The Pakistani government has dismantled the political wing of the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters Nov. 23. The move is designed to offset criticism that Pakistan would do a much better job managing its terrorism troubles if it were not so focused on spying on political rivals at home. Though the decision to abolish the ISI’s political unit gives the impression that civil-military relations in Islamabad are improving, the military is not about to become subservient to a weak and fractured civilian government. Real progress on the terrorism front depends on Pakistan’s willingness and capability to purge the ISI of Islamist militant sympathizers, and the government’s weakening ability to balance socioeconomic concerns with its battle against the jihadists.
The political unit of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been abolished, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced Nov. 23. Qureshi told reporters that the ISI “is a precious national institution and it wants to focus fully on counterterrorism activities.” The unofficially designated political branch of the ISI was created in the 1970s under a civilian government led by former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was later deposed and hanged by the country’s military. The political unit is known for rigging elections in accordance with the military’s preferences, creating splits within rival political parties and building up coalition support for former Pakistani President and army chief Pervez Musharraf. Now, the ISI leadership — a brigadier general, two colonels and several junior military and civilian officials — and staff will be absorbed into other ISI departments, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. The announcement follows mounting criticism in Pakistan over alleged interference by the ISI in Pakistani domestic politics. If the ISI would spend less time digging up dirt on politicians and more time focusing on how to fight terrorism, the argument goes, the country would be in better shape to contain the jihadists who are threatening the coherence and stability of the state. The eight-month-old civilian government already has attempted a number of moves to impose civilian control over the military. In July, the government prematurely announced that it would place the ISI under the control of the civilian government, specifically under the domain of the interior ministry. That announcement came right before Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made a trip to Washington, where he hoped to demonstrate to the U.S. government that Pakistan was taking concrete measures to rein in the ISI and taking seriously its counterterrorism commitments to the United States. Soon enough, the military reined in Gilani and the government was forced to backtrack on the decision. This might be another situation in which Pakistan’s civilian government has gotten ahead of itself in trying to assert control over the country’s powerful military. While the statement that the ISI's political branch has been abolished gives the appearance of improved civil-military relations in Pakistan, the reality is likely to be very different. The ISI is the army’s main vehicle for maintaining control over the country — politically, economically and militarily. Given Pakistan’s tradition of feeble and fractured civilian governments, the military is not about to concede any significant amount of its authority to the politicians, especially when the country is in the grips of a security and financial crisis. As a result, a good deal of commotion and contradictory statements should be expected in the wake of this announcement. Ostensibly asserting civilian control over the Pakistani spy agency will do little good in assuaging Washington, which has deep suspicions about the ISI’s commitment to counterterrorism. Some moves — like replacing the former ISI chief with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who in his previous position oversaw all military operations against jihadists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — were steps in the right direction. But the real work begins in purging the ISI of Islamist militant sympathizers, a herculean and risky task from which the military has thus far steered clear. With the country already in financial ruin, it will be all the more difficult for Pakistan to tolerate the political and social costs of engaging in aggressive counterjihadist military action, which could result in more civilian casualties and make it appear that the government is merely bowing to U.S. demands. Announcements of what will likely turn out be cosmetic changes to the ISI might work in political theater, but they are unlikely to affect the reality on the ground.