x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistan's ISI spy agency under fire for bin Laden failures

Politicians, the media, civil-society and religious activists demand answers from the Pakistani military and its spy arm, the Inter Services Intelligence agency, over the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan.

Osama Bin Laden photographed in the mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP Photo/
Osama Bin Laden photographed in the mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP Photo/

ISLAMABAD // The ease with which the US carried out the operation to kill Osama bin Laden has exploded the long-cultivated perception of the infallibility of Pakistan's military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Across Pakistan on Friday and Saturday, politicians, the media, civil-society and religious activists demanded accountability of the military and its spy arms.

Politicians called for an independent parliamentary inquiry that would, for the first time ever, require the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and ISI boss Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to explain themselves to parliament.

The calls for resignations have extended to the president, Asif Ali Zardari, and Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, but that is merely a routine sideshow in Pakistan's rhetorical polity.

The focal point of the criticism has been the military, for decades a dominant force within the country's governing powers.

The military has ruled Pakistan directly for about half its 63-year existence, most recently under Pervez Musharraf, who was forced out by a newly elected democratic parliament in 2008 after nine years in power.

The writ of him and earlier military dictators was, often brutally, enforced by the ISI, an enormous institution that manipulates Pakistan's politics and policies with near impunity.

The political parties it deposed in various coups are turning the bin Laden killing into a debate about who rules Pakistan.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party is leading the charge. Its leader, Nisar Ali Khan, has questioned why Pakistan's official response to the covert US mission came from the army headquarters, rather than the ministry of foreign affairs.

Since the US military operation, the civilian government has been remarkably quiet, and that speaks proverbial volumes.

Mr Zardari, since succeeding Mr Musharraf in 2008, has been pilloried by a covert ISI propaganda campaign designed to focus public attention on old allegations of corruption and make him a public hate figure.

Among the labels stuck to the president is that of "American stooge".

Mr Zardari, a cunning and patient politician, is now enjoying the benefits of the military's public reassertion in 2009 of total control over foreign and defence policy.

He has tasked a prominent parliamentary backbencher, Syeda Abida Hussain, a former ambassador to the US, with reminding Pakistanis of what the president and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been saying for years about the military and its relationships with terrorists.

Ms Hussain said the US decision not to inform Pakistan about the operation against the al Qa'eda chief reflected a strategic competition in which the Pakistani military's "assets" in Afghanistan were the US military's terrorist targets.

However, it is unlikely that Pakistan's civilian government would seek a "who-is-boss" public confrontation with the military. It doesn't need to.

Pakistan's lawyer's movement and influential media personalities have openly expressed feelings of betrayal.

They have begun to speculate whether the ISI chief would step down - another first.

And the religious right wing, for decades, key partners in the military's covert activities, is absolutely livid - not about the killing of bin Laden, but at the Pakistani military's impotent response.