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No harm in talking to the ISI

By B Raman
Last updated on: July 24, 2009 10:00 IST
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Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate reportedly wants to be involved in the talks with India.

We requested B Raman, India's best-known expert on counter-terrorism and a former senior official at the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, what he thought of the ISI's suggestions. This is what Mr Raman, who wrote this piece en route to Singapore, said:

The Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan, the bete noire of the Indian security agencies, is again in the news for two reasons.

The first reason is due to the agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani at their recent summit at Sharam-el-Sheikh that the two countries would share real-time actionable intelligence on terrorism.

The second is the report carried by The Hindu, the national daily, under the joint by-line of Nirupama Subramanian, its Islamabad correspondent, and Siddharth Varadarajan, its New Delhi correspondent, about a recent meeting between Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha -- who was appointed by the Asif Ali Zardari government as the ISI's director general in September last year reportedly under US pressure -- and the Indian military attaches in Islamabad.

Pasha replaced Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, whom the US allegedly suspected of masterminding the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July last year and of leaking US-origin secrets to the Taliban.

Pasha enjoys the Americans's trust and affection until now. After the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008, American non-governmental experts on India-Pakistan affairs, with close contacts to the US administration at different levels, had believed that if at all there was an ISI involvement in Mumbai 26/11, it would have been under Taj and not under Pasha.

It may be recalled that Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist of the Mumbai attacks, had reportedly told interrogators that the original target date for the attacks was in September, but the Lashkar-e-Tayiba postponed it for reasons not known to him. Taj was still the ISI chief at that time.

The inference from this was that the conspiracy for the attack was drawn up by the Lashkar, with the knowledge if not at the instance of the ISI headed by Taj, but when he was replaced under US pressure, the ISI withdrew from the conspiracy. The Lashkar went ahead with the plot without the ISI's further involvement.

Taj, who was very close to then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf, had a reputation of being strongly anti-India, whereas Pasha, it is believed, is not. I had referred to this in one of my articles on 26/11.

The Hindu report has created some excitement because it has referred to a meeting between Pasha and the Indian military attaches posted at the Indian high commission in Islamabad at which the ISI chief was reported to have suggested that the Government of India remain in touch with the Pakistan army and the ISI in addition to its interactions with the elected leadership in Pakistan. This meeting was apparently held at Pasha's initiative.

In his conversation on board his aircraft with Indian journalists who had accompanied him to the G-8 summit in Italy, Dr Singh was reported to have referred to a meeting between Pasha and the Indian defence attaches in Islamabad as part of the ongoing effort to explore the possibility of resuming the interrupted dialogue between the two countries.

Immediately thereafter, The News, a Pakistan daily newspaper, published a report, attributed to official sources, denying that such a meeting had taken place.

And now comes the report in The Hindu. Was it based on information originating from the ISI in Pakistan and the Pakistani high commission in New Delhi or from the Indian high commission in Islamabad and the Indian foreign office in New Delhi? It is difficult to say.

Whoever was behind the report, there is an element of psychological warfare behind it -- either initiated by the ISI or by elements in the Government of India. It is, therefore, difficult to say how much of it is a fact and how much motivated spin.

Whatever be the truth, it has been seen recently that Pasha and his officers have been playing an increasingly active role in interacting off-the-record with the media and giving the army's and the ISI's version of the situation in the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

Interestingly, coinciding with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India last week, an unidentified ISI official or officials in Islamabad briefed one or more US journalists on the situation in which concern was expressed over the implications of the stepped-up US offensive against the Taliban in the Helmand province in Afghanistan and over the continued perception in the Pakistan army of a likely threat from India, which inhibited its operations against the Pakistani Taliban. A report based on this briefing was carried by the International Herald Tribune. I do not remember the date, but I read it on board an aircraft on the night of July 22.

From all this, it is evident that there is active lobbying -- if we do not want to use the word pressure -- for a liaison relationship between the ISI and an appropriate Indian intelligence agency. The US seems to be playing a role in this exercise.

The Americans had made a similar effort in 1993 after the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, when Bill Clinton was the president and P V Narasimha Rao was our prime minister. The Central Intelligence Agency offered to arrange a meeting between the heads of the ISI and R&AW. While Nawaz Sharif, the then Pakistani prime minister, reacted positively after some initial hesitation, Narasimha Rao was negative in his reaction. This was partly due to his scepticism about the US role and partly because of the strong opposition from J N Dixit, then the foreign secretary.

Dixit's opposition arose from his distrust of the ISI as well as R&AW. His distrust of R&AW dated back to his days as India's high commissioner in Colombo. He felt annoyed that R&AW did not keep him totally in the picture about its independent interactions with the Sri Lankan leadership.

There was another reason for Dixit's distrust. There were three sporadic meetings between the heads of the ISI and R&AW in third countries between 1988 and 1991 to discuss Indian allegations of the ISI's support to Khalistani terrorists in Punjab and Pakistani allegations of R&AW's meddling in Sindh. Karachi was burning at that time due to the violent activities of various anti-Punjabi militant groups.

These meetings were organised at the initiative of a member of Jordan's royal family. President Zia-ul Haq, who died in August 1988, his successor Benazir Bhutto and her successor Nawaz Sharif were in the picture. In India, then prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Chandra Shekhar were in the picture. There were no meetings when V P Singh was the PM.

The ministries of defence and external affairs were annoyed at R&AW for not keeping the interactions with the ISI confined to terrorism and for expanding the agenda to include possible ways of solving the Siachen issue. In fact, it was Rajiv Gandhi who encouraged R&AW to discuss Siachen with the ISI. Despite this, Dixit was annoyed with R&AW when he discovered these meetings in 1993. Ultimately, the US proposal of 1993 as conveyed by the CIA remained a non-starter due to Narasimha Rao's scepticism strengthened by Dixit's views.

Now this proposal has again come up after 26/11. I have been of the view that R&AW and the ISI should maintain a secret liaison of which only the leaderships of the two countries should be aware. Such a liaison helps in many ways: Firstly, it provides the leadership with a clandestine channel of communication. Secondly, intelligence chiefs of the two countries are able to know and assess each other in flesh and blood during personal meetings and not merely through media reports and uncorroborated source information. Thirdly, it helps them to pick each other's brains and understand each other's mindset.

Intelligence professionals are not like diplomats. They speak to each other more freely and frankly than diplomats do. And the fact that they enjoy the confidence of their leadership and have direct access to them for informal discussions gives them a certain self-confidence which non-intelligence senior bureaucrats do not have.

There is no harm in our giving a try to the idea of an informal, clandestine one-to-one liaison relationship between the ISI and R&AW. We should not have any illusions that it would result in a sharing of actionable intelligence. Intelligence agencies share actionable intelligence only when they have common State and non-State enemies. India and Pakistan do not have common enemies.

Even countries, which do not have an adversarial relationship, do not sincerely share all intelligence. They pick and choose depending on their national interest. The CIA has had a liaision relationship with Indian intelligence for nearly 60 years. While I was in service, it had shared a lot of intelligence with us on China, but not on Pakistan and its support to anti-India terrorism. It was its perception that it was in the US national interest to help India against China, but not against Pakistan.

In the cae of all liaison relationships there is a danger of the other intelligence agency trying to mislead by planting false intelligence. This danger will be very high in the ISI's case. It could create alienation between the Government of India and our Muslim community by planting false intelligence about selected members of the Indian Muslim community, particularly about those it does not like.

The liaison relationship should be carefully supervised by the political leadership.

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B Raman