November 2021

A dubious democracy

Richard Gregson monitors the controversy surrounding the appointment of Pakistan’s new ISI chief, as the country’s military cracks the whip

An eerie silence stalks the corridors of power in Pakistan these days.  The civil-military relationship is under strain, and the opposition is furious that the infamous GHQ (General Headquarters), the seat of country’s powerful military establishment in Rawalpindi, has put Islamabad’s Imran Khan government on notice for trying to interfere in senior-level military appointments. The decision of the military brass to replace the current Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Director-General Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, known to be close to Prime Minister Imran Khan, with Lt-Gen Nadeem Anjum, who is being relieved of his posting as core commander, Karachi, seems to have brought Khan’s government into confrontation with the all-powerful armed forces.

Over the years, the month of October has been a time when the Pakistani elite and politicians warily watch moves being made by the GHQ, known as ‘Pindi’, since most of the military appointments and postings are made during this period. Except during the first few years of Pakistan’s existence (the country saw its first coup attempt as early as 1951), the armed forces have been the nation’s final arbiter of power. Interestingly, it was in October1958 that Gen. Ayub Khan took over as Pakistan’s first chief martial law administrator-cum-prime minister, dismissing the civilian government with the help of then President Iskander Mirza, whom he then forced to resign in a matter of weeks. Pervez Musharraf had also disposed of Nawaz Sharif’s government in October, 1999.

Imran Khan is alleged to have been propped up by the military through a rigged election. Indeed, he has enjoyed a cosy relationship with the army and has often stated he was on ‘one page’ with the military leadership. Khan was instrumental in extending Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term in office, going to the extent of amending the statute to satisfy objections raised by the Supreme Court. However, recent changes to the 1973 Rules of Business of the government, which give the civilian administration the right to appoint officers above the rank of colonel in the army and equivalent ranks in the other services of the armed forces, have become a bone of contention. So far, the military establishment has been going about its appointments and postings independently, getting these approved by the government just as a matter of formality, except in the case of the army chief, where the government of the day had the final say.

The US has accused the ISI of being the main support behind the Taliban

In the first week of October, the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) unilaterally announced Faiz Hameed’s replacement with Nadeem Anjum as DG, ISI – although the government is yet to issue a formal notification of Anjum’s appointment. Things became complicated when Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry informed the media on October 13 that the process of appointing the DG, ISI was underway. He added fuel to the fire of speculation on social media by asserting that the selection was the Prime Minister’s prerogative.

Chief whip Malik Amir Dogar of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party went a step further when he revealed, while participating in a talk show, that Imran Khan wants General Faiz to continue as DG, ISI, in view of his understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, where he has been quite active following the takeover by the Taliban.

However, Dr S.D. Pradhan, former deputy National Security Advisor of India, maintains that the controversy could have been deliberately created to project an image of Imran Khan as an ‘assertive leader’, one who has the guts to stand up to the powerful military establishment and is not, as is widely believed in Pakistan and abroad, a puppet brought to power by the army.

But why this big noise about the appointment of the DG, ISI? Why is this organisation so significant? Let’s go back in time to understand how this agency is different from other intelligence agencies, which take orders from the civilian government, not the military brass.

The ISI was created in 1948, in the wake of the Kashmir conflict, and manned by officers from the three military wings to specialise in the collection, analysis and assessment of external military and non-military intelligence. Initially, it was not involved in domestic operations, except in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

However, as the military took control of state power, the agency became more powerful and aggressive. It became the sword arm of the military against Pakistani citizens and political parties, as well as its perceived adversaries abroad. The ISI thus became all-pervasive, a threat to democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan and a major threat to peace and stability in the region.

OUTRANKED: Pakistan’s military brass has decided to replace current DG, ISI Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed (l) with Lt-Gen Nadeem Anjum(r)

During General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the ISI’s operations acquired truly menacing proportions. Former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was framed for authorising the murder of a political opponent, and hanged on the basis of evidence concocted by the agency. Soon after, it became internationally famed for its covert operations in the Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation during the 1980s. ISI officers, trained in the United States, worked in close coordination with the CIA, providing military, financial and logistical support to the Afghan Mujahedeen. Flush with dollars and petrodollars, it oversaw the indoctrination of Pashtun youth with radical Wahhabi Islam at seminaries in Pakistan. These youths were then trained, armed and sent to join the jihad in Afghanistan. This dangerous mix of religious fanaticism with militancy has since been fuelling terrorism in Jammu &Kashmir and other parts of India, Bangladesh and elsewhere. The Khalistani militancy in Punjab was also a product of the ISI’s state-sponsored terrorism.

Besides the ISI’s role as the main catalyst for insurgency in Kashmir, India has provided evidence to the international community about the agency’s direct involvement in the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament, the Mumbai train bombings of 2006, the Varanasi bombings (2006), Hyderabad bombings (2007) and a series of terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. The ghastly attack on Indian security forces in Pulwama in Kashmir in 2019 was also the ISI’s handiwork. Of late, the agency has stepped up its nefarious activities in Jammu & Kashmir, sending across insurgents and using drones to drop arms and explosives at terrorist hideouts.

The US has accused Pakistan’s ISI of being the main support behind the Taliban and threatened to impose sanctions if the country does not mend its ways. The agency has even been trying to spread its tentacles as far as Bosnia, Central Asia, Bangladesh and the Philippines by providing arms to fanatical Islamic groups.

Pakistani politicians have a love-hate relationship with the ISI, whose long shadow falls  everywhere, whether it is the legislature, government, judiciary, media or educational, cultural and religious institutions. It acts as a sword arm or tentacles of the Pakistan military, which is a law unto itself.

Even as the drama of the military-civilian tug-of-war is being enacted by Imran Khan’s government and Bajwa’s army, the opposition is trying to fish in these troubled waters. Leaders like Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and heir-apparent, Maryam Nawaz, is directing attacks against Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, while the Zardari dynast Bilawal Bhutto has declared that he is prepared to take the reins of power if Imran Khan is sacked by the Pindi.

That is what is known as democracy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada