Binned Laden and the geopolitical saga

May 3rd, 2011. ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute that virtue pays to vice’ said the Duc de la Rochefoucauld in 1678. Now, 333 years on, that maxim echoes loudly with the execution of Osama bin Laden (ObL). The stealth that was necessitated (for success) reveals a new height of hypocrisy characterising the relationship between the US and Pakistan; indeed between Pakistan and the West or, perhaps, even between Pakistan and the world at large (sans China, Iran and North Korea).

As the world’s unappointed policeman the US knows, but cannot acknowledge, that it is locked into dealing with a socio-psychopathic institution whose operations endanger not just its neighbours but the world. That institution is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).  It is the ISI and not the Pakistani civilian government that supports and perpetrates acts of terrorism. Nonetheless the State and government, incompetent and failed though they may be, must under international law be culpable for retaining and relying on the ISI. Even so, the distinction between the ISI and the state/government is a critical one for all to make.

Given the constraints of international diplomacy, and the odd conventions that govern covert dealings among intelligence agencies, the US is unable to punish, inhibit or criticise the ISI openly. But the US can and has repeatedly bruised Pakistan’s government in expressing repeatedly its frustration about what it, and other Western governments,  believe to be an embedded proclivity in the Pakistani establishment for duplicity and double-dealing.  The US has to keep the ISI in sight and bribe it to elicit its ‘cooperation’ in the fight against global terrorism. But keeping it on a tight leash, or preventing it from biting others (especially India), seems impossible. When the US attempts to do that, China steps in to fill the void of uncritical sponsorship. In realpolitik, dealing with the devil is an unfortunate fact of everyday life.

That the US carried out ObL’s execution without informing Pakistan, in breach of  territorial sovereignty, says more about what the US thinks of the ISI than words ever could. A prolonged period of critical examination will now ensue in the US and around the world to probe: How ObL could have been in Abbottabad for so long, undisturbed/unbeknownst to the most resourceful intelligence agencies in the world, without the ISI’s protection?  Did Pakistan’s government and Army know about, and arrange sanctuary for, ObL a few yards away from the Military Academy? Was the government and/or Army chief complicit in duplicity? Or were they supremely incompetent and ignorant in not knowing what the ISI was doing? Was Pakistan persuaded to help ObL by other powers that wish to keep the US, the West and India in perpetual discomfort?

Another question that should be asked, but probably won’t be, is: Should, in the 21st century, any State that incubates, harbours or supports in any way, known perpetrators of cross-border terrorism that damages other countries (or butchers its own citizens in defiance/rejection of fundamental human rights) retain the right to territorial sovereignty?

In practice that question has been answered by the US, the UN, NATO, Britain, France, decisively on several occasions in several countries. But in theory and international law such practice is lawless: it contravenes theory and UN convention. Should it continue to do so?

The process of post-ObL hand-wringing and investigation will be pure theatre put on at great public expense. Pakistan is already profuse in offering disingenuous defensive explanations. In trying to keep it on side in the fight against global terrorism, the exercise in the West will try to absolve its civilian administration and Army while leaving doubts to prevail about the ISI.  If one believes that ObL was made invisible in plain sight by Al Qaida, without a finger being lifted by the ISI to help, then one also believes in green men made of cheese inhabiting the moon.

That Pakistan was not involved in providing sanctuary to ObL, the world’s most-wanted terrorist, deep in its heartland for several years, while misdirecting the world to believe he might be holidaying in the badlands of Waziristan, wandering about lugging his portable dialysis kit on his back, beggars belief and strains credulity. Whatever these examinations come up with, in Pakistan or the US, they will be unable to avoid the key question: What should the US (or for that matter, Pakistan, its Army, or India) now do about the ISI?

It is now evident that the US does not trust the ISI or the Pakistani Army. In the aftermath of ObL’s execution it has said so explicitly. It believes the ISI to be a duplicitous ‘partner’ that is unpredictable and unreliable. The ISI pretends to be a committed partner of the US and Europe (but not India) in the fight against cross-border terrorism. But it is a picky partner in choosing how, when, where it wishes to cooperate. India has known that for decades. Yet India has been seen by the West as a vested interest that keeps playing up the danger of dealing with this particular devil in its own parochial interests.

Reading between the lines, it is probable that the civilian administration of Pakistan and its Army have lost control over the ISI. The Army may be playing a clever if dangerous game pretending that the ISI is uncontrollable and not a paw of the Army itself. That will remain difficult if not impossible to establish given the way the ISI operates.  It is not just a powerful and dominant organ within the only functioning institution (the Army) in a failed state. It has become a renegade combination of a mafia style criminal organisation (allegedly engaged in arms, drugs and human trafficking to subsidise its terrorist-supporting activities off-budget) which is supplemented by the dark-arts skills and resources of an unaccountable, non-transparent intelligence agency gone rogue; like the KGB and GRU when the USSR collapsed.

