The ISI flip-flop: Anatomy of Defective Decision-Making

Prior to the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gaillani’s departure for the US, a detailed meeting on Pakistan-US relations covering the security matters was at the Prime Minister’s House. The key professional security men including the Army Chief and the DG ISI were present. The PPP’s co-Chairperson Asif Zardari, the man now with the last word on most key government decisions, also participated. His political appointee the National Security Advisor, a retired general, security analyst well-known to the Bush team and to President Parvez Musharraf tipped and Gaillani’s fellow traveler to the US, was also present. For PPP leader Zardari, the army chief and the ISI chief are both past Musharraf emissaries to Benazir Bhutto and now who Zardari in his capacity as the country’s final authority on national matters, engages with. There was a general consensus among the participants on how the Prime Minister and his team would articulate in Washington the well-known Pakistani concerns and also the Pakistani response to equally well-known US concerns. For a more effective response to the acute internal security crisis, the participants agreed on the need for better coordination among various intelligence agencies. The growing external critique of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies especially of the ISI, by sections of the Indian, the Afghan and the US government may also have been discussed. There was no discussion at all on altering the reporting line of the ISI.

Following the meeting Gaillani departed for the US and Pakistan’s Press Information Department (PID) issued a circular announcing that through amendment in the Rules of Business the Prime Minister’s decision that the ISI and IB would, with immediate effect, be placed under the control of the Interior Ministry. This decision like all others was undoubtedly led by the PPP co-Chairperson with input from other undisclosed sources. By all accounts the matter was not discussed in any Cabinet meeting, it was not put before the parliament or any parliamentary or Senate Committee and none of the coalition partners were consulted. Similarly the justification to alter the reporting line was not discussed with the Ministry of Defense or the three services chiefs or the Chairman Joints Chief of Staff Committee who are the heads of institutions currently directly involved in the operations and the output of the ISI. The Advisor on Interior , to whose ministry the IB already reports, must have had an input in the decision.

While the Constitutionally-mandated Executive authority does allow the Prime Minister to amend the Rules of Business, his move raised endless questions regarding what his decision was meant to achieve. The IB and ISI were already reporting to the Prime Minister and what would demoting the ISI’s reporting line from the elected Prime Minister and the country’s Chief Executive to a ministry achieve?

Also in violation of a basic rule of hierarchy and reporting lines that requires individuals and institutions with narrower mandates to report to authority with a broader mandate, the PID circular announced that ISI would report to the Interior Ministry which Constitutionally has a narrower mandate than that of the ISI. The ISI’s mandate is to provide strategic intelligence, including external threat perceptions and covert operations, to the Prime Minister, the three Armed Forces and to the Joint Service Headquarters. ISI’s Internal security wing, however, does cover internal security matters including providing security clearance for the armed forces personnel, work on counter-intelligence to undermining intelligence assets of the adversarial countries deployed within Pakistan. There is also the extremely notorious section of the internal security wing which has actively contributed to the mutilation of Pakistan’s political evolution. Hence, the ISI’s mandate is far broader than that of the institution the PID notification was instructing it to report to.

There were other issues regarding the institutional and operational impact of this decision especially on the ISI. ISI currently functions with a 65 army and 35 civilian ratio of staff. Of the 65% almost 90% are serving officers while 10% are contractual retired military men. The 35 % are hired by the ISI’s own internal hiring team which includes the Additional Secretary of the Defense Ministry. The ISI functions under multiple authorities. Operationally, it is under the PM, officers are seconded by the army, the final promoting authority for the civilian employees on the ISI recommendation is secretary of Defense Ministry while the army chief headed board recommends promotion of the eight major generals that head the eight ISI wing and ISI ‘s budget allocation technically comes from the Ministry of Defense. With such a complex institutional arrangement placing the agency under the Interior Ministry was quite simplistic.

Constitutionally and according to the Rule of Business, the ISI operations are sensitive and, therefore, secretive and require the clearance of the Prime Minister and to some extent of the army chief. Switching its command to the Minister of Interior would undermine ISI’s working. Almost all national intelligence agencies report to the country’s Chief Executive. He must get input from all intelligence agencies without being vetted by other ministries, to then enable him with input from other Constitutionally relevant individuals, to arrive at appropriate decisions.

