Two lessons can be drawn straightaway from the Abbottabad Commission Report released, not by the Government of Pakistan, but by a foreign news channel.
One, skeletons mustn’t be dumped in a cupboard because they have a terrible way of coming out, and when they do, they make a lot of noise. Two, not only are our intelligence agencies incompetent, the mother of them all, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, hogs all the space and doesn’t let other outfits do their job too.
Nothing surprising. These are known facts – unofficially. But when a commission, set up by the government to investigate the May 2 humiliation, puts this in black and white, our foreknowledge, based on nuts-and-bolts information – invariably denied by (in)competent authorities – finally gets an official imprimatur.
That can’t but be good.
The details of the report, by now, are known. But it raises many questions. The most obvious is, why wasn’t the report made public by the previous government, and why did someone in the government now considered it prudent to leak it to a foreign news channel?
Again, the answer is obvious: the military remains powerful to a point where no government can afford a head-on with it. Else, after Abbottabad, the brass would have had to go home. [NB: the DG-ISI had offered to resign but for some reason the matter ended on that offer.]
The second issue is the timing of the leak. If it is accepted that someone in the present government chose to make it public circuitously, which is a plausible theory because it gets the job done and retains plausible deniability, then we would – or should – see some movement on reconfiguring the intelligence set-up.
That is not only important, it is vital.
On the other hand, if this whole episode is meant only to embarrass the military, without any plan to add value to it, i.e., do some restructuring, then it will be another exercise in utter uselessness and we have seen many such in the past.
So, why is it so important to reconfigure the intelligence set-up?
First, the current one is obviously not working. Second, as things stand, the control of national intelligence input is with the army chief, not the prime minister and/or the president and most definitely not the interior minister. The report is very clear on how the ISI controls national intelligence. It is, within one body, both MI6, dealing with foreign or external intelligence gathering and MI5, assuming the task of a counter-intelligence and security agency.
Given Pakistan’s peculiar civil-military imbalance, the ISI, in collusion with the military, especially the army, also determines – with varying degrees – the input necessary for formulating foreign and national security policy. Its two roles not only give it immense power but also create an interactive dynamic between the two with external intelligence functions impacting on and influencing its counter-intelligence role. That, even technically speaking, should never happen.
Add to that the fact that despite being the premier national intelligence agency and also, despite in theory reporting to the prime minister, it is essentially an inter-services set-up, with the DGI and other DGs holding their appointments at the pleasure of the army chief. This, predictably, constrains the civilian authorities in terms of their understanding of the security environment which, in turn, puts severe limitations on their ability to formulate policies. Not without reason are they, for the most part, entirely dependent on what they are told about and what is withheld.
Take an example: the army’s typical refrain is that the civilians should take ownership of this war and that they will operate only if there is a public buy-in for military operations and other counterterrorism measures. This argument is specious for more than one reason, but most of all for the simple fact that the civilian principals cannot be expected to take responsibility when the very tools imperative for appreciating the situation are denied them. This is like saying to a child that he must learn to drive without touching the family car. Responsibility without authority is a hollow concept.
Three things make the army chief all-powerful: control of 550,000 men under arms that move with one stroke of his pen; carte blanche with the spending of the defence budget; and a monopoly on national intelligence operations and input. No civilian principal can be effective until this control is rationalised in favour of the prime minister.
Countries have faced intelligence failures. They have formed commissions. The reports of those commissions have been made public. For the most part, incompetence and culpability have been determined and heads have rolled. There is no other method known to man to learn lessons from a failure than this. Failures in large organisations and across organisations are not just about individual incompetence; these are, almost invariably, system failures. And system failures can be addressed only by studying, dispassionately, why a system has failed and how it can be retooled.
This is as true of and for organisations as it is of and for accidents and incidents in systems dealing with high-risk technologies – chemical and nuclear plants; space flights; other aviation platforms et cetera. The list is long.
The important point is that the Abbottabad Commission Report will be a useless document if the lessons contained therein are not heeded. The primary lesson relates to restructuring the national intelligence set-up. The premier intelligence agency should not be a two-in-one organisation and it mustn’t be answerable, de facto, to the army chief.
It is important to note, however, that given Pakistan’s many threats, internal and external, the country needs a highly effective intelligence set-up. Any exercise to reconfigure it must have that objective in mind, in addition to the fact that intelligence agencies must be answerable to parliament’s committees set up for the purpose of monitoring them.
There is also an obvious need to ensure that counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence gathering functions are separated without affecting coordination. That coordination must be ensured by, in our case, a strengthened Interior Ministry.
Equally, there were other failures apropos of Abbottabad. As a people we seem unable to abide by and enforce rules and regulations, whether they deal with land acquisition, building rules, checking speeding on the roads, or the property tax, in this particular case. There are many more. But the only way rules can be enforced is if those who create them submit to them as readily as other citizens. If the rulers don’t do that, the enforcing machinery, over a period of time, will either become apathetic and lethargic or begin to use those rules to line their own pockets.
The effectiveness of the state will be the casualty as it has been so many times in the past. Any takers?
The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs, at Capital TV and hosts a prime time show ‘Bay-laag’.