Opinion and Editorial

ISI flip-flop: Anatomy of defective decision-making

Nasim Zehra (Vantage Point)
Filed on August 2, 2008

Prior to the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's departure to the US, a detailed meeting on Pakistan-US relations covering the security matters was held at the Prime Minister's House. For a more effective response to the acute internal security crisis and to external pressures, the participants agreed on the need for better coordination among various intelligence agencies.

But there was no discussion at all on altering the reporting line of the ISI.

Shortly after the meeting the government decided that the ISI and IB would, with immediate effect, be placed under the control of the Interior Ministry.

The matter was not discussed in any Cabinet meeting, it was not put before the Parliament or any Parliamentary or Senate Committee and none of the coalition partners were consulted. Similarly, the justification to alter the reporting line was not discussed with the Ministry of Defence or the three services chiefs or the Chairman Joints Chief of Staff Committee who are directly involved in the operations and the output of the ISI.

Also in violation of a basic rule of hierarchy and reporting lines that requires individuals and institutions with narrower mandates to report to authority with a broader mandate, the PID circular announced that ISI would report to the Interior Ministry which constitutionally has a narrower mandate than that of the ISI. The ISI's mandate is to provide strategic intelligence, including external threat perceptions and covert operations, to the Prime Minister, the three Armed Forces and to the Joint Services Headquarters. It is also engaged in counter-intelligence to undermine intelligence assets of the adversary countries deployed within Pakistan. A section deals with Pakistani politics too. Hence, the ISI's mandate is far broader than that of the institution the PID notification was instructing it to report to.

The ISI also has a complex inter-institutional web it functions through including the Prime Minister's secretariat, the Defence Ministry, the three Armed Forces, the GHQ and the Foreign Office. ISI currently functions with a 65 army and 35 civilian ratio of staff with almost 90 per cent of the 65 per cent are serving officers. With such a complex institutional arrangement placing the agency under the Interior Ministry was quite simplistic.

Then how and why the July 26 decision was made? Perhaps the defence of decision by the PPP co-chairperson is a revealing one.

The Press quoted him as saying that the decision was made to deflect international pressure on the ISI and enable the elected government to effectively defend the ISI. Indeed against the backdrop of the deadly attack in Kabul on the Indian embassy, the rising attacks inside Afghanistan on the ISAF forces, the firing along the LoC and increase in attacks inside India, the increasingly harsh criticism of the ISI by the US, Indian and Afghan trio is unceasing.

As for external criticism the governments managing CIA, Mossad, MI5 and Raw seldom seek external popularity for their intelligence agencies! On advice from relevant individuals, Zardari did reverse the decision. Subsequently, a private channel quoted him saying that the earlier notification "had made it clear that the role of the Ministry of Interior would be of an assistance in the affairs looked after by the ISI, adding that the second notification had clarified all ambiguities in this regard."

The critique of the elected government's shoddy decision-making notwithstanding, there are specific issues regarding the management of the ISI that need to be addressed. The ISI of the post-80's especially needs to be streamlined. The CIA-ISI nexus through the anti-Soviet Afghan war under an army dictator's leadership that catapulted ISI into an intelligence supremo with its unaccountable spread of activities. Its foreign patrons of the past are its harshest critics, and internally its political masters of yesterday want it cut down to size. As an institution that must promote and protect Pakistan's interests abroad, ISI abroad must remain a secret and feared organisation, but at home it should be accountable to an elected and responsible body of people.

There must be four-fold strategy to streamline ISI's workings. One, for more regular reporting to the Prime Minister, a regularised system of ISI and IB reporting to the Prime Minister must be evolved. At present, the initiative to report on the strategic environment and threat perceptions to the elected PM, based on media reports, has mostly been taken by the agencies.

The elected authorities appear more proactive on issuing instructions to agencies on the domestic political front. Two, for greater control of the workings of the ISI and other intelligence agencies, these should be put under the parliamentary review and oversight through in-camera briefings to the Defence Committees of National Assembly and Senate.

The creation of Intelligence Subcommittees of these two Defence Committees is long overdue. This would enable parliamentarians with security clearance to receive briefings on sensitive issues. Three, greater coordination among intelligence agencies and the key policy makers are required.

Four, the elected government must arrive at a consensus to disband the notorious political department of the ISI's internal security wing.

For decades this department, through manipulation, has countered genuine political evolution of Pakistan.

Nasim Zehra is an Islamabad -based national security strategist

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