The report in a leading US newspaper about links between the ISI and militants, which a CIA official reportedly showed evidence of to Pakistan government members in Islamabad recently, adds a new dimension to the much talked of government move to place the agency under the interior ministry. The same theme is reinforced by the defence minister who informed this publication that President George Bush had expressed displeasure over ISI behaviour in his meeting with the Pakistani prime minister. The Pakistan military has denied a nexus exists between the ISI and terrorists. It seems unlikely this denial has cut much ice in Washington.

While the ill-fated move to place the ISI under the interior ministry has kindled a heated controversy, the latest concerns regarding the role of the outfit, raised in the US, make it imperative that it be placed under some kind of civilian control. It is obviously unfair to expect a government to take responsibility for battling militancy while the country's premier agency backs the outfits engaged in terror. Indeed the consequences are potentially horrendous for all of us who wish to see Pakistan evolve into a modern, progressive state. The fact is that the ISI needs to be brought under check. As civilians we need to know what its role is. So far, the allegations that this role has involved conspiracies within the country, backing for militants in Kashmir and northern areas and other rather dubious policies makes it questionable whether it is working for or against the national interest. US leaders are quite openly now pressing for the agency to be brought into line. Many in the country would agree.

This having been said, the manner in which the notification regarding the change in control over the agency was issued by the government has not helped matters. Indeed it may have made things more difficult for the future. Criticism has also focused around the controversial adviser on interior, under whom the ISI would have fallen had the change gone through and the fact that he is not an elected person. The controversy rages on, with talk now of heads rolling. But all this has meant a basic principle is being completely overlooked as the rant against the government goes on. Looking beyond the issue of an individual and adopting a more institutionalized approach, the ISI, and indeed other secret agencies, need to serve the government and not act as an entity quite beyond the control of parliament. For this, the agency must be brought under the control of the civilian authorities. The suspicion that the ISI operates as a body quite outside the command of civilian set-ups is a key factor in the rumours and conspiracy theories that so often spread through the country, particularly at critical moments. This speculation in turn is often a key destabilizing factor for democratically-eldcted governments.

Over the years, the ISI has grown into an entity that is not answerable to government. As citizens, whose taxes help keep it running, we need to know more about the organization and its operations. After all, in many countries including Britain, there is today far greater transparency than ever before in the running of secret agencies. Looking beyond the ham-handed means adopted by the government, followed by a clumsy effort to present the whole fiasco as a case of misunderstanding, the fact cannot be ignored that there is an urgent need to bring the ISI under civilian control. One must hope that the attempt to do so continues and the government finds a way to achieve this goal by building greater consensus on the issue, keeping in mind the fact that Pakistan must move from a national security state to evolving as a pro-development state, where the needs of citizens take priority over other considerations.

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