Intelligence overkill?

We all know what went wrong in the weeks before, and during, the US operation to take out Osama. The bewildering array of Pakistani intelligence groups messed up: no real skills, no good information, no action. We know what went wrong a few weeks later at PNS Mehran: the spooks ignored all warnings of an impending attack, the copper(s) went for a fatal pee and the attackers jumped a 15-feet-high wall. We also know what happened to journalist Saleem Shahzad: he warned of threats to his life and ultimately turned up dead.

In short, all we know is that there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know, and a hell of a lot we’ll never know.

Pakistani legend makes our intelligence services a wonder of efficiency, daring and reliability; a model for intelligence everywhere. Nobody, supposedly, does it better. Why, then, is the story of counterterrorism in Pakistan increasingly a story of failed intelligence?

The government will tell you the agencies need better technology (which is just another way of asking for more money from you know who). Experts will say failures result from groupthink, lack of coordination between different agencies, underestimation of warning signals, bureaucratic inertia and all kinds of other complicated reasons.

Only some offer the much simpler answer to the question of why agencies are failing at the counterterrorism job: because most of the time they’re doing an entirely other job altogether. The quasi-exclusive focus on the agencies’ role outside Pakistan hides a larger reality: that they are important actors in the manipulation of domestic politics and increasingly in the business of deciding what can be said and how.

Under martial law in 1958, the intelligence agencies became instruments of consolidation for Ayub’s regime and for the first time were directly responsible for monitoring Pakistani politicians and providing their master with assessments of public opinion during the 1964 presidential elections. Under General Yahya Khan, East Pakistan politicians became the new victims. The general even set up the National Security Council to control an intelligence operation to ensure no political party won an overall majority in the 1970 general election.

Through an executive order in 1975, Bhutto created the political cell of the ISI, which he used to rig the 1977 elections. General Ziaul Haq further expanded the ISI’s powers to collect domestic intelligence on political and religious organisations, especially to monitor the Pakistan People’s Party, which had launched the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the early 1980s.

In 1997, a former chief of the Pakistan Air Force filed a Supreme Court petition challenging the legality of a “donation” by the Mehran Bank, a nationalised institution, of some approximately $6.5 million to then-COAS, General Mirza Aslam Beg, in 1990. Beg, who admitted he had put the money at the disposal of the agencies through a secret service account, had earlier declared that “it was a practice with the ISI to support candidates during the elections under the direction of the chief executive.” The money was then used by agencies for “duly authorised purposes” – in particular to fund the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, an alliance of right-wing and religious political parties, set up in 1988 by the ISI led by Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, reportedly to prevent Benazir Bhutto’s PPP from sweeping the polls. IJI beneficiaries also included Nawaz Sharif. When asked what would have happened if Benazir Bhutto had won the 1988 elections with a greater majority, Beg didn’t hesitate to tell the media: “I set up a fake competition by creating the IJI to ensure that a democratic government would be formed.”

Under Musharraf, the PML-Q was practically midwifed by the agencies with the aid of NAB. In March 2003, a dinner, reported in the press, was organised by the ISI at its headquarters for senators of the PML-Q, reportedly “to provide them orientation and get introduced to each other.”

So the argument is: If the agencies are allegedly busy rigging elections, harassing politicians and pouring resources into shadowing journalists, no wonder they don’t have the time, resources or the inclination to hunt terrorists or help thwart attacks. Makes sense? And if they aren’t involved in any of these activities, they at least have to answer for not being able to prevent them. A shrug of despair is not an adequate response.

Debates on these questions, especially within the establishment, have remained focused on technicalities. The need to clarify the philosophy, and redefine the mission, focus and priorities of intelligence – to change the culture of intelligence altogether – has been drowned in all this noise about professional skill. And the truth is: while the most expensive intelligence collection toys will tell you a thing or two about the enemy’s capabilities, figuring out intentions is something you can’t technologise away. We still need the good, old-fashioned honest spy who can remember which side he’s on in a crisis. Today, that’s what we don’t have in Pakistan.

Intelligence priorities and threats have undergone considerable changes in the last decade. There is no joy in saying this: The ISI and other agencies are incapable of coping with new pressures. If the intelligence agencies are to keep up, they have to develop new tradecrafts and techniques. This is a task which neither the ISI, nor the other intel agencies here, as constituted today, seem able perform adequately. Perhaps its time then for a new set up altogether?

After Shahzad’s killing, the ISI angrily complained that the media was deliberating trying to malign the agencies. This was the response of a dehydrated calculating machine when the situation required something quite different. A five-star performance in denial will not chart a path through the maze. But why would the agencies care when they have the ultimate benefit of the harem: power without responsibility, mistakes without consequences?

Which brings us back to the original question: What’s going on in Pakistan, apart from far too many killings and far too much fear? We don’t know and perhaps we’ll never know. And those we pay millions to tell us seem to have lost the plot.

(From The News)

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