It is no longer clear whom or what the ISI serves (apart from itself) and what its objectives are. When it was set up they seemed to be two: protecting Pakistan and damaging (destroying?) India. Those twin objectives have morphed into opaque goals that are different and varied. Where the fight against terrorism is concerned the ISI appears to have a three-tiered strategy. It is committed to combatting terrorism as far as terrorists operating in Pakistan are concerned. But, even in this case, there are doubts in Pakistan about whether the ISI is unleashing and controlling these terrorists to score its own domestic points and make its agenda clear to a civilian administration it wants to destabilise. It despises that administration as weak; headed by allegedly a totally corrupt, contemptible individual without a legitimate popular mandate. The ISI does not see a ‘bought’ election as conferring legitimacy or constituting a mandate.

Where terrorists operating in the US and Europe are concerned the ISI seems to be neutral. It could not care less whether the US and Europe are damaged. It helps out sometimes but not others, depending on what political points it can score, what additional financial support it can extort in the name of fighting terrorism, and what scores it can settle with terrorist groups that have not been as pliable as it would like. Where terrorism against India is concerned, the ISI is in full-fledged terrorist-support mode. It continues on a large scale to finance, train, guide, and provide protection/sanctuary for groups targeting India. Hafiz Saeed is the main, but not the only, example. The US is powerless to prevent it from doing so, despite contrary rhetoric. All the US can do is cut its ties with the ISI. That would mean severing ties with the government and Army. The US does not yet see those options as serving its own interests. If, in the meanwhile, India suffers at the hands of Pakistani-sponsored terrorists, that is too bad. It is for that reason that the US refuses to acknowledge any parallel between 9/11 and 11/26.

These realities must oblige the civilian authorities in Pakistan (assuming they have any authority or capability left), the Army and the administrations as well as militaries of the US and India to decide, either individually or jointly about what to do about the ISI. There are no simple answers. The cleanest option in theory would be to shut it down and create a new intelligence organisation in Pakistan under civilian control. But that is the least practical. All that would happen is that the ISI would go underground. It would continue to do what it is doing now – perhaps with more enthusiasm and fewer constraints — in supporting global mayhem.

It would become the darling agency of choice for rogue states and emerging powers who, for their own bizarre reasons, wish to support them. It would be saved the hypocrisy of cooperating with the West and a lot of embarrassment in explaining itself. It would gain sponsorship from China which has its own agenda for keeping India on the backfoot in South and East Asia. Eventually, China will realise as the US did after 50 wasted years that it backed the wrong horse, as far as the long term was concerned. But, until that happens, India will bear the brunt.

Ultimately the defenestration of the ISI depends on Pakistan and India realising and deciding that the present course that both are embarked upon, in continuing with a dialogue of the deaf, dumb and blind, is disastrous. There has to be more give and take on settling their disputes in real time.  Perhaps the time has come for govern-to-government dialogue, which has been stuck in the same bureaucratic rut seeped in mistrust for decades, to be supplemented by parallel people-to-people, and business-to-business, dialogues that might make more progress. The price paid by both countries for doing business as usual will be an unaffordable one.

Perhaps it is time for India to realise after 65 years that it cannot deal with Pakistan bilaterally to any effect. It can wait Pakistan out because time is on its side. India is growing stronger by the day. Pakistan is unravelling. As that happens, the risk grows of unpredictable, catastrophic reactions on the part of a Pakistan that will soon see itself as having nothing more to lose by triggering the nuclear option. Therefore, some triangulation (which India implicitly seems to want the US to do, but only to its bidding) or multilateralisation of the conflict-resolution process may now be necessary for progress to be made. It is necessary for Pakistan to feel less disadvantaged in a bilateral negotiation with an India that is no longer it’s equal but is much larger, stronger, resolute, confident and therefore perceived as being more threatening. India should consider this option because Pakistan is no longer a threat only to India. Its growing instability, paranoia and unpredictability as a nuclear-armed state threaten the world at large.

Continuing on the present path can only result in mutual assured dissipation. India, because of its new-found economic and political strength (which, sadly, it is doing much to diminish through its own corruption without being abetted by Pakistan), is in a much better position to cope with the consequences of that than Pakistan, which is approaching the brink of collapse and disintegration. It is odd that Pakistan does not yet accept the reality that, in attempting to damage and destroy India, it has managed to destroy itself.

While India has gone from strength to strength since 1992, Pakistan’s journey has been exactly the opposite. How distant and illusory the Ayub Khan era now seems when Pakistan was ascendant. Then India was stuck in the deep rut of an unworkable half-witted socialism, imposed on it by the Congress Party.  Unlike India, which learnt at least half a lesson in 1991-92, Pakistan seems unwilling to learn that it must chart a new course to secure its future.  Contrary to popular belief in India, the implosion of Pakistan is not in India’s interests.

For Indians to dream of emulating the US in taking out people like Hafiz Saeed who have damaged India severely is indulging in psychotropically induced hallucination. It will be some time before India has those options, or the will, or ability (regardless of boastful assertions) to exercise them. Meanwhile it must cope with an ISI that is expert at playing all ends against the middle, and securing financial support from the US and EU to do so, to fulfil its aim of damaging India to the extent it can. Since money is fungible, the ultimate hypocrisy (and irony) is that by financing the ISI and Pakistan, to secure their participation in the fight against terrorism, the US and the West may indirectly and unwittingly be financing their own relentless diminution. But that is another story for another day.