Pakistani politicians found it hard to contain their excitement on Monday after the new government shut the political wing of the country’s internal spy agency.
From sprawling headquarters in Islamabad’s Aabpara district, the powerful inter-services intelligence (ISI) had spread its tentacles throughout the political landscape during the past three decades.
A Pakistani intelligence official said closing the unit, which was suspected of manipulating electoral results and keeping tabs on the personal lives of politicians, using their embarrassing misdemeanours to ensure they toe the line, gave “fuller authority to the government to lead from the front”.
Abida Hussain, a leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s party (PPP) and former ambassador to the US, said: “The ISI should only focus on the ‘war on terror’ rather than undertaking a periodic dirty tricks campaign to reward or punish politicians who either toed their agenda or fell out of line. Why should an intelligence agency which was established to watch for threats from foreign sources become so acutely involved in our domestic politics?”
The ISI’s power ballooned following the 1977 military takeover by General Zia ul- Haq. The late dictator used it to demolish political opposition, notably the PPP, which was first led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the late prime minister, and subsequently by his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007, two weeks before a scheduled general election.
The ISI also became notorious for overseeing the rise of armed groups dedicated to jihad in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Indian-administered state of Kashmir.
Under General Zia the agency received support from the US, which viewed it as a network to manage the flow of arms to Islamic groups in Afghanistan that were resisting Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Pakistan’s civilian governments, particularly that of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, also found uses for the ISI. “Even civilian rulers have tried to take control of the ISI because everyone was looking for a short cut to curb their opponents,” said a retired official from the agency.
To the dismay of Afghanistan, India and the US, the ISI continued to promote jihad after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan.
Criticism increased after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington forced Pakistan to join the US-led coalition against terrorism. The ISI was seen as a doubled-edged sword that executed some anti-terrorism operations but refused to curb fully the activities of Islamic hardliners. A senior US official said shortly after the government was elected in August that one of its first priorities was to rein in the ISI.
“The ISI was one body, seen as part of the problem and also the solution at the same time,” said a western diplomat in Islamabad.
Human rights activists said the government needed to take further measures to “defang” the intelligence service and protect the fragile democracy.
Tasneem Noorani, a former senior bureaucrat, said closing the ISI’s political wing had not diminished the risk of military coups.
“The military doesn’t need a political cell in the ISI to take over [the country]. The political cell was required to manipulate the situation from behind the scenes. What is essential is that the government takes charge of the country,” said Mr Noorani.
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