August Issue 2008
Asif in Blunderland
A frequently asked question in Pakistan these days is whether we have any government. The question is not completely off the mark. The country has, perhaps, never before seen such disorder and incompetence in its history. The euphoria generated after the landmark February 18 elections has turned into dismay. Never before has an elected government lost the trust of the people in such a short period of time.
Since coming to power four months ago, the PPP-led coalition government has blundered through one crisis after the other. With an economic meltdown staring us in the face and rising militancy threatening to tear the nation apart, there seems to be little sense of urgency. Cronyism rules the roost as governance falters.
Incompetence is writ large at every step that the new government takes. The latest example was the decision to place the ISI under the interior ministry, a decision the goverment was forced to reverse within a few hours. It came as a bolt from the blue. On the evening of July 26, a few hours after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani left for Washington for a critical meeting with US leaders, the government placed the ISI and IB under the control of the interior ministry through a hurriedly prepared notification.
Asif Ali Zardari, the de facto ruler of the country, in an interview from Dubai, hailed the move as a step towards civilian control over the controversial spy agency. Other government officials said the decision had the consent of the president and military leadership.
But in Rawalpindi the reaction was the complete opposite. The mood that evening at the wedding reception of the son of Salahuddin Satti, Chief of General Staff, was dismal. There was a feeling of shock and disbelief among the top brass attending the ceremony. According to one guest, a grim-faced Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, and Chairman Joint Staff Committee, General Tariq Majeed, kept discussing the situation. “I was certainly not consulted,” General Kayani told a guest. The other generals were even more riled up. Director General ISI, Lt. General Nadeem Taj was conspicuous by his absence. He was said to be busy contacting the prime minister, who by that time had arrived in London.
Hours later, the government backtracked on its decision saying there was some ‘misunderstanding.’ But the damage was already done. It not only exposed the government’s ineptitude, but also soured the civil-military relationship.
The imprudent decision, which ultimately caused the government such embarrassment, was apparently taken by Asif Zardari at the advice of a close associate, who had met Zardari a few days earlier and apparently told him that it would be good to take steps to tighten the government’s control over the ISI before Prime Minister Gillani’s visit to Washington. The cabinet was unaware of the decision. Zardari perhaps misjudged the situation and did not anticipate the response it provoked.
One can understand the eagerness on the part of the government to clip the ISI’s wings. The agency has been accused in the past of destabilising civilian regimes. Its involvement in domestic politics has made the organisation very controversial. It has become so powerful that it is often described as a state within a state. But the decision of placing it under the interior ministry was not the solution to the problem.
What Zardari and his kitchen cabinet did not understand is that about 80% of the ISI’s role is related to external security, which does not come under the domain of the interior ministry. As far as civilian control is concerned, the agency already comes under the chief executive, who is the prime minister. In any case, intelligence agencies all over the world report only to the chief executive. It was foolish even to think that the spy agency involved in regional counter-intelligence operations on three fronts — Afghanistan, Iran and India — could be placed under an interior minister with a controversial record.
What was really required was to close down the ISI’s domestic political wing and that could have easily been done through an act of parliament with consensus. Almost all the political parties agree on the need to clip the ISI’s role in the country’s politics. But many observers believe that by placing it under the interior ministry, the government actually wanted to use the agency for its own political ends.
There is also a need for stronger civilian control over the ISI’s external security operations, but this can only be done if the government itself is strong and has a clear national security policy. The fact is it does not have a clear policy direction on any issue, leave aside national security.
There is complete fragmentation of power, with no one really in charge. It is a government run by remote control. Many in the party believe that Mr Gillani is just a dummy prime minister and all the important decisions are taken by Zardari, who spends most of his time in Dubai. According to one insider, everything is micro managed by Zardari and his unelected cronies. The cabinet has little say in the decision making process.
While his official title is that of adviser, Rehman Malik is the de facto interior minister and the most powerful person in the government. A former FIA official who fled the country after the dismissal of the second Benazir Bhutto government in 1996, Malik is not only looking after internal security, but has lately been dabbling in external security matters as well. This was probably the reason why he was so keen to get the ISI under his control. Malik came closer to the PPP leadership during his exile in London. He is believed to have made a lot of money in the Oil for Food Programme in Iraq during Saddam Hussain’s rule. He has also been a beneficiary of the controversial NRO.
Anwar Majid, a close friend of Zardari, is another powerful member of the unelected coterie. A businessman, he is de facto in charge of banking and the financial sector. Shaukat Tareen, a well known banker and a close relative of Majid, heads the economic team. Senior bankers and officials of financial institutions complain about the arbitrariness which has become the hallmark of this government. Last month, the finance ministry through an order, changed the MDs of several joint corporations like the Pak-Libya, Pak-Kuwait and Pak-Iran without informing the partners and their boards of directors.
Personal loyalty rather than professional competency is required for appointment on crucial government and diplomatic posts. The Foreign Office was stunned when Zardari appointed his close friend Hussain Haroon Pakistan’s new envoy to the United Nations. With no work experience and no college education, his appointment to this top diplomatic position seems incredulous.
In another controversial move, Zardari stopped Zamir Akram, a senior member of the foreign service, from proceeding to Beijing to take charge as Pakistan’s ambassador. Zamir, who was additional secretary at the prime minister’s secretariat, was appointed to the new position by Mr Gillani himself. China had accepted his credentials but days before his departure, King Zardari decided that he was not loyal enough. Foreign office fears that some other crony of Zardari may get this crucial posting. “It is a most dismal situation,” said a senior foreign ministry official. All these ad hoc decisions have had a huge demoralising effect on other officers.
Zardari’s own feeling of insecurity has pushed him to depend more and more on the external powers. The recent murder of Khalid Shahanshah, chief of security for Benazir Bhutto, shook him so much that he rushed to confer with western diplomats on the security situation. Given this scenario, one cannot repose much confidence in the new dispensation.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.