Why do ISI chiefs get into trouble? - By Khaled Ahmed Back   Home  
The personality disorder among Pakistani military officers springs from their inability to adjust to the low power status of the state they serve. This disorder stems from the ambition to do something extraordinary through a single feat of defiance that would offset the weakness of the state. The intelligence establishment in Pakistan has unaccountably embraced the task of achieving this incongruous objective during times when the weak state is under pressure to adjust to the foreign policies of the powerful states.
Most ISI chiefs have either gotten into trouble during their tenure or have been subjected to severe criticism after their retirement. General Mehmood Ahmad was the last chief to be criticised after his retirement. Reports said that he was in the habit of 'losing his cool' during official meetings and that he was guilty of throwing his tantrums in front of the army chief which he did not like. It has also been reported that he was inclined to insubordination of sorts, ignoring advice to clear certain actions from the Chief before carrying them out. Those who interacted with him say that he tended to give the impression that he knew state policy better than his superiors and tended to snub his colleagues.

A general given to tantrums: The local newspapers immediately started garnering adverse comment on General Mehmood after his supersession and retirement on 7 October 2001. General Mehmood Ahmad was General Musharraf's close friend because they belonged to the same regiment. Mehmood was commander 10 corps when he laid siege to the PM House on 12 October 1999 to bring Musharraf to power. Ikram Sehgal writing in The Nation (9 October 2001) said: 'Unfortunately, General Mehmood has never heard a shot being fired in anger, having no combat experience at all', but Pakistan will remember that it was his corps that handled the Kargil Operation which was seen as the country's biggest political disaster.

Humayun Akhtar, son of an ex-ISI chief himself, writing in The Nation (9 November 2001) revealed that General Ahmad was opposed to General Musharraf's cooperation with the Americans in their war against the Taliban. He also noted that he had led two unsuccessful delegations to Afghanistan and represented a group of officers who were opposed to General Musharraf's policy: 'Musharraf's efforts to curb the military's involvement with religious organisations and discourage the intelligence services' support of the Taliban had met with little success.' But if General Mehmood Ahmad was opposed to the American policy against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he did not reveal it during his visit to the United States around the time when the terrorist attacks took place on 11 September. The officers he met in the CIA and the National Security Council stated publicly that they were satisfied with him, presumably because he had convincingly shared intelligence on Afghanistan with them. This indicates that General Mehmood Ahmad, while intensely opposed to the Americans, may have tried to deceive them to block a flanking move to get rid of him; or he could be presenting himself as an alternative to General Musharraf with a view to coming to power in Pakistan on their back, as it were.

The general's dubious connections: The American 'praise' for General Mehmood was tempered by the news in Dawn (9 October 2001) that the FBI had actually found out that he had contacts with Al-Qaeda activist Sheikh Umar Saeed who had remitted from Pakistan 100,000 dollars to Muhammad Ata who was one of the attackers of New York's World Trade Center. The news item alleged that the money was sent to Muhammad Ata on his instructions. On 3 October Azim Mian of The News filed from Washington that the evidence presented by the American ambassador to General Musharraf 'also unveils some details about individuals and institutional sympathisers and patrons of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban inside the government set-up of Islamabad as well as non-governmental players'. That would place the ISI chief in a totally different light. It would lead to the charge that the general was somehow working for al-Qaeda and that he could be held partly responsible for the acts of terrorism. And through him, Pakistan could be blamed by its enemies for taking part in international terrorism, a charge already made by president Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, who names Pakistan for the attempts made on his life but keeps the Pakistan government out of it, and ex-prime minister of Bangladesh Hasina Wajed who thought that the ISI had tried to kill her twice.

Shakeel Sheikh reporting in The News (9 October 2001) painted a more striking picture of General Mehmood Ahmad as an unsteady man. He misbehaved with all the key military and civilian aides to General Musharraf, 'as well as snubbing a service chief, after his return from the United States'. He had prevented General Musharraf from meeting Mulla Umar in Kandahar, then had carefully selected a pro-Taliban delegation of clerics, including Mulla Umar's preceptor and murshid Mufti Shamzai, to persuade Mulla Umar to give up the fight; instead the delegation tended to firm up Mulla Umar's resolve to go on fighting. He was so cocky after his US visit that he first tried to prevent his appointment as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. The report called him 'a victim of his own ambition'.

Generals with personality disorder: Was it really a personality disorder? He seems to have hit it off nicely with the CIA and the NSC in Washington in April, but during an earlier visit to the State Department he is supposed to have lost his cool in the same manner as he did with General Musharraf's staff officers. The flare-up at the State Department was disclosed to the author by an eye-witness. One can conclude from this evidence that General Mehmood Ahmad was given to sudden bouts of temper. One well known occasion was a Pakistani ambassadors' conference in Islamabad last year where he testily reprimanded the ambassadors for not relying 'on the intercession of Providence' while analysing Pakistan's Afghan policy. The ambassadors had painted a pretty gloomy picture of the policy and the general wanted to persist with the ISI slant on it. Needless to say, the ambassadors were greatly put off by the outburst, only one plucking enough courage to say a mildly protesting word. The Foreign Office realised that the general was no longer the liberal man everyone thought he had been, but a born-again Islamist since the forked lightning fell on him on the heights of Kargil. In actual fact, say those close to him, Mehmood was acting as a 'liberal with a vision' before the foreigners and 'fundo with a vision' at home. He was competing with General Musharraf in the foreign 'constituency' and with General Aziz on the home front. In the event, he over-reached himself and tripped over his own ambition. It is possible that in reality he was just a supremely ambitious, cocky individual fired by opportunism but moved by no ideology at all.

