x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Pakistan ISI no longer off limits

Pakistan's foreign minister says the feared domestic wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had been disbanded..

It was with the nonchalance of a co-conspirator that Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, on Sunday made the most significant political disclosure in more than three decades: the feared domestic wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's premier agency, had been disbanded, or so he said. His selection of Multan airport as the venue was arguably symbolic - it has become a weekend hive of democratic activity since the mantle of prime minister was thrust upon the unassuming hometown hero, Yousaf Raza Gilani. He got the job that Mr Qureshi, also a Multan native, had unsuccessfully campaigned for.

The message, it seemed on Sunday, was that the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, the slain former prime minister, had finally gotten rid of the nemesis that had strewn mines in its path to power since 1977, and booby-trapped the seat of government on the two occasions, in 1988 and 1993, when it won elections. In a letter released after her December assassination in Rawalpindi, Bhutto had fingered from the grave a nexus of hardline ISI operatives and retired spymasters closely affiliated with the 1980s dictator Gen Zia ul Haq as the plotters of her murder.

The enmity between the purported ISI nexus and the Bhutto dynasty certainly runs deep. Benazir publicly blamed them for the "judicial murder" in 1979 of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had been overthrown two years earlier by Gen Haq; and the subsequent deaths in dubious circumstances of her brothers Shah Nawaz and Murtaza - the latter was killed during Benazir's second term in office - gave rise to the nastiest of smear campaigns.

It was for all of the above that the PPP, now headed by Bhutto's widower, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, has sought to rein in the domestic wing of the ISI since winning general elections in February. Sensing a window of opportunity following loud US assertions of ISI duplicity in Afghanistan, the government's first explicit move came in July. The prime minister, to whom the ISI is constitutionally obliged to report, issued a late-night directive placing the agency under the ministry of interior, controlled by a Zardari confidant, Rehman Malik.

The directive was withdrawn just hours later at 3am, under pressure from army general headquarters, but the government's intention had been made clear. Armed with a fresh electoral mandate and having favourable winds blowing from the West, it drew first blood while the new chief of staff, Gen Pervez Kayani, was in the process of establishing himself as boss at GHQ. Indeed, the government later asserted the directive had not been rescinded, merely "held in abeyance until further deliberations".

Thus, the foreign minister's disclosure four days ago seemed to signal that a compromise solution had been reached, according to which the government had ceded ISI back to GHQ as long as it stuck to counter-intelligence operations, the purpose for which it had been created - ironically - by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. On the surface, it was a major triumph for the PPP and democracy in Pakistan. In fact, it was too good to be true - quite literally. Mr Qureshi's disclosure, it has since emerged, was the confirmation of a local press report based on a backgrounder briefing given the previous day by Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI, to journalists at the National Defence University in Islamabad.

Newsmen who had attended the "non-attributable" briefing privately confirm that the general had said the ISI's domestic "political" wing had been rendered inactive - they quote him as saying the assigned officers were "twiddling their thumbs" - but had not used, or alluded to, the term "disbandment" at any stage. Instead, he said assigned officers were still nominally serving in the political wing and had not been reassigned to their service wings.

With the story kicked further into the public domain by the foreign minister, the inevitable corrective reaction story was published on the website of a leading international news organisation. Quoting unnamed ISI sources, the report discredited the foreign minister, but conveniently failed to mention that its information had been sourced before Mr Qureshi's attempt to take credit for a non-event.

Still, the fact that the domestic wing of ISI has become a ball in the court of public opinion is a marked departure from the agency's pervasive role under the rule of Pervez Musharraf, himself a former general. The wing was instrumental in coercing prominent members of the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, a two-term prime minister deposed in 1999 by Mr Musharraf, into forming a pro-military faction of the party before elections in 2002. Similarly, it was able to break away a sizeable number of PPP members of parliament after the elections, ensuring the formation and longevity of a pro-Musharraf civilian government.

However, the vast majority of workshop participants - many of whom are known for fierce editorial independence - have been happy to follow editorial directives not to pursue the story, and for good reason. The ISI is known to have a low tolerance threshold for public ridicule, and has not in the past been averse to conveying its displeasure with varying degrees of diplomacy. thussain@thenational.ae