Questions are being raised in the wake of journalist Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder about the stability of President General Pervez Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan. On one hand, several terrorist attacks and sectarian killings, despite a ban on terrorist groups and many arrests, suggest the resolve of militant Islamic groups to challenge the regime. But on the other hand, there are reports suggesting that there may be rogue elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency who were involved in Pearl’s killing, and also accusations from Kabul that rogue ISI officers are helping the Taliban and al-Qaeda regroup in eastern Afghanistan, where a fierce battle with US forces took place over the past week. If there is any element of truth in these reports, then the question arises whether Musharraf is threatened by his own intelligence service.
Undoubtedly, Musharraf has done well so far in being able to survive the risks that were involved when he joined the war on terrorism, albeit reluctantly, for reasons of his own survival and the security of his country. Unfortunately for him, Pearl’s kidnapping and killing seems to be unraveling the deadly cocktail of radical Islamic groups and intelligence operatives that Pakistan has been host to for a fairly long time. It is now well known that the ISI patronized the Taliban, but what has not been exposed adequately is how deep ISI involvement with the region’s terror networks has been, and the vested interests that the ISI may have developed in preserving these linkages.
Musharraf’s crackdown on terrorist groups and the increasing pressure to extradite Sheikh Omar—the main accused in the Pearl case—to the US, are being resisted rather smartly. These issues have a bearing on the touchy question of the hidden powers of the ISI.
The ISI originated like any other civilian intelligence agency, but due to several factors over a period of time has come to be enormously powerful within Pakistan. It has been referred to as Pakistan’s “state within a state” and an “invisible government.”
It was created in 1948 as a result of the unsatisfactory performance of the Intelligence Bureau in the first India-Pakistan war of 1947-48 over Jammu & Kashmir, as an external intelligence gathering agency. The head of the ISI is appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the Chief of the Armed Services (COAS) and it reports to the prime minister, but organizationally it is manned by serving military officials and is actually controlled by the COAS. The COAS, generally, has retained firm control over the ISI heads. Initially, the ISI had no mandate within the country but increasingly was entrusted by ruling regimes to gather political intelligence domestically.
The stupendous rise in the power of the ISI can be understood by looking at the ethos of the Pakistani military since independence. Pakistan’s torturous course of building political institutions after its separation from India brought the military to play a dominant role in nation-building. Over the years, its main concerns in the domestic arena were to suppress ethno-national movements, prevent the country from slipping into social chaos, and ensure political stability and economic modernization. The free play of democratic forces was considered counterproductive to the objectives of a stable and modern Pakistan. Provincialism and ethnic identities were regarded by the military as threats to the territorial integrity and the ideology of Pakistan that they identified with Islam and Muslim nationalism. The military therefore, through the ISI, played an important role in weakening nationalist sentiments within the country.
Both military and democratic regimes contributed to the growth in the powers of the ISI. General Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, used the ISI to collect internal political intelligence in East Pakistan, where a separatist movement was brewing. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who became the first prime minister of a truncated Pakistan in 1971, expanded its role in spying on the Baluch nationalists who launched an insurgency in the mid-’70s. But it was under General Zia ul-Haq, who usurped power by overthrowing Bhutto, and during the Afghan war in the 1980s, that the ISI underwent tremendous enhancement of its covert capabilities.
Since then it has a record of supporting and arming various extremist and radical sectarian and Islamist groups within Pakistan and in the region. After the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the ISI encouraged the formation of anti-Shi’ites, Sunni extremist organizations. When the MQM—a political party of the Muhajirs (settlers from India)—arose in the 1980s, the ISI armed its opponents, the Sindhi nationalists, and subsequently also managed to split the organization into two.
The US’s indirect involvement in the covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan since 1979 had a profound impact on the growth of the powers of the ISI by giving it a central role in the US strategy. The massive arms pipeline that was put in place to arm the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet forces was managed and supervised on the ground by the ISI. It was involved in transferring, according to one estimate, 65,000 tonnes of light weapons to the mujahideen. There were subsequently allegations that the ISI siphoned off a large number of weapons from the pipeline. Further, the ISI also set up training camps to train the mujahideen. According to Ahmed Rashid, a well-known Pakistani journalist, the ISI is believed to have trained close to 80,000 Afghan fighters. To mobilize more and more young recruits for the war in Afghanistan, the conflict was termed an Islamic war against godless communism. The ISI whipped up Islamic fanaticism among the mujahideen.