Pressure of defending a weak state: One ordinary reason for resorting to tantrums is an unwillingness to accept criticism. As ISI chief, Hameed Gul was known to resort to it often in his briefings at the Foreign Office, especially after the Jalalabad fiasco. Anger forestalls adverse comment, and if you happen to be as powerful as the head of the ISI, it can be quite daunting. The ISI was not running well under General Mehmood Ahmad. There is no doubt that he had inherited its malfunctioning from the soldiers of fortune of the past but he was partly not willing to reform it because the adventurer was alive and kicking in him. His predecessor General Ziauddin Butt was in jail for his adventure against the army chief in 1999. Prime minister Benazir Bhutto had told a Karachi magazine that she did not control the ISI and the ISI had been working against her. She recalled the operation Midnight Jackals when the ISI officers were caught conspiring to overthrow her through a no confidence vote in parliament. The latest charge levelled by another Karachi magazine was hat the ISI officers were involved in giving protection to the sectarian jehadi organisations killing the Shias in Karachi.

The personality disorder among Pakistani military officers springs from their inability to adjust to the low power status of the state they serve. This disorder stems from the ambition to do something extraordinary through a single feat of defiance that would offset the weakness of the state. The intelligence establishment in Pakistan has unaccountably embraced the task of achieving this incongruous objective during times when the weak state is under pressure to adjust to the foreign policies of the powerful states. COAS General Aslam Beg spread the thesis of 'strategy of defiance' that did not work, but the 'defiance' of General Hameed Gul at the ISI caught on and set the tone of this institution. The public response as reflected in the Urdu press had always been favourable and therefore adventurism became the hallmark of the officer considered successful. The panache of Hameed Gul was eclipsed in the eyes of some when he failed to pull off the Jalalabad siege in 1989. That was the only time the armchair military intellectual of the ISI had planned an operation. After he failed, the PDPA government of Najibullah in Kabul was able to offer pacification to the opposition. As related in War, politics and society in Afghanistan 1978-1992 by Antonio Giustozzi, half the jehadi outfits lost their warriors and tough cities like Kandahar were 80 percent persuaded to make a deal with the government. Of the 6,000 warlords 20 percent actually did make a secret deal with Najibullah.

Adventurers and soldiers of fortune: The next Hameed Gullian at the ISI was General Javed Nasir who consciously followed Gul's 'free' policy, that is, letting the brigadiers plan and execute operation without clearance from the prime minister or even himself. That's what happened in 1993 when a certain Brigadier Kamal Alam that India would simply collapse after the Bombay mayhem. In the event, it turned out to be another Pearl Harbour, a act-of-anger operation that gained Pakistan nothing, except that General Javed Nasir got the sack soon after the Nawaz Sharif government fell. The man who fronted the operation, Indian underworld king Dawood Ibrahim, was bequeathed to Pakistan by the agency as the most negative fallout of the ill-conceived operation. In 2001, he is perhaps the most powerful man in Karachi owning large estates and keeping army and police personnel on his payroll. The agency then made yet another blunder: it gave Punjab's Auqaf Department to Deobandi General Javed Nasir, thus producing a Barelvi backlash which culminated in a Deobandi-Barelvi war in Karachi. It did not inquire from him as to why as chief of the ISI he had kept all the foreign currency reserves of the organisation in Yunus Habib's Mehran Bank, which the next incumbent, General Javed Ashraf Qazi, had to recover through a commando operation against the corrupt bank functionaries.

Many adventurers of the ISI are cooling their heels in retirement, probably resting on the spoils they gleaned from their posts of supreme authority. Brigadier Imtiaz Billa, exposed like Hameed Gul, is in jail like General Ziauddin. General Javed Nasir is out of Auqaf after a disastrous tenure and an abortive gamble with the setting up of Pakistan's own Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Only Hameed Gul is out hitting the street as usual, totally unafraid of the army and confident, perhaps correctly, that pockets inside the ISI still owed allegiance to him. Will General Mahmood Ahmad hit the street too? Will he be like Hameed Gul, in lockstep with the warrior priests, or like Javed Nasir doing the Deobandi jehad within the Tablighi Jamaat? Pakistan needs to rethink its intelligence strategy. It can't afford men with personality disorders running what is Pakistan's most powerful institution with coercive powers that make mockery of democracy. It has to choose ISI chiefs from among officers who are less swashbuckling and more in the thinking person's mode.
Published in FridayTimes, a moderate Pakistani Weekly newsmagazine.