insight: ISI and signalling —Ejaz Haider
Could it be that the Indians would think it useless to deal with the civilian government in Islamabad, and since they can’t deal with the ISI directly, despair of the possibility of any forward movement on the dialogue framework?Two interesting reports have appeared in recent days in the foreign press, both pointing to pro-active strategic signalling by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. Consider.The first appeared in the New York Times on July 22. Titled “Pakistan Objects to US Plan for Afghan War”, the report, filed by Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez, said: “The country’s perspective [on the US surge in Afghanistan] was given in a nearly two-hour briefing on Friday for The New York Times by senior analysts and officials of Pakistan’s main spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the agency’s policy. The main themes of the briefing were echoed in conversations with several military officers over the past few days.“One of the first briefing slides read, in part: ‘The surge in Afghanistan will further reinforce the perception of a foreign occupation of Afghanistan. It will result in more civilian casualties; further alienate local population. Thus more local resistance to foreign troops.’”The second report came out in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu. Filed by Nirupama Subramanian and Siddharth Varadarajan, the report opened thus:“Days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani met in Egypt, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence floated a suggestion that India deal not just with Pakistan’s civilian government but also directly with its Army and intelligence agency.”This has since been denied by the ISI and also the Foreign Office but we shall return to that theme later. Let us for now consider some other aspects.The report further said: “Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha made the out-of-the-box overture during a meeting earlier this month with the three Indian defence advisers representing the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force attached to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, The Hindu has learnt.“The sit-in at Lt. Gen. Pasha’s office in Rawalpindi on July 3 took place entirely at his initiative, though it was ostensibly convened in response to a request made by the Indian High Commission ‘years before’. It is normal for defence advisors attached to various diplomatic missions in Islamabad to seek and be granted calls on the ISI director-general — a wing of the ISI is the coordinating agency for them — but Indians have rarely had an audience.”What is going on?Signalling? And if the ISI is doing it, one needs to see why.Strategic signalling is a growing and controversial area with more unknowns than knowns and involves various factors. Moeed Yusuf, who has done work on nuclear signalling between India and Pakistan during the 2001-02 standoff, categorises signalling as direct, indirect and tacit. His findings are interesting in so far as he contends that “it is not the use of indirect or tacit channels of communication but the potential for misinterpretation of actual military posturing that is the foremost cause for concern”.If we take out the phrase “of actual military posturing”, the question we are left with is whether there would still be “potential for misinterpretation”.For instance, could it be that the Indians would think it useless to deal with the civilian government in Islamabad, and since they can’t deal with the ISI directly, despair of the possibility of any forward movement on the dialogue framework?Or could it be that the Indians think that the civilian government has signalled to them through the ISI that the latter is part of anything that comes out of Islamabad?Or is it that the DG-ISI is signalling to them that there should be three channels, civilian principals, army to army contacts and, now, a secret channel between the intelligence agencies?More than the signalling then, it is a matter of interpretation. One could assume, in this case — as opposed to Yusuf’s study of a crisis situation — that this signal would be — at least should be — supported by corresponding signalling from other quarters to ensure that there is no misinterpretation.For now, of course, the report’s contents have been denied. There are two possibilities: one, the Indians, after the meeting, interpreted whatever transpired wrongly; two, they decided, to put a spin on it for their purposes.On the Pakistani side, the ISI could have used the element of plausible deniability because it was understood on both sides that such a proposition would be denied; or, the ISI realised that the meeting had gone wrong for whatever reasons; or, the denial is correct!The NYT story is a much straighter affair. It talks about a briefing. Those of us who have had the opportunity of being present at such briefings know how they happen. The issue of why they happen is left unsaid in a Pinteresque manner, if you will. Sometimes that work; often it doesn’t. This is where the issue of interpretation again comes in.There are official channels at various levels between Pakistan and the US. Pakistan has already notified the US of how it feels about the surge in Afghanistan. Could it then be that someone decided to reroute the signal and go directly to a US newspaper. Normally, deep briefings are not to be attributed so it is difficult to determine the exact content of the briefing. But it could be that the ISI decided to inform the NYT reporters of some of their concerns and did not embargo attribution since that was part of the signalling exercise.While this article is not about an examination of how signalling works or doesn’t, that being a far more complex affair, suffice to say that someone at the ISI and/or the government should be monitoring the interpretation to see how this round has gone and whether it has achieved the desired results.Another important issue, given the general impression of the Pakistan Army and the ISI, is whether this kind of signalling would be interpreted to denote those two entities as parallel power centres in Pakistan or as being on the same page as the government and working in tandem with it in a subordinate role towards the actualisation of a larger national security policy.That’s a moot question. Let’s hope that whoever conceived of this signalling exercise had thought deep and hard about it.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at email@example.com