ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani confirmed on Wednesday his government had scrapped the political wing of the military’s main spy agency.
The disbandment of a section that had been responsible for spying on Pakistani politicians is the clearest signal yet by the eight-month old civilian government that it has begun asserting control over the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.
Gilani’s statement confirmed an announcement by his foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on Sunday that the ISI’s political wing dealing with domestic politics had been disbanded.
The ISI is feared by neighbouring countries and accused by politicians of conspiring to destabilise previous civilian governments.
In a botched attempt in July, Gilani’s government tried to bring the ISI under the Interior Ministry but later backtracked over fear of a backlash within the army.
“The political wing of ISI has been closed,” said a brief statement from Gilani’s media office.
“The Prime Minister hoped that it would further improve the effectiveness of ISI as one of the premier institutions of the national security apparatus of the country.”
Often referred to by critics as a “state within a state”, the ISI had been accused of meddling in the political affairs of the country in the past.
Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in a gun and bomb attack in December last year, had accused ISI officials of conspiring to destabilise her two governments in the 1990s.
The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half its history since the formation of the Muslim state out of the partition of India in 1947.
The latest chapter of military rule ended with the defeat of parties loyal to former army chief Pervez Musharraf in an election last February, and Musharraf’s resignation as president in August.
Senior officials say former ISI chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as army chief, has been supportive of Pakistan’s return to civilian-led democracy.
Since becoming army chief in November last year, Kayani has taken several steps to take the army out of politics, including ordering all army officers out of civilian posts and barring them from meeting politicians.
Pakistan’s support and cooperation of its ISI is regarded as vital to the West in fighting the threat of al Qaeda globally, and defeating the Taliban insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.
But the United States is believed to have called on the civilian government to rein in the ISI.
After Pakistan joined U.S. anti-terrorism efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the ISI has helped the United States to eliminate and capturing hundreds of al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan.
However, some members of Pakistan’s security apparatus have been suspected of treating the Afghan Taliban and some jihadi groups as tools to gain leverage in Afghanistan and insurgency-hit Indian-controlled Kashmir.