The changing colours of ISI
In the latest issue of the 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).
But 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. That is a 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, all observers, including those in India, can see that Pakistan is currently squeezed from all sides. This, counterintuitively, makes it even more difficult for India to trust Pakistan’s words: this peace-talk could be a posture to seek temporary relief till Pakistan army reverts to its perennial anti-India stance. The onus is thus upon Pakistan to prove its sincerity by taking suitable actions — closing terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and bringing the perpetrators of Mumbai terror strike to justice, to begin with — so that India can 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, as victors of the war, to be large-hearted and trust Bhutto’s words. That large-heartedness towards a civilian ruler in Pakistan when its army was weak, many contended, would beget permanent peace between India and Pakistan. We all know how it actually played out. Mr Bhutto went on to ensure that Pakistan gets an Islamic nuclear bomb even if Pakistanis ate grass. India got terror strikes in Kashmir, Punjab and at myriad places across the country: it is under the shadow of the nuclear bomb that jehadis have hurt India and Indians. If we are so oblivious today to our own history from just four decades ago, we will pay a similar price that we have 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.
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.
Enjoy the meal, relish the conversation and read the book but do not get carried away. Remember. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.