November 30, 2008


By: David Donadio

It’s still not clear who was responsible for the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai earlier this week. Signs suggest the Kashmiri group Lashkar-e-Taiba, but the fact that they managed to kill the local counterterrorist chief suggests that they probably had help.

In the days before the attacks, Farhan Bokhari and James Lamont of the Financial Times had what seems to be the most comprehensive accounts (here and here) (free registration required) of the Pakistani political context. Bokhari and Lamont write:

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”.

Jim Hoagland is thinking along the same lines. If I were a senior officer in the ISI, I probably wouldn’t take my political excommunication sitting down. I’d resent being cut out of the foreign policy process (in which the ISI traditionally wields at least as much power if not more than the Pakistani foreign ministry), and who knows what I’d be willing to do about it.

What’s remarkable in all this is that whether it’s Bush or Zardari — Pakistan’s hope and change candidate — our leaders always seem to give too little thought to how disenfranchised groups will respond to being marginalized. Oddly enough, it’s sometimes better to coopt than to coerce.

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