Revamped ISI to focus on external security


LAHORE: The recent disbandment of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence’s notorious political cell shows Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s keen resolve to depoliticise the 600,000-strong Army and to confine to its legitimate role the infamous Agency which has often been accused of manipulating politics and the results of the successive general elections.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has confirmed media reports on Sunday that the political wing of the ISI has finally been disbanded as the Agency wants to focus on counterterrorism activities. The government circles say the process of ISI’s depoliticisation was actually set in motion with the September 29 premature removal of Lt-Gen Nadeem Taj, a close associate of Pervez Musharraf, as the Agency chief and the subsequent appointment of Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha in his place. In addition to General Taj’s removal, two major-generals, heading the internal and external wings of the ISI, were denied promotion and superseded. Maj-Gen Nusrat Nadeem, the head of the ISI’s internal wing and Maj-Gen Asif Akhtar, the head of the external wing, were superseded. All these changes were made almost two months after a July 26, 2008 Cabinet Division notification, announcing that the ISI directorate had been taken out of the prime minister’s establishment and placed under the interior ministry. However, the government decision was rescinded the very next day. It now seems that the government has finally succeeded in its efforts to tame the ISI and curtail its involvement in politics.

Since assuming the command of the Army from Musharraf in December 2007, General Kayani has kept a relatively low profile and taken a number of measures to de-politicize the Army. The first order he had issued to his officers in January 2008 hardly a couple of weeks after assuming his new assignment was against holding meetings with politicians, saying they had no role to play in politics and should focus on their professional responsibilities – safeguarding the geographical frontiers of Pakistan. The second directive Kayani had issued in February was to withdraw 3,000 army officers, posted in civilian departments on deputation including Major Generals, Brigadiers, Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels and Captains.

But strangely enough, both these directives were not applicable to the ISI which has often been described as a state within the state by its critics and which has remained an institution shrouded in mystery for most Pakistanis. Speaking on the issue in February 2008, Major General Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistan Army, had maintained that “the recent directive by the Army Chief was not meant for the ISI since it has its own political wing and can’t be depoliticized as such. Pakistan army had no plans to withdraw its officers working in the ISI, contrary to the policy it had adopted for civilian departments. Who will work there if we call them back from the ISI?” he asked. The Army spokesman was of the view that the Army’s presence in the ISI was required to keep it working. Yet, official government sources now claim that with the disbanding of the political cell of the elite intelligence agency, all ISI officers posted in civilian departments would be withdrawn.

Although, the ISI has been greatly involved in the politics since the 1970s, it was the internal (political) wing of the Agency that was generally responsible for dealing with the political affairs – including manipulation of the general elections which is a known fact now. Not long ago, a former head of the ISI’s political cell Major General Ehtesham Zameer Jafferi had confessed to having manipulated the 2002 general elections at the behest of Musharraf. He admitted in an interview that he was ordered by Musharraf to help the ’king’s party’ the Pakistan Muslim League – (PML-Q) to come to power in 2002. The former No. 2 of the ISI then called for the closure of the political cell, confessing that it was part of the problem due to its repeated involvement in forging unnatural political alliances, contrary to public wishes.

However, the 2002 elections were not the only ones to have been manipulated by the ISI. The Agency had earlier been accused of manoeuvring the 1990 election results in favour of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. A case in this regard is already pending with the Supreme Court of Pakistan for almost ten years now following the November 1997 unceremonious exit of former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Syed Sajjad Ali Shah. The case exposed the abuse of public funds by the military and intelligence agencies in order to manipulate political change in the country. The ISI prevailed upon politicians from different parties to trade their loyalties for a price, primarily to destabilise a hostile PPP government and then put in place a friendly regime. The scandal comprises the entire gamut of financial crimes like fake loans, kickbacks, illegal transactions and bribes and involves several high profile names of politicians and a serving Army chief.

The case actually originated on June 16, 1996 from a letter by Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan to then Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, asking him to take suitable action on then Interior Minister Major Gener (retd) Naseerullah Khan Babar’s statement in the National Assembly. Babar said on the floor of the house: “The ISI collected some Rs140 million from Habib Bank Ltd and distributed among a number of politicians prior to the 1990 elections.” The letter was subsequently converted into a constitutional petition by the Chief Justice. According to the petitioner, he had sent the first letter with the sole purpose of exposing the role of ISI in manoeuvring the election results and supporting its favourite politicians to fulfil political ends of the mighty military establishment. “You never know how many elections have been rigged and manoeuvred by the ISI in the past,” Asghar Khan had stated in his letter to the Chief Justice. Those made respondents in the case were Mirza Aslam Beg, former Chief of Army Staff, retired Lt General Asad Durrani, ex-Director-General of Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, and Mr Younis Habib, ex-chief of ex-Mehran Bank Ltd, then confined in Central Jail, Karachi.

In his written reply submitted with the Supreme Court, General Aslam Beg had conceded that it had been a routine for the ISI to support the favourite candidates in elections under directives of the successive chief executives. He had stated in his reply: “The receipt of Rs140 million by the ISI from Younas Habib in 1990 was under the directions of the chief executive. The ISI director-general also informed me that funds so received were properly handled and the accounts were maintained. I had also briefed the then President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan on the matter”. The election was subsequently won by the IJI led by Sharif, who had allegedly received Rs3.5 million from the ISI for his election campaign. Nawaz, however, denies receiving any money from the ISI.

The ISI’s overwhelming involvement in national politics has certainly weakened the mainstream political parties, given a boost to horse-trading and arrested the growth of the political culture in the country. However, the disbandment of the ISI’s political cell under the democratically elected government is expected to allow the elite intelligence agency to perform its actual job of combating external security threats with a measure of professional competence.

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