The ISI’s links to the religious-political organizations under Zia increased not only because he used religion to legitimize his rule, but also because the organizations were essential for recruiting to the ranks of the mujahideen. The ISI built up links with fundamentalist parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and its offshoots, the Tableghi Jamaat and Markaz Dawa-al Irshad. This interaction also allowed the Islamic fundamentalist parties in Pakistan to extend influence over armed forces personnel. While the indoctrination has been aimed at the lower and middle ranks, an increasing number of retired and serving generals espouse the cause of Islamic fundamentalism and support for the Taliban. These include Gen Aslam Beg (former COAS), Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul (former ISI chief), Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir (former ISI chief), Lieutenant-General Mohammed Ahmed (former ISI chief), and Lieutenant-General Mohammed Aziz, current Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCS). A coup attempt in 1995 led by an Islamist general, Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi, enhanced fears of the penetration of religious extremists into the Pakistan military intelligence establishment at the lower and middle levels.
The powers of the ISI are largely a result of its being part of the military establishment, and the agency essentially follows the agenda of the military. Since 1988, when democratic governments were ushered in after a long period of military rule, elected political leaders have tried, but not succeeded, to chip away at the powers of the ISI by bringing it into a direct clash with the COAS. Prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s efforts in this direction in 1989—to choose an ISI head without consulting army chief General Aslam Beg—were eventually to result in her dismissal in 1990. The ISI also had a role in dismissing Benazir Bhutto during her second term in 1993-96.
The ISI on one side wields enormous power inside the country, and has the capacity to unseat democratic governments, but its contribution to the rise and spread of extremist Islamic groups has been phenomenal. Though powerful and capable of subversion, the Islamic groups are too weak to challenge the regime in power, as they are dependent on the ISI for their sustenance. Since Musharraf ditched the Taliban, the rift with the radical Islamic groups has grown, and the ban placed on most of them by January 15 was the last straw. Pearl’s kidnapping and murder is a message that the extremists want to assert themselves.
Speculation that rogue ISI elements may be involved in Pearl’s case may not be completely ruled out. Investigations, so far, have not made much headway. There is something intriguing in the manner in which the whole affair has unfolded. Though US Secretary of State Colin Powel categorically ruled out the involvement of the ISI in Pearl’s case, reports in the Pakistani press suggested that the FBI was seeking some ISI officers for questioning. Notwithstanding all this public posturing, it is highly likely that Musharraf is under intense pressure from the Americans to wind down the size and structure of the ISI or at least to weed out the rogue elements. Again, reports in the Pakistani press that Musharraf may have shut down the Afghan unit of the ISI and curbed the Kashmir unit, though not publicly acknowledged by the government, may be true and a reflection of Pakistan succumbing to intense US pressure.
Even if rogue ISI elements are involved in Pearl’s case, that in itself will not be a serious challenge to Musharraf as long as he is backed by the ISI chief. He has already effected changes within the army and sidelined possible rebellion and challenge to his control of the army. He reshuffled the army on October 7, 2001, retired the former pro-Taliban ISI chief, General Mahmood Ahmed, and appointed the former Corps Commander in Peshawar, Lieutenant-General Eshanul Haq, as Director General of the ISI. There have been reports of Musharraf’s differences with Lieutenant-General Mohammed Aziz, a Taliban supporter whom he sidelined by moving him from the post of Corps Commander 4 Corps, Lahore, to the largely ceremonial post of CJCS.
Most of the above measures would have helped Musharraf to sideline the pro-Taliban forces. The military, despite the fears of Islamization, is a much more cohesive force. It is highly unlikely that it would show any signs of divisiveness, as it is more interested in protecting its corporate interests. Therefore, controlling the ISI would not pose a serious challenge to Musharraf. However, rogue elements within the ISI can side with the Islamic extremists and cause disruption, but will not be able to unseat him so easily. It is not the ISI itself that is worrying Musharraf, but the various links that the ISI has spawned over the years, about which more and more information is becoming public. Extradition of a person like Sheikh Omar could expose some more of the links and that would bring forth a different set of challenges for Musharraf. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will deport Sheikh Omar to the US.
The key dynamic, at least initially, will not be one of the external players jockeying for influence and control — but the Taliban and Kabul fighting it out. Each of these external players [China, Russia, Iran, India and Turkey] has some skin in the game and some moves up its sleeve. We've seen Turkey assert its role in recent days, and India change its tack and reportedly initiate discussions with the Taliban. Pakistan is perhaps in the strongest position, given its location and the history with the Taliban. Yet any role it plays will certainly be contested — by Kabul, by the Taliban, and by other players.