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Game over for Pakistan's spy agency

Game over for Pakistan's spy agency


by Susenjit Guha

Meeting his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee in Colombo on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Quereshi was candid in his desperation.

“If the Berlin Wall can fall, so can these troubles…that are keeping us apart. I say we have been looking at divergences, look at the convergences we have…look at the language, culture, dress,” he said.

He was reflecting the wishes of ordinary Pakistanis – the civilians who have had a raw deal at the hands of the nation’s military establishment, which has shackled democracy and frequently sabotaged the aspirations of freedom-loving Pakistanis.

Quereshi was also at great pains to express his view that India-Pakistan talks still held hope despite accusations from Islamabad’s staunch ally, the United States, that Pakistani intelligence agents were hatching plots against India.

The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between militants and the Inter-Services Intelligence – the now notorious intelligence wing of Pakistan’s armed forces – which led to the ghastly July 7 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed nearly 40 people, including two diplomats.

The newspaper had earlier blown the whistle about the ISI being hand-in-glove with the same militants they were supposed to weed out in cooperation with U.S. and NATO forces. Not only that, intelligence sources said that additional plans were being kept in abeyance for incursions into India to create mayhem.

Naturally President Pervez Musharraf, basking in the glory of a hamstrung United States, had no other course but to make a counterattack against India, blaming it for the unrest in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. At a luncheon reception hosted in his honor by the Balochistan governor, Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, Musharraf said, “They (India) are providing financial assistance as well as weapons.”

He knows very well that India baiting comes in handy whenever his covert games are exposed.

Meanwhile the United States will keep pushing lame-duck Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani into a corner for crimes he and his civilian government were never a party to. Washington will threaten him with intervention if he is unable to stop the ISI’s involvement with terror groups, keeping the heat on for results he cannot deliver.

Gilani tried to rein in the ISI by bringing it under the Interior Ministry, but backed off under pressure from the armed forces, still the strongest institution in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Daily Times quoted Musharraf speaking at a Karachi dinner hosted by traders and industrialists as saying the ISI was Pakistan’s first line of defense, and the people "should defend Pakistan against such conspiracies. Weakening the ISI would also weaken the war on terror."

He was playing to the gallery – to a motley crowd whose fortunes are directly related to U.S. largesse showered on Pakistan – by calling the ISI patriotic and saying it was working for Pakistan’s development. All accusations against the intelligence agency were conspiracies aimed at destabilizing it.

And what does patriotism mean to the ISI? The CIA claims to have transcripts of messages between an ISI operative and the attackers of the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month.

Patriotism seems to mean scuttling Afghanistan’s moves toward normalcy and ties with India – where the ceasefire can be broken and internal trouble fomented whenever the government is weak or the opposition renders its numbers short.

Does it mean more patriotic gestures may be forthcoming, after India announced US$450 million in aid to Afghanistan Monday during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to New Delhi?

This is over and above the US$750 million announced to fund ongoing and forthcoming projects.

Will the ISI be working round the clock to defeat the joint efforts of India and Afghanistan to fight terrorism, after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared the Kabul embassy attack an attack on Indo-Afghan friendship?

Perhaps Musharraf knows, since he handpicked the former head of the ISI, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to succeed him as military chief and appointed a relative, Nadeem Taj, to head the intelligence agency. But can he be sure that the United States will only seek to coax and control Gilani, without tinkering with the ISI?

Revelations about the ISI’s involvement in terrorism may well be a factor behind statements by both U.S. presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain that they would renew the U.S. focus on Afghanistan. Last spring, NATO termed the “safe havens” of militants inside Pakistan as the greatest threat to allied troops, as U.S. casualties in the region far exceeded those in Iraq.

Sleeping with the militants along the Pakistani-Afghan border while plotting diversionary tactics along the ceasefire line with India and aiding incursions into the Kashmir valley may have worked for the ISI in the past. But the game seems to be over now that the ISI has become the center of attention under the watchful gaze of U.S., Afghan and of course Indian eyes.

Only time will tell if that “patriotic” institution will be reined in – under civilian pressure to look beyond India-Pakistan rivalries and converge on similarities of language, dress and culture – or if it will outsmart the United States and attempt another coup to create mayhem in South Asia.

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