Whatever else the ISI may be able to do, with its fearful capacity to pull off clandestine projects, it does not seem to have the power to perk up Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s performance as a travelling salesman for Pakistan. In fact, its real or perceived shenanigans in forbidden territories did painfully add to Gilani’s discomfiture during his engagements in Washington DC. And now he is in Colombo, carrying his jet lag and also the lingering shadow of the ISI.
Indeed, Gilani’s arrival in Colombo to attend SARRC summit on Friday was greeted with an Indian statement that its relations with Pakistan had reached their lowest point in four years, with an obvious reference to tensions over a terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and incidents on the Line of Control in Kashmir.
We know that a formal visit to America by a new Pakistani leader is designed as a foreign policy extravaganza. It is very much like a theatrical production in which the stage, the props, the lighting and the background music are carefully orchestrated to glorify the main character. But here was a lead player who did not have very impressive lines to speak. Did the ISI, with its past experience of destabilising governments of its own country, write the script?
Be that as it may, the invisible presence of the ISI was the highlight of the Gilani visit. As for the prime minister’s own tangible presence, its impact was visibly diluted by his less than satisfactory performance. Some embarrassing details of his encounter with the Council of Foreign Relations, with specific respect to his answers to questions, have been published by this newspaper. Yes, he did receive some grace marks for maintaining a pleasant demeanour.
At one point in that question-answer session, he said: “This is my ninth appointment. And I still have one more”. To this, CFR President Richard Hass responded, perhaps with tongue in cheek: “Well, in that case, you need to save your energy, sir, and pace yourself. It’s going to be hard to sustain this rate then for too many more years”. A question that can now be put to the Foreign Office is: why was the prime minister, with his lack of expertise in this domain, burdened with this pace and with such a format?
It is also unfortunate that the prime minister’s visit began and ended with reports that alleged that the ISI had a key role in the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. On August 1, The New York Times reported that “American intelligence agencies have concluded that members of Pakistan’s powerful spy service helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan”.
Earlier, the same newspaper had reported that a top CIA official had travelled to Pakistan to confront senior Pakistani officials with information about support provided by members of the ISI to militant groups. In Friday’s report the NYT said that “India and Afghanistan share close political, cultural and economic ties, and India maintains an active intelligence network in Afghanistan, all of which has drawn suspicion from Pakistani officials”.
The report also had this para: “When asked Thursday about whether the ISI and Pakistani military remained loyal to the country’s civilian government, Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sidestepped the question. ‘That’s probably something the government of Pakistan ought to speak to,’ Admiral Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon.”
Pakistan, according to an AFP dispatch from Islamabad, has “angrily rejected” this report. However, the news agency said that the NYTimes report comes amid growing signs of a rift between Washington and the ISI that could affect efforts to tackle Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Incidentally, Gilani’s US visit was launched under the ominous shadow of the ISI – and this had nothing to do with what the ISI has been doing. There was this sudden and surprising decision to put the ISI under the complete control of the Interior Ministry, headed by Rehman Malik. The timing of this notification was somewhat intriguing. It was issued when Gilani was leaving for London, en route to Washington. So, it took some hours before a reversal or a clarification was issued in the small hours.
This episode, with some hints about how covert operations are conducted, raises a number of questions about the present government’s relationship with the ISI and the military establishment. More confusion emanates, for instance, from the fact that the Cabinet Division has not formally withdrawn its original order of transferring the ISI’s control from the Defence Ministry to the Interior Ministry. A report by Ansar Abbasi in this newspaper on Saturday had this headline: “Is ISI still under Rehman Malik?”
Meanwhile, fighting in the naturally serene Swat Valley between security forces and militants has continued and the death toll had risen to 73 on Friday. This is only one facet of the threat of religious extremism that our country must confront at a time when a new government that represents the vindication of liberal and democratic elements is struggling to find its feet.
To be sure, the delay in the resolution of the judicial crisis has seriously undermined the credibility of the PPP-led government. And it would have helped if the prime minister could deliver a great address to the nation and respond to difficult questions in Washington with intellectual agility and finesse. Still, the problem of dealing with the rising tide of the Taliban is of the highest priority and the ISI should be expected to play a major role in this struggle for the soul of this nation.
This thought becomes relevant with the advent of August. The countdown to August 14 –
‘ulti ginti’, if you can recall that promise to restore judges within a specific time frame – has begun. This is the season to unfurl the national flag and celebrate the gift of freedom. At the same time, the occasion calls for a reflection of what we have made of this freedom.
What we must immediately face up to is the rise of extremism and militancy not just in the tribal areas but across the country. This would also call for a review of the role that the ISI has played in defending our national security. The irony here is that the forces of militancy have gained strength during the same period in which we were supposedly fighting the menace. What was initially defined as America’s war on terror has now become our own war for survival. But there is still great confusion in the minds of our rulers about how to deal with religious extremism, with its breeding ground in the tribal areas. Does this confusion also extend to what the ISI is supposed to be doing?