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Home > India > News > Columnists > Sushant Sareen

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ISI: Rogue, responsible, or both?

August 01, 2008

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When National Security Advisor K R Narayanan blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul and called for the destruction of ISI, many people thought it was a typical knee-jerk reaction by an Indian official. But apparently the Indians had evidence that pointed to ISI's complicity, if not direct involvement, in the Kabul bombing.

The Pakistani weekly, Friday Times, has revealed that the United States Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, confronted the Pakistani prime minister with evidence of involvement of what he called 'rogue elements not in your control' in the bombing of the Indian embassy. Blaming 'rogue elements', however, is a convenient face-saving device which is often offered to Pakistani interlocutors to either not embarrass them beyond a point, or else to leave them some wriggle room in the hope that they might exercise more stringent control over their officials and operatives in the future.

After the purported U-turns made by General Pervez Musharraf [Images] on Afghanistan and Kashmir, there has been a lot of talk about ISI being a state within a state and that hardline officials in the ISI are carrying out their own private jihads against the official policy. In a conversation last October with the author, former ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani debunked theories about the ISI being a law unto itself, that it is accountable to no one or that there were rogue elements within the organisation with the ability to hijack or subvert it in pursuit of their own ideological predilections.

India's Baloch dream

Gen Durrani argued that no military commander will ever get hundreds of his troops killed and allow a situation to develop where large parts of the country go out of control of the State. He said while there may be individuals in the organisation who harbour sympathy for and share the ideology of the militants, it is impossible for them to go against the policy framework adopted by the army high command, especially since the ISI is staffed by armed forces officers who serve in ISI on deputation and revert to their parent organisations after their term of duty is over. At best some individuals can pass on some information or look the other way in certain situations.

Of course, if Gen Durrani's arguments are accepted, then it means that whatever is happening is happening with the sanction, permission and knowledge of the top brass of the Pakistan army [Images] and not because of 'rogue elements'. On the face of it, such a conclusion would appear to be bizarre because it implies that while one arm of the Pakistan army is fighting or seen to be fighting (and losing) against the Islamists, another arm of the same army is in cahoots with the Islamists.

But the nature of covert warfare is such that it is not odd for two organs of a State to work at cross-purposes. For instance, during the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka [Images], there were a spate of reports that India's external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing and the Indian Army [Images] were working at cross-purposes. There are also instances of the Central Intelligence Agency indulging in activities that conflict with the policy of the US State Department or Pentagon. The difference is that while both RAW and CIA work under close civilian oversight, the same is not true of the ISI.

Therefore, if the ISI is continuing to patronise the Islamists then it would come as no surprise. What is more, intelligence agencies and their clients often have this unwritten understanding that they will selectively cooperate and combat each other at the same time. In ISI's case, this factor has helped to keep a line of communication open with the Islamists. Equally important, having cultivated the Islamists for over three decades and used them in dirty wars all over the region, it is quite natural for the ISI to not want to burn all their bridges with the most potent instrument in its arsenal.

Pak army and the jihadi's second coming

Unlike other intelligence agencies who don't bat an eyelid before junking an asset when policy changes, the ISI has a record of staying loyal to their assets. A prime example is that of the international criminal and terrorist Dawood Ibrahim [Images], who continues to enjoy ISI's patronage in spite of the immense international pressure that has been put on Pakistan to hand him over.

As a result, the ISI continues to retain a degree of influence and leverage over the Islamists which can be used if required for an operation in which the interests of both sides match. The bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul is perhaps an instance where the interests of the Pakistani intelligence establishment and of the Taliban and Al Qaeda [Images] coincided.

Pakistan has been watching anxiously India's growing presence in Afghanistan and has unleashed an unsubstantiated but sustained propaganda campaign against the Indian missions in that country. On their part, the Taliban and Al Qaeda would like to do everything possible to destabilise Afghanistan and stymie all developmental projects that could win support for beleaguered Afghan government.

It is entirely possible that the top political leadership of Pakistan was completely out of the loop on the Kabul bombing operation, or even in the recent serial blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad [Images]. Generally, politicians and diplomats prefer not to know the nitty-gritty of actual operations by intelligence agencies. This allows them to maintain an effective fa´┐Żade of plausible deniability in their interactions with their interlocutors. The actual planning and execution is done by case officers and operatives and given the dynamic and fluid situations in the field these guys enjoy substantial autonomy at the operational level.

This is where rogue operatives and officials can run amok especially if they have got reverse indoctrinated, as is believed to have happened in the case of a large number of officers of the Pakistani armed forces. One only needs to watch a TV interview of Col Imam, a former ISI official actively involved in Afghanistan operations, to understand the deep inroads made by the Islamists in ranks of the Pakistani state structure.

In a conversation with the author, former ISI chief Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi revealed that he had eased out a large number of senior officials from the ISI because they were engaged in their own private wars which had put the security of Pakistan in jeopardy. Gen Qazi's predecessor, Javed Nasir, was a jihadi general, and his strategy of exporting jihad worldwide in the early 1990s led to the US threatening to label Pakistan as a State sponsoring terrorism. Perhaps Lt Gen Javed Nasir and other jihadist officers became the fall guys for a policy that was forged by the political and military leadership of that time. But if this was not the case then the obvious conclusion is that private jihads by ISI operatives are very much in the realm of possibility.

Although the presence of rogues is something that every intelligence organisation in the world has to cope with, this phenomenon can be controlled with strong oversight of operations, and monitoring and accountability of operatives and officials. But if this is not there and there is general slackening of discipline, then things can go out of control very easily.

In the case of Pakistan what has complicated matters is the proclivity of the Pakistani State to keep the jihad option alive for achievement of foreign and even domestic political objectives. This has created a situation where it is no longer possible to distinguish the rogue from the regular as far as the operations of the ISI or the policy of the Pakistani State is concerned.


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