Pakistan has a terrorist problem, as many of the country’s leaders acknowledge. But it also has an ISI problem—the nation’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency pursues its own agenda for its own reasons. And civilian leaders there have been too hesitant to challenge it.
India’s foreign secretary asserted last week that ISI was behind November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai. “The perpetrators planned, trained, and launched their attacks from Pakistan,” Shivshankar Menon said in a Paris speech, “and the organizers were and remain clients and creations of the ISI.” Regardless of its motives, India is raising a question that Pakistan must address.
Growing trouble: A file photo of Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (left) with ISI director general Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. AFP
The ISI operates under its own definition of Pakistan’s national interest—and has shown a particular obsession with India. It has a history of incubating extremists, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), gang India claims was behind Mumbai attacks. It would be best for Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours and for its own internal stability if ISI gets out of the business of using fanaticized jihadis—whether LeT or the Taliban—to advance the military’s strategic aims.
Pakistani officials have dropped hints that their own investigation will show that the Mumbai plot was hatched in Bangladesh and had Indian co-conspirators. But India has given Pakistan and the US considerable material evidence, including intercepted phone calls and forensic DNA matching the terrorists on a boat that left from Pakistan. So any Pakistani campaign to deflect or diffuse blame is likely to make Pakistani authorities look even more irresponsible than they do now.
Over the years, ISI has received plenty of outside help. In the 1980s, CIA cooperated with ISI and Saudi intelligence in funding, training, and arming Afghan and foreign guerrillas to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This proxy war was initiated by former US president Jimmy Carter and expanded under Ronald Reagan. It succeeded in driving the Red Army out of Afghanistan. But it also drew in violent Islamists from many countries who coalesced in terrorist networks, the most notorious of which became Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
In the mid-1990s, ISI sponsored Taliban. The aim was to have an allied force in control of Afghanistan, to prevent India from extending its influence there, and to provide ISI with training camps outside Pakistan for groups conducting operations in India-ruled Kashmir. Today, some of those terrorist groups are turning their fury against the established order in Pakistan. Apart from India’s public attempts to hold ISI guilty for the Mumbai crimes, Pakistan needs to recognize its own interest in remoulding and redirecting the agency, so it can extinguish a terrorist fire that may otherwise consume Pakistan itself.
© 2009/The Boston Globe