How and why the July 26 decision then was made? Perhaps the defense of decision by the PPP co-Chairperson is a revealing one. The press quoted him as saying that the decision was made to deflect international pressure on the ISI and enable the elected government to effectively defend the ISI. Indeed against the back drop of the deadly attack in Kabul on the Indian embassy, the rising attacks inside Afghanistan on the ISAF forces, the firing along the LOC and increase attacks inside India, the increasingly harsh criticism of the ISI by the US, Indian and Afghan trio is unceasing. Conversely there is Pakistan’s official claim that India and Afghanistan are supporting the attackers conducting increasingly deadly attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in the tribal areas, NWFP and in Baluchistan.

So, should external criticism of ISI warrant a secretively-taken, suddenly sprung and PID- notified decision to change its chain of command? Certainly, not. Such a haphazard move that was reversed within 12 hours makes mockery of the functioning of Pakistani State institutions as much of those who make such decisions.

The decision was reversed after the Prime Minister had flown off but while the PPP co-chairperson was still in Pakistan. On advice from relevant individuals Zardari reversed the decision. Subsequently a private channel Business Plus quoted him saying that the earlier notification "had made it clear that the role of the Ministry of Interior would be of an assistant in the affairs looked after by the ISI, adding that the second notification had clarified all ambiguities in this regard." Reportedly he also complained that the some elements were trying to create a misunderstanding between the government, army and intelligence agencies which enjoyed good relations.

However, beyond this amateurish, thoughtless flip-flop decision-making there is nothing sacrosanct about any State institution and when required steps must taken to improve the accountable and effective functioning of all institutions. ISI as an institution, in addition to existing accountability mechanisms, has long needed stringent oversight by bipartisan elected authority to make its operations more accountable to elected authority. IB while under the exclusive control of the elected Prime Minister has also functioned as a personal tool to fight political battles against the political opposition. If conducted within the Constitutional parameters using institutional avenues, such oversight would streamline the workings of the ISI and the IB. As for external criticism the governments managing CIA, MOSSAD, MI5 and RAW etc seldom seek to external popularity for their intelligence agencies!

The critique of the elected government’s move, notwithstanding, there are specific issues regarding the oversight, management of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agencies that need to be addressed. The ISI of the post-eighties especially needs to be streamlined. The CIA-ISI nexus through the anti-Soviet Afghan war under an army dictator’s leadership catapulted ISI into it into an intelligence supremo with its unaccountable spread of activities. Its patrons of the past are its harsh critics today and internally its political users of yesterday want it cut down to size.

As an institution that must promote and protect Pakistan’s interests abroad it must remain a secret and dreaded organization but one wholly accountable to an elected and responsible body of people. Four specific steps must be taken to streamline ISI’s workings:

One, for more regular reporting to the Prime Minister a regularized system of ISI and IB reporting to the Prime Minister must be evolved. At present, the initiative to report on the strategic environment and threat perceptions etc, to the elected PM, based on media reports has mostly been taken by the agencies. The elected authorities appear more proactive on issuing instructions to agencies on the domestic political front.

Two, for greater control of the workings of the ISI and other intelligence agencies, these should be put under the parliamentary review and oversight through in-camera briefings to the Defense committees of National Assembly and Senate. The creation of Intelligence Subcommittees of these two Defense Committees is long overdue. This would enable parliamentarians with security clearance to receive briefings on sensitive issues.

Three, greater coordination among intelligence agencies and the key policy makers are required. Regular meetings of the Defense Committee of the Cabinet needs to be held, essentially, a constitutionally mandated body needs to be reactivated by the elected government.

Four, the elected government must arrive at a consensus to disband the notorious political department of the ISI’s internal security wing. For decades this department has mutilated the political evolution of Pakistan.

Clearly, mature management of State affairs requires persons in decision-making positions to be politically credible, knowledgeable and competent. If a State and society needs to be successfully steered towards stability, progress and internal unity, there is no room for immature, reactive, secretive and cliquish decision-making. Far less in Pakistan, which by virtue of the multiple internal crisis and the major security crisis that surround it, still remains in the eye of the storm.