Original Articles

Pakistan: ISI ousted Bhutto? – by Inam R. Sehri

Is ISI subservient to the Government of Pakistan or vice versa?
Now a days much proclaimed news in the media from Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yusaf raza Gilani that ‘we are with our ISI; their functions and operations have government backing’ (Ref: media news of 28th April 2011). Till the recent past it was not so. PPP had series of grievances with the ISI though it could not be ascertained whether it was the ISI’s role which caused complaints or PPP’s own wrong choice of team selected at nepotism and not on the basis of their professional skills and competency. Let us go through some facts of our past history.

An American broadcaster Mark Corcoran presented his investigative report in 2001 describing that Pakistan‘s feared Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), is a maker and breaker of governments. As the Americans and their allies venture further into the quagmire ofAfghanistan, they are dependant on the ISI to be their “eyes and ears” on the ground. The only problem is the ISI was until September 11, the Taliban’s closest ally – in fact the agency was instrumental in bringing the Talibans to power. While General Musharraf has signed up on the side of the US, the ISI has other ideas. Already Musharraf has sacked his ISI boss (Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed) for encouraging the Taliban to resist the US. (Former PM Benazir Bhutto tells Mr Mark that) the ISI is “a state within a state”, and blames it for her own political demise. According to experts, the ISI has a track record of political assassination, state-sponsored terrorism, and drug running.’

ISI’s role during Gen Zia’s rule is quite evident in Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography ‘Daughter of the East’ on how the martial law regime sought to suppress the PPP. The ISI not only kept tabs on the Bhutto family when they were in the country but also during their stay abroad. In one instance a Pakistani surveillance team attempted to keep track of Benazir Bhutto even while she was in political exile in London. She then telephoned Scotland Yard and complained about some men waiting outside her house. On their interception the intimidation ceased.

Former Governor of the Punjab province, late Lt Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan once expressed apprehensions about being under surveillance during Gen Zia’s regime. Gen Jilani had asked Brig Syed AI Tirmazi, who was then serving as the Director in ISI Directorate, whether he was under surveillance. Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan was a father figure credited with nurturing the ISI rise from a peripheral to a powerful organisation in Pakistan. He had served as the DG ISI in three regimes beginning with President Yahya Khan, PM Z A Bhutto and President Ziaul Haq. Like his predecessors, Gen Ziaul Haq too did not hesitate to use the ISI for promoting his political interests.

Air Marshall (Rtd) Asghar Khan was not the only voice challenging the role of the ISI in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto had also made a committee during her premiership to ascertain and review the role of Intelligent Agencies under the chair of AM (Rtd) Zulfiqar Ali Khan. When recommendations of the said Committee surfaced, Ms Bhutto was no more in her office of PM. Later, when Lt Gen Hamid Gul was questioned about this involvement by Air Marshal (retd) Zulfiquar Ali Khan, he said that ‘If I had not formed the IJI, there would have been no elections because the smaller parties have been fearful of taking on the PPP individually.’ Nevertheless AM Zulfikar’s findings were based on public admissions and statements by Generals Mirza Aslam Beg, Asad Durrani and Hameed Gul which were available to the people through media.

Former President Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK)’s dismissal of the then PM Benazir Bhutto using his powers under Art 58(2)(B) on 6th August 1990 was a significant development highlighting the role of an intelligence agency in national politics. The reasons officially stated were charges of corruption, failure to work with the provinces and attempts to question the powers of the armed forces. Ms Bhutto contained that the ISI was involved against her government. The ISI as the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of the military had influenced the President, the Supreme Commander of Armed Forces to take a decision against Benazir Bhutto.

The game had started from Benazir Bhutto’s first day on political arena in September 1988, when the ISI then headed by Lt Gen Hamid Gul had paved together the opposition parties in Pakistan and formed the IJI in order to defeat PPP from coming to power. The then Chairman Senate and caretaker President GIK and the COAS Gen Beg were not keen on Benazir Bhutto’s success in elections and they used all the available sources like ISI, the MI, the IB and the police special branches to keep her away from gaining political power. She was young and inexperienced thus was compelled to stick to certain conditions of the military leadership before taking oath as PM. These conditions included:

  • To continue the late General Zia’s Afghan policy.
  • Allow Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and Lt Gen Hamid Gul to continue in their appointments as Chief of Army Staff and Director General ISI respectively.
  • Not to cut or depress the defence budget.
  • Not to initiate any accountability proceedings against army personnel.

