After the horse has bolted

The establishment has its hands bit by those it fed


The outburst by the Chief of Army Staff and the Defence Minister about Taliban perfidy was perhaps inevitable, after the provision of safe havens to the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan by the Taliban regime of Afghanistan for the Zhib attacks, in which nine soldiers were killed, the most casualties in a single day this year. This showed that the jubilation at the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 was not quite justified, as it did not bring to power a party friendly to Pakistan, but one which wished to pursue its own agenda. Clearly, the ISI’s handling of Afghanistan was deficient somewhere. That the ISI is to blame is because of how it monopolized the Pakistani end of the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s, when it expanded exponentially under General Ziaul Haq. Over 40 years down the line, the US expulsion and Taliban takeover was touted as a great Pakistani victory, achieved by the ISI.

The ISI cannot be blamed for the Afghan policy alone, as it was part of a greater establishment consensus. Similarly, the ISI alone cannot be blamed for the events of May 9, as there was an establishment consensus which led to it. The attacks of May 9 on Army symbols, including Martyrs’ memorials, were carried out by a party which the establishment had developed as a sort of surrogate, to let it act freely. The ISI was the point agency on this issue, as it ‘handled’ the PTI and had provided it many of the services which let it rule. It stopped helping, and the PTI fell. It is no coincidence that PTI chief Imran Khan has targeted the DG’C’ of the ISI, because according to the accounts admittedly of his opponents, the main man responsible for his 2018 win, was the then DG’C’. That officer then became DG ISI, and to prevent his removal, Imran used the need for continuity in the Afghan policy as the reason for opposing his transfer out.

While it might be tempting to blame General Faiz for both the PTI and the TTP, this cannot absolve the organisation he headed. Neither can be portrayed as a great success, because it seems that there was actually no need to create or bolster the PTI, because the other political parties have shown themselves as willing to play ball as before.

At this point, it is worth noting the Taliban-Imran connection. Both were handled in KP, with the Taliban on its border and its leaders educated in its madressas, and the PTI first obtaining power there. Imran was known as ‘Taliban Khan’ with reason.

The establishment wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, because of the threat of a two-front war, with India attacking Pakistan from the east, and Afghanistan from the northwest. It has never happened, but a succession of pro-Indian regimes in Afghanistan kept that fear alive. That was why Pakistan accepted Afghan refugees and assisted the Mujahideen in fighting the Soviets. When the Soviets left, and Afghanistan descended into chaos, it was the ISI which took credit for the formation and rise of the Taliban.

What is the fatal flaw, which turns the efforts of the establishment, and its favoured arm the ISI, not just in vain but against itself?. The aims of the Taliban and the Pakistani establishment are different. The Pakistani establishment has the usual nationalistic interests, but the Taliban are ideologically driven. They might well have their ideology tempered by ruling, but it would perhaps be asking too much to ask them to prefer the state of Pakistan over the TTP, which consists not only of people sharing their ideology, but who are also sedulous imitators of their methods.

Apart from the need for parliamentary oversight (so long as it is meaningful, and videos not degenerate into members being guaranteed their seats), there is also a need for the establishment to engage in a re-examination. The corporate purpose of the institution at the moment seems to be staying in power. It should be something different, something more, something less boring.

Those methods succeeded against the USA. The TTP wishes to replicate them, casting the Pakistan Army in the role of foreign occupier. That cannot be an outcome the ISI contemplated. The relationship of the ISI and the TTP is also not clear. Another aspect that needs some light how far have  personnel become infected with the Taliban ideology.

The process is possible because personnel within the ISI are usually ordinary Muslims. They are not ideologically well-equipped (except by whatever self-learning they have carried out), and when confronted by the ideology of the Taliban, especially if it is buttressed by Islamic texts, have no counter convincing even to themselves.

The same applies to the support for the PTI. The establishment was concerned by corruption, and found the crusade against it transformed into support, some would argue blind support, for Imran Khan. The establishment must not have wanted it this way, but the support for Imran grew greater than loyalty to the institution. After May 9, the military and Imran were opposed at every point, and military personnel had to make a choice. Loyalty to Imran meant disloyalty to the military, which had been proposing itself as the country’s last surviving institution, the guardian of the country’s physical and ideological boundaries, and thus enjoying the right to rule, or at least the duty to ensure the country remained on the right track.

There has been considerable evolution, from the PML (Council) to the PTI, but all along there has been an insistence on the right to rule. However, if the COAS does not rule himself, the civilian must be obedient. Not really obedient, so much as taking establishment interests into account. There must not arise the impression among the civilian leadership that their popularity counts for anything. Imran was the latest in a line of civilian leaders who got that impression.

The establishment must ask itself if its much-vaunted intelligence agency is as good as it claims, and It has delivered. The next question is whether the agency is it perhaps being tasked beyond its abilities, in a way that throwing more resources at it will not solve. In short, whether the establishment itself is at fault.

Lesser examples of political engineering have been again directed against the establishment when the dream went sour. The MQM is a prime example.

There may be a proposal for greater civilian oversight. Both the USA and the UK have got legislative committees for accountability of security agencies. It is worth noting that before that, agencies were developing a political role. They were separated from the establishment, a trend reversed in Pakistan, where a perfectly good Intelligence Bureau, while retained, is no longer the lead agency. This is not primarily because of military regimes, but because the ISI got a major boost from being put in charge of the Afghan jihad.

The establishment must be aware that its attempts at using the intelligence agencies to meet ends outside of its constitutional ambit does not work. The May 9 attacks as well as the Zhob attacks represent intelligence failures in the strict sense of being predicted, but also because their occurrence can be attributed at least in part to their being facilitated by the very agencies that should have helped prevent them.

Apart from the need for parliamentary oversight (so long as it is meaningful, and does not degenerate into members being guaranteed their seats), there is also a need for the establishment to engage in a re-examination. The corporate purpose of the institution at the moment seems to be staying in power. It should be something different, something more, something less boring.


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