On Saturday, Pakistani media outlets reported that the government placed both the Inter-Service Intelligence (more commonly known as ISI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) under the direct control of the country’s interior division. According to Dawn newspaper, “The country’s three main intelligence agencies have been working under various authorities. The ISI and the IB were working directly under the prime minister, while the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was being overseen by the interior minister.”
Under this new landmark decision, reportedly approved by the Prime Minister prior to the departure of his U.S. trip, “all the three main spy agencies will work under the interior ministry.” The agencies, under this ruling, would all be answerable to the country’s interior minister, Rehman Malik. Dawn noted in its coverage, “The ISI – described as a ‘state within state’ – has over the years taken flak domestically as well as abroad for its policies. Although it was earlier answerable to the prime minister, there was an impression that the agency was acting autonomously, and not under the orders of the prime minister.”
Saturday’s ruling was met with both relief and criticism. According to an editorial in today’s Daily Times, both the PPP and the PML-N welcomed yesterday’s decision. The editors noted, “Needless to say, most politicians’ initial reaction is that of relief and approval because of the ubiquitous perception that the agency has, at some time or the other, fiddled with politics and undermined the development of a democratic civilian order.”
However, ex-ISI chief Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hamid Gul asserted that the ISI is Pakistan’s “premier strategic asset and its relocation would harm the country’s defense establishment.” Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, cited Gul, who said the decision to relocate the intelligence agencies “was good news for the enemies of the Pakistan and it was a time of celebration for India and Israel.” The news agency added,
Terming it a part of deal with America, he noted that after the suicide attack on Indian Embassy in Afghanistan, the Indian government had stated that it would break the ISI and now it had succeeded in breaking such an institution that had been a defending line of Pakistan’s other institutions.
The News further affirmed that the decision was in part due to U.S. pressures, reporting that it was “deeply linked” to Gilani’s visit to the U.S. this week since the PM will likely “be put on the spot in some of his top-level meetings, confronted with evidence that some out-of-control parts of the Pakistani agencies, either with or without Islamabad’s nod, were working at odds with the U.S. goals and this has to be curbed by the political government if it wants generous economic and political support from Washington…”
However, in an effort to backtrack on Saturday’s announcement, the government released another press release Sunday, essentially reversing its decision to place the ISI under the Interior Division. According to the Daily Times, the government reportedly “clarified” their earlier announcement, noting that the issue over the control of the ISI was “being misinterpreted” and would continue “to operate at the prime minister’s discretion.” The news agency noted that the press release stated, “The said notification only re-emphasizes more coordination between the Ministry of Interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security.”
This apparent tug-o-war over the ISI does not reflect well on the current government. Yes, the relative autonomy of the ISI has been a long-standing issue and is problematic for a coalition attempting to prove its competence, both to its citizens and to the international community. However, this weekend’s developments served only to undermine its authority, instead highlighting the government’s internal power struggles. On Sunday, Pakistan Muslim League-Q (the previous government’s ruling party) Secretary-General Mushahid Hussain used this an opportunity to emphasize the current regime’s incompetence. According to the Daily Times,
Terming it a fundamentally flawed decision on all counts, political, administrative and national security, he said that it was ironic that the PPP-led government has no faith in its own intelligence and investigative organizations but is seeking to politicize a national institution like the ISI.
It will be interesting to see how much attention will be paid to this situation in the coming week, as Gilani meets with U.S. President Bush in Washington, D.C. and issues related to Pakistan’s administration over the FATA will likely be on the table.