Pakistan’s ‘deep state’

Terrorism,” the former ISI chief, Lt General Asad Durrani, wrote last week, “is a technique of war, and therefore an instrument of policy.” Unlike Lt General Hamid Gul, another former ISI chief, Durrani is not bombastic; he is quite precise with words.

Durrani is upfront in asserting that the ISI has no reason to be apologetic about using violent extremism in the pursuit of the Pakistan army’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan and India.

But a week is a long time in politics. After the US Special Forces swooped down on Osama bin Laden’s safe haven in Abbottabad and killed him under the very nose of the ISI, and in brazen violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, it is reasonable to wonder whether the ISI might show a bit of contrition, or at least simulate it for the moment.

Durrani’s sharp summation of the Pakistan army’s terror doctrine a few days ago came in response to WikiLeaks report that Washington had put the ISI on an internal list of terrorist organisations.

Durrani’s contemptuous “so-what” self-assurance is built on the ISI’s vast experience over the last three decades of creating, nurturing and deploying extremist groups in the region and beyond.

It is also borne out of the belief that the ISI and the Pakistan army — the media across the Radcliffe Line often refers to them as the “Deep State” — had played a stellar role in bringing down the Soviet Union. It reflects the confidence, at least until Sunday night, that the ISI could bleed Washington in Afghanistan if it wanted to.

Given the catch-me-if-you-can swagger of the ISI, few in New Delhi would want to bet on potential reformation in the ISI and the Pakistan army after being caught red-handed hosting Osama bin Laden. After all, institutions, especially in the security sector, are not easy to reform. Nor is it possible for a large and powerful organisation to discard a work culture acquired over decades.

Delhi’s cynics would argue that it will be a matter of time before the ISI will revert to form — of pretending to cooperate with the international community in the war against terror while continuing to invest in terror outfits that can promote its perceived interests.

Moderates in South Block might say that the Pakistan army is bound to come under intense pressure from Washington in the coming weeks to act against the remnants of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the western borderlands of Pakistan.

Until now, the US has had little success in persuading the Pakistan army to confront the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Forget taking on the Haqqani brothers, General Ashfaq Kayani wants to insert them into the power structures in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The coming weeks will reveal whether the US can overcome this fundamental contradiction between its objectives and the Pakistan army’s interests in Afghanistan. What happens to Haqqani and the so-called Quetta Shura of the Taliban will reveal whether Washington’s leverage vis a vis Rawalpindi has improved after Obama struck at Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.

India has no reasons to underestimate US power and political resolve after Sunday night’s raid on Abbottabad.

Delhi’s moderates will also say that greater cooperation between the Pakistan army and the US after the execution of bin Laden does not necessarily mean Rawalpindi would dump the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has served as the sword arm against India over the years.

Delhi’s realists would also be right in pointing to another factor. If the ISI could string along the US on bin Laden for nearly a decade, why would it want to make nice to India on LeT? Unlike the US, which has been Pakistan’s benefactor for decades, India is seen as a rival by Pakistan.

This realist appreciation is not a justification for a policy of oscillating between “I told you so” about the Pakistan army’s embrace of violent extremism and sulking about the lack of progress on the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.

Given the location of bin Laden in Pakistan and his execution, Delhi should have no illusions that it can sustain the renewed peace process with Islamabad on the expectation that the Pakistan army can be persuaded to end its support to cross-border violence.

The American experience with the Pakistan army is instructive. So long as Washington relied on the Pakistan army to deliver bin Laden, it got nowhere. It is only after it chose to short-circuit Rawalpindi that Washington could get at bin Laden.

The success of India’s anti-terror efforts, then, depends on altering the internal balance of power in Pakistan away from the army. So long as the Pakistan army towers over the civilian leaders, controls the national security policy and feeds the terror machine, there will be no real change in the structure of Indo-Pak relations.

Is it too ambitious for India to think of reordering the civil-military relations in Pakistan? On its own, India does not have the power to engineer Pakistan’s internal transformation. But acting in coalition with others, India might have a chance, slim though it might be.

The people of Pakistan, the international community and India have all been victims of the extended dalliance between Pakistan’s deep state and the forces of violent extremism. If India wants to dismantle the terror machine across our western border, it will need to contribute to the liberation of Pakistani civil society from the clutches of the deep state.

Even if it is a long shot, India must work towards civilian primacy in Pakistan and the construction of a credible international coalition that can undermine the ISI’s deeply held conviction that terrorism is a mere instrument of policy.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi