opposition from rightist groups, the PPP government also unveiled a new trade policy towards India, realising that opening up trade and forging greater friendly ties with India would serve the interests of the civilian government and diminish the Army’s role in politics. But with the Mumbai attacks the military establishment has hit back strongly and seems to be recouping some of the ground it had lost during the final phase of the Musharraf regime.

    Zardari has appealed that in order to confront terrorists and their vast support network “Pakistan’s fledging democracy needs help from the rest of the world.” But he needs to recognize the nexus that exists between Pakistan’s military establishment and the jihadists, and act upon it. Strengthening democracy in Pakistan is principally the responsibility of Pakistani civil society. The media, intellectuals and people at large need to work towards strengthening the institution of democracy and ensure that the civilian leadership is able to exercise effective control over the country’s armed forces and intelligence agency. Without such control, no democratically elected government will be able to consolidate its hold on power.