By Mariam Qureshi
Pakistan has predominantly been a praetorian state with military overreach extending to politics and also to intelligence agencies. The intelligence community is marred with deficiencies in structural organisation and its politicization has further dampened its efficacy. In an attempt to reform the intelligence community, Prime Minister Imran Khan recently approved of a National Intelligence Coordination Committee. Would this be sufficient and effective in streamlining the two-dozen civil and military intelligence organisations existing in Pakistan? An effective reform in the intelligence community would ultimately help strengthen the civilian policy making process rather than solidifying military control.
Pakistan’s troubled birth also accounts for the weakness of its institutions and strong military presence within them. India received the lion’s share of the division of assets of intelligence, bureaucracy, administration and army which meant that Pakistan had to start from scratch with minimal infrastructure. The initial military intelligence organisation collectively known as Defence Intelligence Services (DIS) consisted of tactical intelligence wings of the navy, air force and the Military Intelligence (MI) wing of the armed forces inherited at Partition. They specialised in carrying out offensive counterintelligence and military espionage. The only civilian-led intelligence organisation was the Intelligence Bureau (IB) which emerged from the partitioning of the British Raj’s Intelligence Bureau in 1947. It was responsible for collection, analysis and dissemination of domestic intelligence but no effective mechanism of coordination with other agencies existed.
As the two neighbours started off with a highly volatile relationship that could boil over a plethora of disputes, Pakistan prioritised the development of its army and failed to take into account the equally essential need for a strong intelligence community to counter any Indian threat of war. With army as the only developed institute, Pakistan slipped into military dictatorship. The military dictatorships obstructed the development of a constitution and democratic political institutions, and it was not until 2008 that Pakistan witnessed the beginning of smooth democratic transitions.
The Radcliffe Award arbitrarily divided the subcontinent along religious communal lines in 1947, creating border clashes and forcing a bloody, cross-border migration. The border dispute culminated into the 1947 war of Kashmir with India which presented an intelligence failure that highlighted the pressing need for a foreign intelligence agency. Thus, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) was established in 1948 as a military organisation to carry out collection and analysis of external threats, liaise with foreign counterparts and conduct operations. It also aimed to enhance coordination among military intelligence organisations. The ISI was tasked with collection and analysis of domestic intelligence during the unrest in East Pakistan in 1971. Following that, the unrest in the province of Balochistan during the 1970s presented another opportunity leading to expansion of ISI’s ambit to cover internal intelligence permanently. This brought the military-led ISI in direct clash with the dwarfed civilian-led Intelligence Bureau. The better resourced military intelligence organisation monopolised the intelligence community of Pakistan as it flourished under military dictatorships in the initial decades. Unfortunately, rather than a structured development, Pakistan’s agencies were created as independently functioning units on a need-by-need basis with often overlapping responsibilities.
Though Pakistan created civilian-led intelligence agencies for specialised tasks to fulfil domestic intelligence requirements, it failed to provide a conducive environment for them to operate in. The Pakistan Special Police Establishment, inherited from British India, proved inadequate for overseeing control of organised crimes, smuggling, human trafficking and other offences. Therefore, a cumulative counterintelligence agency also responsible for countering money laundering, border control and domestic security known as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was formed in 1975 under civilian control of the Ministry of Interior. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was formed in 2013 under Ministry of Interior to counter terrorism although this clashed with ISI’s remit in overseeing external and internal terrorism. Similarly, other agencies were set up for specialised offenses such as drugs and narcotics control. The creation of independent agencies for specialised tasks meant their spheres of control overlapped, exacerbating the turf war between military-led and civilian-led intelligence organisations. The absence of a coordination committee to cohesively join the independent agencies meant that instead of pooling in intelligence collected for analysis, all agencies would carry out their own collection, analysis and dissemination. Further, they also faced a dearth of resources to carry out their tasks. The opportunity for these civilian-led intelligence organisations to realise and execute their responsibilities was diluted by the monopoly of military intelligence organisations.
Perhaps the most problematic of all challenges is the deep politicisation of the intelligence agencies due to absence of oversight and accountability. The international and domestic threat of terrorism after the Soviet-Afghan War and the United States’ invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks allowed the ISI to receive aid and work closely with the America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The pre-Partition, British imposed Pak-Afghan border, Durand Line, was on the radar of the intelligence agency since 1947. The border is rejected by Afghanistan as it claims that the Pashtun and Baloch tribes divided along the Durand line should be united as a single nation. The poorly managed border became the gateway for drugs smuggling, human trafficking and refugee migration after Soviet-Afghan War and cross-border terrorism after 9/11. The crossover between foreign and domestic security threat along the Durand Line became a priority issue for ISI, increasing its might and power. The premier intelligence agency became the de facto central authority in the intelligence community. Consequently, it has been accused of conducting proxy warfare in Kashmir and surveillance on leading political figures. The subtle manifestation of military control through ISI’s increased role in politics caused it to be dubbed as ‘a state within a state’. ISI’s authority remains unchallenged in the post-2008 democratic set up.
Proposals have been made in the past three decades for an oversight and coordination committee under the Cabinet of the Prime Minister to enhance coordination between agencies and streamline civilian-military relationship within the intelligence community. Unfortunately, the civil-military tussle in Pakistan’s politics resisted any staunch attempt at reforming the intelligence community which could effectively undermine the military monopoly. The National Intelligence Coordination Committee is expected to improve coordination between existing intelligence agencies but is to be led by the Director General of the military-led ISI, an agency that does not want to see its influence reduced. The committee is at risk of being another ineffective bureaucratic layer if it is not divorced from military control. It is imperative to strengthen the democratic institutes of Pakistan which have been unable to develop due to decades of military rule. Therefore, the reform is likely to address underlying problems if the committee is placed under the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. Additionally, the committee needs to carry out an efficient analysis of the collected intelligence and disseminate these assessments to the executive branch. This would boost efficiency of the intelligence community within Pakistan. A revival of the existing National Security Council under the Prime Minister’s Office can provide an effective platform for the civil-military leadership to formulate policies on matters of national security. These steps will significantly empower the democratic government in policy making and execution.
Mariam Qureshi is an MA International Affairs student concentrating in Espionage and Surveillance at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. She received her BA (Honors) in Political Science from Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, Pakistan.