Pragmatic | Plus ca change

The changing colours of ISI

In the latest issue of Outlook magazine, there is a small piece (without the name of the author) about a dinner in Islamabad hosted by the ISI for a group of visiting Indian journalists.

With such a grim reputation, when your dinner host turns out to be a senior official of the ISI, as happened recently to the Indian media delegation that visited Pakistan, a faux pas or two was naturally par for the course. “Is it a think-tank?” asked one member of the Indian team innocently, after our host introduced himself as an ISI honcho. But once it was clear who was buying us dinner at the posh Islamabad restaurant, there was no stopping the barrage of questions.

“See, I have neither horns nor fangs,” the official smiled as way of assuring his Indian guests. But why was he there? Well, he informed the Indian media that he wanted to put across ISI’s point of view on the ongoing peace initiative. “We’ve realised that we cannot live in an environment of hostility with each other,” reasoned the official. For the rest of the dinner, he patiently answered questions on topics ranging from terrorism directed against India to the evolving situation in his country. Predictably, he didn’t take responsibility for much of the terrorist acts in India that originated from Pakistan, including 26/11. But he tried to convey that on the government’s attempt to have peace and normalise relations with India, the ISI was on the same page.[Outlook]

This should not surprise anyone, least of all this blogger, who had warned of this danger when these journalists were being taken on a guided tour of Pakistan (see this blogpost).

What if this fear is unfounded? Or as Bharat Bhushan argues in his column in the same magazine, why is India refusing to respond to the change in Pakistan’s attitude. Very persuasive line to use, but how real is the change that we are witnessing. Can India afford to move merely on the words of someone like Mahmood Durrani, a regular participant in India-Pakistan Track-2 jamborees, who was sacked as the National Security Advisor by the current setup in Pakistan after Mumbai terror strikes in 2008?

Whether it be the relationship with US or the state of its economy or its perilous internal security situation or a lack of help from China, that Pakistan is currently squeezed from all sides is evident to all observers, including those in India. This, counterintuitively, makes it even more difficult for India to trust Pakistan’s words, because it could just be a posture to seek temporary solace till it reverts to its perennial anti-India stance. Thus, the onus is upon Pakistan to prove its sincerity by taking suitable actions to begin with — closing terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and bringing the perpetrators of Mumbai terror strike to justice — so that India can then reciprocate. Trust can’t be generated by words alone. It has to come from actions, and actions that can be verified (read Vikram Sood in the Mid-day to understand the point).

Many people will remember a similar crescendo of public opinion in India before the Shimla summit between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after the 1971 war. A large number of Indian commentators were then asking India to be large-hearted and trust Bhutto on his words. That, many analysts then said, would beget permanent peace between India and Pakistan. We all know how it actually played out. Mr Bhutto went on to ensure that Pakistan moves towards getting an Islamic nuclear bomb even if Pakistanis were to eat grass. Kashmir, Punjab and myriad other terror strikes across the country: it is under that shadow of nuclear bomb that jehadis have continued to since hurt India and Indians. If we are so oblivious today to our own history from just four decades ago, India will pay a similar price that it has paid in the recent decades.

Getting back to the ISI, what do these nice gestures towards the Indian journalists by the ISI convey? The answer comes from this story in the Washington Post about ISI and the Osama bin Laden raid:

On Friday evening, over iced tea at a hotel cafe, two ISI officials offered a narrative that they say puts Pakistan in a better light. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.

One noted that the ISI’s new head, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, is taking a “proactive” approach to public relations to improve the international image of the much-maligned intelligence service.[WaPo]

This is it. The dinner table talk and the post-dinner gift of books at Islamabad are nothing but a part of the new ISI chief’s “proactive” approach to public relations to improve the international image of ISI. Let us enjoy the meal, relish the conversation and read the book but let us not get carried away. Remember, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.