U.S. groups urges civilian control for Pakistan’s ISI

December 20, 2008

Members of the Pakistan Policy Working Group, a bipartisan U.S. group of a about a dozen experts on U.S.-Pakistan relations, have been in Islamabad, presenting their recommendations on the direction they think U.S. policy on Pakistan should take, that they released in September.
(http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/09_pakistan_cohen.aspx).

Much has happened since then, said Lisa Curtis, a former diplomat who is currently a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said over coffee with a group of journalists, but recent events, including the Mumbai attacks, had only reinforced the group’s recommendations.

The United States has little to show for $12 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan since 2001, Curtis said, and she and her colleagues are recommending an overhaul of U.S. policy towards Pakistan.

The Barack Obama administration “has a unique opportunity to recast the relationship” in a way that both brings Pakistan back from the brink of financial and political collapse and convinces the Pakistan leadership and public of the immediate need to rein in the militant threat, she said.

Washington should be patient with Pakistan’s elected civilian leaders and demonstrate absolutely unwavering backing of democratic institutions and, most importantly, show that it supports civilian over military rule, Curtis said.

The United States should not frame its relations with Pakistan in terms of the global war on terrorism — “we really just have to get rid of that jargon” — and focus more on the common interests the two countries have, she said.

For now, though, the top U.S. priority was ensuring the two countries don’t go to war over the Mumbai attacks.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was under tremendous pressure from his military to take retaliatory action though most Indian civilian leaders and, of course, the U.S. were counselling restraint, she said.

India‘s response would hinge on whether it believed Pakistan was taking genuine steps to shut down the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based group India says was behind the attacks, and ensure another attack is prevented, she said.

Another member of the group, Daniel Markey, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said there were concerns about both the capacity of the Pakistani state to respond to rising militant violence, and about its will.

“At least some members of the group continue to have questions in their minds about whether what we’re seeing is an
unmotivated Pakistani state, not just a state that’s not capable of dealing with these threats but a state that is effectively
playing a double game,” Markey said.

The group is pressing for a greater level of civilian oversight and authority and a capacity to make sure that the
military is not a semi-autonomous institution within the state.
In particular, the group calls for civilian control over the military’s shadowy Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) security agency.

Not surprisingly, that recommendation had been criticised by retired military officers the group had met, Curtis said.

U.S. Senator John Kerry, who is expected to take over as chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations committee
next month, also called for the ISI to be brought under control during a visit to India this month.

Attempts by civilian governments to control the ISI have often heralded clashes with the military and an attempt by the
new government to do it this year was summarily rejected.

Pakistani newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida said in a piece in the Dawn newspaper that the ISI was shorthand for all the
state, non-state and quasi-state actors that have coalesced around jihad as policy (http://www.dawn.com/2008/12/19/op.htm#3).

Dawn said in an editorial there was some way to go in the quest for civilian supremacy
(http://www.dawn.com/2008/12/19/ed.htm#1).

“What must be clear is that civilian supremacy in the civil-military relationship cannot be imposed from outside,” it
said. “But the Americans can certainly boost the civilian set-up with aid institution-building and a firm commitment to
democracy.”

The working group agrees.

It backs the proposed tripling of non-military assistance, with more aid going to areas such as education, health, water
mangement and the judiciary, and it says the U.S. market should be opened to Pakistani textiles.

It also wants to Pakistan’s regional allies getting more involved in stiffening Pakistan’s resolve to fight militancy.

There’s much more food for thought in the report.

The question now is how will it be received — in both Islamabad and at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and in
Washington.

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