Benazir Bhutto, after taking over the office of PM, started feeling psychological problems carrying on the ISI and the IB with her because till a day earlier they were working against her person and party. Due to them her father was taken to the gallows against the people’s wish. In tune with this mindset one of her first moves was to sack Brig (retd) Imtiaz from the ISI and close down its political division in early 1989. Secondly, she appointed Major (retd) Masood Sharif, a close friend of her husband Asif Zardari as the Director IB, who was otherwise an incompetent and inexperienced later proved to be total failure to hold such an important and responsible assignment.

Benazir Bhutto soon developed serious differences with the ISI over its Afghan policy in early 1989 resulting a rift between the PM and the ISI leadership. The DG ISI Lt Gen Hamid Gul was relieved from office and a retired Lt Gen Shamsur Rehman Kallue, happened to be a close associate with Z A Bhutto, was appointed as new DG ISI. The COAS Gen Aslam Beg had transferred all the dossiers on political leaders and other records related to political intelligence from the ISI HQ to the MI. This move neutralised the appointment of Lt Gen Kallue as DG ISI and also taken away the effectiveness of ISI in political field.

Benazir Bhutto then focussed on strengthening the role of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) for intelligence gathering within the country in order to marginalise the participation of the ISI but miserably failed. IB’s budget was increased to four times the previous figure, 20 senior positions at the joint director level were created and subordinate level staff was increased thrice to strengthen the management structure but all went in vain because the Director IB, Masood Sharif, a young retired major, was lacking all the management and professional skills who misused the huge budget on re-employing young retired captains and colonels with zero experience of intelligence work. IB became another organisation of army but of retired and redundant young lads. Naturally, they were not in a position to see eye-in-eye towards their seniors who had once sent them home when they were not found fit for promotions.

IB under Masood Sharif’s command had gone so lethargic that on 17th July 1989 an army intelligence wing under COAS had clandestinely recorded the conversation between Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi while the latter was on a state visit to Pakistan. The room was bugged by the army intelligence agency and the two leaders in the course of their private meeting at Islamabad had discussed, among other issues, the possibility of mutual troop reduction. Benazir Bhutto had agreed in principle to the proposal of reducing the respective army ranks. Soon after the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Aslam Beg and President GIK met each other on 24th July 1989 and decided to topple the Benazir Bhutto’s government. In order to convince the Opposition and obtain their backing for the need to destabilise the government the recorded tapes were played to them. The IJI, after hearing tapes, opted to plant a no-confidence move against Benazir Bhutto.

Masood Sharif’s IB kept sleeping and they could not get even the air of the whole episode. When the news of no-confidence motion caught air in media, Masood Sharif’s IB planned another disgusting ‘operation’ to keep Benazir Bhutto on their positive side.

In this backdrop, Masood Sharif’s IB had planned their ‘Operation Midnight Jackals’, a much trumpeted affair in the history of IB. The operation had started with one Arif Awan a PPP activist and MNA from Shiekupura district, who pretended to offer him for sale in order to penetrate into the group of decision makers of the IJI. MNA Arif Awan became a PPP ‘plant’ aimed at neutralising the hostile strategy of the IJI. The IJI pushed their team comprising of Malik Naeem, Senator Gulsher Khan, Brigadier (retd) Imtiaz, Major Aamer and Arif Awan’s nephew, Malik Mumtaz into the game who initially contacted PPP’s Arif Awan. He started attending their meetings. Mr Awan also got initial success in recording conversations between members of the group from 28th September – 6th October 1989 at his nephew Malik Mumtaz’s residence. The plan of action was for Arif Awan along with three other PPP MNAs to offer to become ‘lotas’ and a deal was clinched for Rs 5 million. On their part the PPP MNAs promised to vote along with the Combined Opposition Parties MNAs in forthcoming no-confidence motion. The deal also assured that one of the ‘lotas’ would be made a Federal Minister if the IJI proved successful in its venture.

In the proposed no-confidence move of 1st November 1989, the attempt failed but both the teams decided to remain intact for next years move. Benazir Bhutto accused the ISI and unknowingly attributed the blame to them for this move of no-confidence. She might not know the actual number game being manipulated by her own IB team. In the meantime, the details of the said ‘Operation Midnight Jackals’ were picked up by the media, possibly through a Peshawar based correspondent, thus causing another blow to PPP’s cause.

Amidst all these rifts and misunderstandings, ultimately, President GIK had opted to send Benazir Bhutto home on the flimsy charges of corruption and mal-administration which were never proved.

The moral is that if the present PPP is not repeating the same mistake by going on nepotism, favouritism, bias, partiality and discrimination ignoring merit.