Spy agency confusion in Pakistan
Pakistan’s government says it will clarify why it reversed a move to put the most powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, under civilian control.
On Saturday night it said the ISI would be brought under the control of the Interior Ministry.
But the decision was revoked within hours, apparently following intervention from the army.
Western powers believe the ISI has rogue elements helping al-Qaeda and Taleban militants in Afghanistan.
It is also criticised by Pakistani politicians for seeking to monopolise the country’s national security policy.
The government issued a formal notification late on Saturday which said: “The Prime Minister has approved the placement of Intelligence Bureau and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under the administrative, finance and operational control of the [Interior Ministry] with immediate effect… ”
But at 0300 on Sunday morning, barely six hours later, the government’s Press Information Department issued a statement saying the government had only meant to re-emphasise “coordination between the Ministry of Interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security”.
Army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas told the media the army was “not consulted on the notification particularly” about the changes to the ISI, but that “matters for ensuring better coordination between institutions responsible for national security were discussed”.
He said it was “illogical” to place the ISI, which provides “strategic intelligence on external security threats”, under the Interior Ministry which is responsible for internal security.
The government’s backtracking has prompted plenty of comment among politicians and in the Pakistan media.
An ex-army officer and defence analyst, Ikram Sehgal, told the Dawn News TV channel that the government retracted its decision when the army “showed its teeth”.
Formally, the ISI currently reports to the prime minister. But many observers believe it is answerable to no one.
“Given the powers that Pakistan’s army has enjoyed over successive civilian governments, there is no way the ISI can be made answerable to the prime minister,” says Afrasiab Khatak, a top leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), the governing party in the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December, complained that the ISI kept her out of the loop on several key national security issues and worked at cross purposes with the country’s civilian governments.
Observers in Pakistan believe the government could have had two motives for trying to bring the ISI under civilian control.
It either wanted to appease the US at a time when the Pakistani prime minister is in Washington for talks with President Bush. Or it genuinely wanted to rein in the agency which is widely accused of helping al-Qaeda and Taleban militants.
Analyst Ikram Sehgal believes the spur for the government’s move possibly may have come from an ISI report that opposed recent negotiations in Mumbai with some Indian firms concerning the funding and exploitation of Pakistan’s Thar coal reserves – one of the largest in the world.
“Energy is a sensitive issue, and a precious national asset like Thar coal reserves cannot be opened to Indian businessmen,” he said.
But the government’s retreat on the matter is likely to embarrass Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani ahead of his meeting with Mr Bush.