US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter spoke with BBC Urdu on Tuesday about current issues in US-Pakistan relations.
That’s the alarming headline of a blog post by Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest. The impetus for Mead’s question is the recent allegation that links exist between Pakistan’s government and the Haqqani network of militants in North Waziristan that is believed to be responsible for attacks on American soliders in Afghanistan. But Mead’s concerns are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Pakistan’s government operates, and his conclusion, founded in this misunderstanding, recommends a self-defeating policy for anyone that wants to promote democracy and justice in Pakistan.
US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter said over the weekend that “There is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government.” But we must take care when discussing “the Pakistani government” not to fall into the trap of mirror-imaging, assuming the Pakistani “government” operates in the same cohesive manner that the US government does.
Ambassador Munter’s statements alleging official support for the Haqqani network refer to evidence against the ISI – not the civilian leadership.
[Admiral] Mullen believes that “elements” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI, “directly support” the Haqqani network, Kirby said.
The Haqqani network is aligned with the Taliban and al Qaeda and is considered one the most significant threats to stability in Afghanistan. U.S. officials believe Haqqani operatives are moving unfettered across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and are responsible for several recent high-profile attacks in Kabul, including this week’s assault.
In late April, Mullen said on Pakistan’s Geo TV that the ISI has a “long-standing relationship” with the Haqqani network.
Confusion arises because Americans tend to think of intelligence agencies as working at the behest and under the oversight of their respective governments, as if all nations operate in a post-Church Committee environment. But the relationship between Pakistan’s civilian government and its ISI is quite different. In fact, in many ways the ISI operates not just independently of civilian oversight, but often in opposition to it.
The most recent example of the ISI operating outside the oversight of the civilian government could be seen on the pages of the Wall Street Journal this past 9/11. A half-page ad asked, “Which country can do more for your peace?” and included statistics about the losses Pakistan has suffered in the war on terrorism. While the bottom of the ad said, “Government of Pakistan,” the Journal’s South Asia reporter, Tom Wright, found that the ad was not approved through the regular government channels.
Pakistani media blog Cafe Pyala called their own sources and found evidence that the ad was a politically tone-deaf attempt by the ISI to influence American opinion.
Well, our sources inform us that the problem about the source of the ad arose because neither the Pakistan Embassy in Washington nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) nor the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MoI&B) were the sources of the ad. In fact, our sources confirm that none of these three Pakistani government entities was even consulted about the ad. In fact, the ad, designed by the Pakistani advertising agency Midas, was placed directly from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.
Why, you might ask, would the Prime Minister’s Secretariat bypass its own subordinate media departments and its representatives who are specifically tasked with international relations work? Could it be, as our sources indicate, that the advertisement was the first instance of the country’s premier intelligence agency directly placing an advertisement in a foreign publication?
Nor is this the first time that the ISI has made an end run around the civilian leadership in Pakistan. Shortly after Pakistan’s civilian government took power in 2008, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani announced that control of the ISI would be shifted to the portfolio of the civilian Interior Ministry. It was only a matter of hours before Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told the media that no such change would occur. The civilians promptly retracted the announcement.
The government’s backtracking has prompted plenty of comment among politicians and in the Pakistan media.
An ex-army officer and defence analyst, Ikram Sehgal, told the Dawn News TV channel that the government retracted its decision when the army “showed its teeth”.
Formally, the ISI currently reports to the prime minister. But many observers believe it is answerable to no one.
This split between the democratically-elected civilian government and Pakistan’s spy agency was shown in stark relief during the Raymond Davis fiasco. Writing for the English-language newspaper Dawn, Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida noted that when push comes to shove, it’s not the civilians who hold the upper hand in matters that concern the ISI.
When the interior minister, the ex-foreign minister and the all-powerful spy chief met to decide the fate of Raymond Davis, two of those gents were of the opinion that Davis doesn’t enjoy ‘full immunity’.
One of those two has now been fired by Zardari. The other, well, if Zardari tried to fire him, the president might find himself out of a job first.
Walter Read says he supports a continued US-Pakistan relationship, “but in our view the US has to be ready to walk away for the relationship to have a chance.” We suggest that walking away is the wrong prescription.
The Pakistani government is fighting multiple wars, but none is against the United States. The primary war, the one that has claimed the lives of 30,000 Pakistanis, is against Taliban militants who will go so far as to attack a bus filled with school children. The other war is for Pakistan’s soul, and is being waged quietly behind the scenes as democratically oriented civilian leaders struggle to wrest control of the nation from undemocratic forces leftover from previous dictatorships. Walking away from the democratic civilian leaders will only strengthen the undemocratic forces in Pakistan. It’s a mistake the US has made in the past, and one that it should be careful not to repeat.
It may seem counterintuitive to speak of Pakistan’s government and intelligence agencies as separate institutions, but the distinction matters. Pakistan’s civilian leadership – though weak – is trying to implement democratic reforms; and those efforts are often held back by unaccountable military and intelligence officials who are loath to cede their power to civilians. Rather than paint all institutions with the same broad brush, US officials should seek to strengthen civilian democratic institutions so that they can effectively reign in those parts of the military and intelligence services that are acting outside of civilian oversight.