A constitutional petition has been filed in the Supreme Court, seeking the abolition of the political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In the Asghar Khan case, the then DG-ISI General (retd) Asad Durani has admitted that funds were distributed by the organisation to manipulate the 1990 elections against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Both these cases relate to the involvement of the ISI in politics and its interference in the election process in favour of those parties considered more patriotic and suitable for promoting a certain kind of ideology. An impression has been created that it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who for ulterior motives established a political cell of the ISI in 1975 and involved it in politics. However, there is evidence that intelligence agencies had been involved in politics since the 1950s.
The interviews and articles of some retired officials point to the involvement of the military in political manipulations since 1957, if not earlier. Their involvement was enhanced with the imposition of martial law in 1958 and they remained involved in political activities during the Ayub Khan era. During Yahya Khan’s rule, the agencies got more deeply involved in politics. They monitored and reported the prospects of political parties taking part in the 1970 elections. Funds were placed at the disposal of General Umer, who was the head of the National Security Council. These funds were distributed to ‘Islam pasand’ right wing parties.
Let us now examine the notorious so-called ‘political cell’ of the ISI. In 1975, during the Balochistan insurgency, the Hyderabad tribunal was set up to try over 50 Pakistanis, mainly Baloch and Pashtun politicians from the National Awami Party, who were charged with various crimes including treason. The evidence against the accused was mainly based on intelligence reports compiled by the ISI. According to the late Naseerullah Babar, Attorney General Yahya Bakhtiar was of the view that since the ISI had no defined role that mandated it to monitor political activities, therefore, these reports would not be accepted by the tribunal. To make the evidence legally admissible, an administrative order was issued, mandating the ISI to monitor the activities of political parties. However, this order did not authorise it to make alliances, distribute funds or manipulate elections.
With every successive military dispensation, the ISI has gained in strength and its involvement in affairs of the state has grown. The Afghan jihad turned the ISI into the most powerful department of the country. The officers of that era were involved in political manipulations for the 1985 elections.
From 1988 onwards, the ISI was actively involved in political manipulations targeting PPP. They had plans for waging jihad and considered Benazir Bhutto a hurdle in its plans. The military was also actively involved in political activities throughout General Pervez Musharraf’s rule.
In 1989, Benazir Bhutto constituted the Zulfikar Commission to review the workings of the intelligence agencies. The Commission recommended that the ISI should not be entrusted with formulation of foreign policy and should be relieved of responsibilities related to political matters. These recommendations were never implemented.
The 1975 order should be withdrawn by the government. The ISI should realise that with a vibrant media and an active judiciary, political wheeling and dealing cannot remain hidden. The ISI is an efficient and well-organised agency. It should not undertake functions beyond its charter. There has to be a paradigm shift in its functioning that corresponds to the changing environment.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2012.