#12 power
Shamil Shams

Waning Power? Pakistan’s Spy Agency and the Bin Laden Report

Pakistan’s bin Laden report caused huge embarrassment to the all-powerful ISI military spy agency. It gave the newly-elected civilian government a perfect opportunity to put it under its control. Did Prime Minister Sharif seize the opportunity?

In the past, all efforts to put Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), under control of the interior ministry were successfully blocked by the generals. In 2008, former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari ordered the ISI to be put under the control of the interior ministry. Within a few hours, the President had to withdraw his orders. Though it is not clear why, political analysts believe that the ISI – which many people say is "a state within the state" – plainly refused to accept the President's orders. An embarrassed Zardari had no choice but to retract his decision.

But the Pakistani army and the ISI are probably not as ubiquitous as they once were. A number of events in the past two years caused huge embarrassment to the military’s spy agency, including the assassination of al Qaeda’s former head and the world’s most-wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden in the northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. The report of Pakistan's Abbottabad Commission, which was set up by the former government to investigate the circumstances leading to the assassination of bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 clearly blames the ISI and other security agencies of "negligence and incompetence" in tracking down the fugitive leader. It also slams the security agencies and the military for their inability to stop the US Navy SEALs unilateral attack on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound.

Since the leakage of the report, the Pakistani army and the ISI have come under sharp criticism domestically and internationally.

Since the leakage of the report by the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera in July, the Pakistani army and the ISI have come under sharp criticism domestically and internationally.

Experts say that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who swept into power for the third time after winning the historic May 11 parliamentary elections – now has the opportunity to settle scores with the military which toppled his government in 1999 and later banished him to Saudi Arabia. But can Sharif really tame the ISI?

On July 11, Sharif visited the ISI headquarters in Islamabad. The government says it was a regular visit by the Prime Minister, and that the ISI head Zaheer-ul-Islam gave a formal briefing to Sharif on security matters. But the timing of his visit intrigued many in Pakistan. Was Sharif trying to use this opportunity to consolidate his power over the military?

A great opportunity

Frederic Grare from the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinks that Prime Minister Sharif's government should consider the leaked bin Laden report a blessing. "It accuses the Pakistani security establishment of incompetence which contributes to delegitimize the same security establishment, reinforcing, at least temporarily, the hand of the civilians in their dealings with the military," Grare told DW.

Farooq Sulehria, a researcher at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), believes the PM has a better chance to rein in the ISI and take it under his control than his predecessors. "Sharif came to power after the May 11th elections with a strong mandate. On top of it, he has big support in the central Punjab province, which is also the power base of the Pakistani military," Sulehria told DW. The expert is of the opinion that the power dynamics in Pakistan are undergoing a transformation process. "The bin Laden report has exposed the ISI like never before and the military is not in a position to derail the democratic process."

Michel Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, points out that given the beating the military takes in the report, the new government will have "some added leverage should it choose to assert its independence from the military," particularly in the areas of security and foreign policy which are traditionally the domains of the military.

"The time is ripe to finally overhaul the ISI and bring it irrevocably under the civil control."

“Still powerful enough”

However, some analysts believe say that the ISI is still powerful enough to deter any move by the civilian leadership to limit its powers. "The time is ripe to finally overhaul the ISI and bring it irrevocably under the civil control," Saleem Asmi, a Karachi-based veteran journalist, told DW. But he believes Sharif lacks the will to do so. "In my opinion, his visit to the ISI's headquarters was to boost the morale of the agency rather than pressuring it. We must not forget that Sharif's political career was nurtured by the ISI."

Ghaffar Hussain, a London-based researcher and counter-terrorism expert, has a similar view. He told DW it was too early to expect that Sharif's government would confront the army. “He [Sharif] has just come to power. Though he has a strong political mandate, I don't think he would like to overstretch himself at the moment.”

Islamabad-based civil society activist Tahira Abdullah told DW in an interview that it would not be easy to control the ISI but that civilian leaders should keep making efforts. "The civilian leadership should try to take control of the security and foreign policy affairs. At least, on matters like anti-terrorism and relations with India and Afghanistan, the civilian and military leaders should work together," Abdullah said.

The ISI-CIA ties

The ISI's relations with the US and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have also deteriorated since the bin Laden operation. The two agencies worked closely during the Afghan War against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The ISI also collaborated with the CIA in hunting down the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

The ties, however, remained difficult throughout the past decade. The US repeatedly accused the Pakistani military and the ISI of backing some factions of the Taliban, a charge Pakistan has always denied. Experts say that the US' decision to bypass the ISI and unilaterally go after bin Laden irked the Pakistani military and its intelligence service.

“The CIA needs the ISI during the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and beyond. The ISI needs the US support too because it depends on it financially.”

"It is not possible for the ISI to slavishly cooperate with the CIA as was largely the case in the 1980s," said Sulehria. But Sulehria also points out that the US and the CIA won't give up on the ISI. "The CIA needs the ISI during the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and beyond. The ISI needs the US support too because it depends on it financially."

Experts like Sulehria also think that the US administration would want to see a stronger civilian leadership in Pakistan which can take domestic and foreign policy matters in its hands and limit the role of military generals in politics. They say the regional and international situation would also favor Sharif if he chose to assert his authority. Sharif has been in power for more than three months now. So far, Sharif hasn’t done much to rein in the ISI. The question remains: Will he ever go for it?

This article was first published by Deutsche Welle.