Islamabad tries to take military out of politics
By Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad and James Lamont in New Delhi
Published: November 24 2008 19:15 | Last updated: November 24 2008 19:15
Pakistan's government has disbanded the political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious military-run spy agency, in a bold move intended to reduce sharply the military's influence in politics.
The effort to refocus the intelligence agency came a day after Asif Ali Zardari made one of the strongest overtures of any Pakistani president to India. He offered to abandon Pakistan's first-strike nuclear threat, sign a South Asian nuclear non-proliferation treaty and join India in an economic union.
The ISI is one of the most powerful forces in Pakistan. Often described as a "state within a state", it has a domestic and international remit that has helped the army tighten its grip on the country.
The agency played a role in supporting insurgents in Kashmir and militants in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation of the country. However, military rule during much of Pakistan's short history has encouraged its political wing to expand its role deep into domestic affairs.
"The ISI is a precious national institution and it wants to focus fully on counter-terrorism activities," said Shah Mehmood Qureshi, foreign minister, in a statement. He described the change as a "positive development".
Mr Zardari's latest initiative will be welcomed in Washington, where the incoming administration of president-elect Barack Obama is preparing for a renewed engagement with Islamabad to counter the Islamist threat. A senior US official this year appealed to the newly elected Pakistani government to bring the ISI under greater control to prevent it aiding terrorist attacks and supporting the Taliban.
Mr Qureshi's announcement coincided with the arrival of Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former military ruler, in London. His visit has fuelled speculation that he may be scouting for residence outside Pakistan.
"The direct consequence of this decision [on the ISI] should be the evolution of democracy without interference from the military," said Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani newspaper columnist.
However, Tariq Azim, a former minister and now leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid e Azam, warned that a permanent end to the military's role in politics would only be achieved when civilian governments were more robust and effective.
"The quality of governance remains very weak in Pakistan and the government today has failed to take charge on a number of fronts," he said.
"We must always remember . . . that every time a civilian government has become weak and controversial, the military has used that as a pretext to take charge in the name of improving the country's outlook."
Indian officials have met the reforming mood in Islamabad with caution. They are doubtful of the extent to which the fragile democratic government can exert authority over a military establishment that is hostile to the country's eastern neighbour.
"The [Pakistani] army realises it's taking a battering within the country. Now it is saying 'If anything goes wrong, don't blame us'. And there's plenty that could go wrong," said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Islamabad.
India suspects the ISI's hand in the bombing of its embassy in Kabul in July, when 41 people were killed and 140 injured.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
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