Is the new ISI chief as rational as his US Army War College paper might suggest?
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Sept 14
On September 22, Pakistan’s military nominated Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar to replace Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on October 8. It is important to know what makes him tick, given his organisation’s continued reliance on “sub-conventional assets” --- referred to in more sensible circles as jihad-fuelled crazies.
The announcement was notable for two reasons First; it was made by the military, not the civilian government, indicating that the army, not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, controls the appointments of generals. Second, this was the first time Pakistan’s military made such a key announcement on Twitter and Facebook, proving itself a hip, trendy, forward looking bunch of really cool dudes. No, not really! Like most armies, it remains an insular, inward-looking, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Unlike most armies, it also radicalises and trains killers to use against India, which is so, so uncool.
Most ISI chiefs are anonymous folks, since militaries value officers who remain in the background. Yet, in 2008, when Akhtar was a brigadier attending a one-year course at the US Army War College, he wrote a 6,313-word paper entitled: “US-Pakistan trust deficit and the war on terror”. This spelt out his views on America; militant Islam; the roiling Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where Pakistan’s army is currently fighting; and on Pakistan’s relations with India.
A caveat: a paper written by a sub-continental military officer on a course in America, or in a military publication in his own country, is seldom an outpouring of deeply held beliefs. Instead, most such writing is an image building exercise. On an American course, a Pakistani brigadier would want to be seen as rational and accommodative. While writing in a Pakistani publication, he would portray himself as a staunch upholder of military and national ideology.
Even so, Akhtar’s dissertation is worth reading, if only because of a paragraph that goes: “Pakistan needs to enhance its credibility by publicly identifying some of its critical strategic challenges. It must reform its governance, improve the economy, confront and eliminate Islamic extremism, and create a more tolerant society. Most important, it must aggressively pursue rapprochement with India.”
Encouraging, but a full reading of Akhtar’s paper suggests that his proposed outreach to India, like that of many Pakistanis, can be summed up as: We must have peace, and we must have Kashmir, and Washington must deliver it. Akhtar writes, “(T)he threat posed by India has served as a primary enabler for US-Pakistani relations as US involvement and support can help mediate and ensure an equitable settlement of the Kashmir issue as well as help represent Pakistani interests within the United Nations.” Akhtar acknowledges Washington’s role in preventing the Kargil conflict (1999) and Operation Parakram (2001-02) from triggering a full-scale conflagration.
Yet, Akhtar recognises that US-Pakistan ties are transactional, an on-off relationship based on transient convenience. He writes: “The US and Pakistan have been drawn together by coincident interests on three separate occasions. The first occurred during the height of the Cold War (from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s); the second was during the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s (again lasting about a decade); and the third engagement dates to September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism. Since the event of 9/11, Pakistan has been a key ally in the Global War on Terrorism.”
In this cynical alliance, friction is inevitable. Yet, Akhtar wants differences to remain unseen, especially those that make Pakistan seem mercenary. He writes: “(I)t is routinely reported in the news media that the US has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in assistance, channeled primarily through the Pakistani military, and these reports add that Pakistan is not doing enough to control Taliban/Al Qaeda elements in FATA. The general impression it gives to the Pakistani people and many international actors is that this is some sort of business transaction where Pakistan was hired to perform a job and is being paid.”
Akhtar’s paper reflects his army’s increasing tolerance for the rhetoric and trappings of democracy, providing the generals retain control over key security policies. In an unusually forthright endorsement of democracy he writes: “The mechanism for establishing the rule of law begins with a free political process but also extends to an effective and independent judicial system and a modern, well equipped professional police force. The role of the military should be limited to ensuring the Nation’s security from external threats and in waging the war against terrorists and only be utilized for internal security as a last resort.”
On the issue of the moment --- military operations in FATA --- Akhtar laments America’s “short-term perspective”. He says US operations (presumably drone strikes) “alienate the tribals and result in increased tribal support for the Taliban/Al Qaeda.” In contrast, “The Pakistani government understands the importance of building close ties with the tribal chiefs (Maliks) for the long-term strategic success against the Al Qaeda/Taliban radicals.”
Numerous independent commentators have said this is rubbish. They say Pakistan triggered the radicalisation of FATA in the 1980s, during the anti-Soviet jihad, when the army preferred radical Islam, rather than Afghan nationalism, as the driving ideology of the Afghan resistance. None but the ISI engineered the passage of tribal leadership from the Maliks to a crop of radical clerics, many closely linked to Islamist institutions in Saudi Arabia. In this the ISI dealt directly with jihadi leaders, marginalising America so that Pakistan’s agenda could prevail.
Akhtar indirectly admits this modus operandi was used again in FATA, noting “Pakistan has repeatedly rejected requests by the US to allow its combat troops to operate in the tribal areas inside Pakistan or to allow US personnel to deal directly with local tribal leaders.”
All told, Pakistan’s new spymaster comes off as a rational, intelligent officer who can see the shortcomings within his establishment but is unwilling to challenge core beliefs. For now, Rizwan Akhtar must dance to the tune of his boss, Raheel Sharif, which has so far resonated as a distinctly anti-Indian melody.