Senator Farhatullah Babar’s bill introduced in the Senate, giving parliament oversight over the ISI may be quixotic in its ambition but is a necessary first step if the civilians are to wrest some measure of control back from the military establishment. This bill itself is unlikely to go anywhere. It has been introduced in the Senate as a private bill and no one else in the PPP has spoken out in favour of it yet. Other coalition partners have also maintained silence on it. The fact is that most parliamentarians prefer to studiously ignore any attempts to take on the military. This is why Mr Babar needs to push his bill and force debate on it, even if it ultimately fails.
Intelligence agencies have seemingly always operated with impunity. The ISI and other military agencies came into being through executive orders but there was never any attempt by parliament to control their actions by passing legislation that laid out their functions. The budgets for these agencies, as with all military spending, are awarded without laying out any specifics. And any attempts to give the civilians a greater say in their running is quickly rebuffed. This PPP government’s track record in that regard has been particularly poor. Soon after coming into power in 2008, the government tried to bring the ISI under the purview of the interior ministry, but took back the notification barely a day later after the military vociferously and angrily objected.
The process of bringing the ISI under civilian control will be a long and arduous one, with many false starts. The civilian government can start by showing less deference to the military on matters both small and large. The idea that the military should be subservient to elected governments is one that has to be gradually integrated into the military culture. Legislation like Babar’s bill is desperately needed but laws that exist only on paper are not enough. The civilians have to be willing to risk a long confrontation with the military for the all-important principle of civilian supremacy.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2012.
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