Saturday, February 24, 2007

A 'fringe' ISI: Some thoughts

Some news reports are suggesting that a `fringe' ISI is responsible for the blasts on the Delhi-Attari train. Ofcourse we all remember what Teesta Seetalvad has to say about who could be responsible for the blasts, so after having been badly exposed on national television like that, one can always something from the people that talk such nonsense. Normally one would be keen to simply ignore this canard, but one is also being made aware of some discussions between British Intelligence and Indian's authorities about a possible intelligence sharing agreement about fringe elements in the ISI. This suggests that there is far more coordination to this 'fringe' ISI story than simply a local component could muster.

Sri. Raman has already weighed in on the topic of ISI's peculiar role in India-Pakistan relations in his letter to Mr. Kasuri, and one can add little of substance to that all encompassing description of the state of affairs. However a small backgrounder might be of interest to my readers.

The ISI maintains a considerable information database on Pakistan itself and quite naturally on India but what is more important is who gets access to that information. Very broadly speaking, the ISI as an organisation provides protection to the core conflict economic interests that run inside Pakistan. Briefly, these core conflict economies may be summarised as, drug trafficing, money laundering, arms smuggling and murder for hire (or as it is now popularly called "terrorism"). As the Pakistan Army and its people (serving and retired) play key roles in these economies, the ISI is tied at the hip to the Pakistan Army.

I would say that are basically three groups of people that "control" the ISI.

Firstly, the established conflict economic personalities, people that sit atop major pots of money along the lucrative trades inside the black economy. They are the only people in Pakistan that the ISI leadership truly have to satisfy. To that end the ISI has to provide a variety of conflict resolution capabilities that meet the needs of this community. The interface between the ISI and these people is provided by "retired" personnel. Though biradaris play some role here, ultimately, these people pick the interface officers based on their past records and the system self-organises.

Secondly, the leadership hierarchy of the ISI itself. Any ISI officer at any level has to worry about his promotion prospects. Despite all the performance in the world, he has to keep his supervisors happy. If he doesn't they can set adverse remarks against him, and that could severely impact his career in the private or public sector. The higher an officer rises in the ISI's organisation, the more his influence over broad policy decisions and the more credibility his word might potentially carry among the established conflict economy personalities. It is plausible that this is a very tricky game, because the supervisor has to evaluate the cost of adverse assessment against the percieved value of siding with his junior officer. If the supervisor makes a bad call, and censures a popular junior officer, he risks losing his career. Alternatively if he simply endorses everything a junior officer does, then he risks appearing like a rubber stamp. It is here that the pressure of things like biradaris and ethnicity become most acute and factionalism has a field day.

Thirdly, the COAS (currently also President of Pakistan), the sole motivation of this individual is ensuring personal political survival. If this fellow has made some commitments to someone about what he can make the ISI do, then the ISI has to do them. Apart from this, a clique of loyalists in the ISI often use its offices to promote the personal interests and security of the COAS. Outside of this the COAS generally gains no real profit in interfering with the ISI's operations. The machine literallly runs itself, occasionally he dips in and takes a cut, sometimes he make an economic killing, or periodically a politically inconvenient situation is managed with the ISI's resources. In this fashion the COAS and the ISI mostly coexist and keep out of each other's way.

So even very crudely you can see the fault lines and you can see where a `fringe' might develop, but again the question is what fringe are we talking about?

Ofcourse as Sri. Raman has already pointed out, intelligence cooperation with the West with regards Pakistan is never really in India's interests. The West is rather heavily invested in keeping Pakistan as a proxy for anti-India activities and never really responds to India's requests for help. In most cases this is a one way street for the West, they want us to share and give us nothing of value in return. It all comes down to the details of what fringe you want to talk about and there has never been a real agreement on that in the past. Who can forget that it took 9/11 to get the West to notice that there were severe problems in its handling of Pakistan? and that was so long ago? will their attitudes really change so quickly?

Oddly enough, I am not as pessimistic about the Joint Counter Terrorism Mechanism as others might be. It is difficult to ignore that Hamid Gul (as described by Sri. Raman) traded the Indian Army defectors but strove very hard to distance himself from the transaction, even if it meant ending Benazir's Prime Ministership. Clearly such a deniability regime does not extend to El Presidente today, after all the Joint Counter Terrorism mechanism is an open activity not a covert arrangement?

Call me a softie if you like, but I am always willing to explore any number of low cost options. The point about terrorist attacks is well made, but I remain of the view that at the present time, a regime of reciprocity will not actually yeild an end to terrorist attacks and will only cause Pakistan (which is currently stewing in its own juices) to boil over. This will entail a whole new set of problems that we will have to deal with. I am not entirely convinced we are in a position to deal with such things yet, the situation may change in a few years and then the long awaited transformation of India-Pakistan policy will finally occur but until then it is very difficult for me to say things should change.


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