GIVEN the outsized influence that the two organisations have on their state’s policies towards each other, the ISI and the NDS coming together at the director level for a meeting is a significant moment.
Clearly, DG ISI Gen Rizwan Akhtar and acting NDS chief Masoud Andrabi have a great deal of ground to cover — and a poisonous mutual history to overcome.
After all, Mr Andrabi is only at the helm of the premier Afghan intelligence service because his former boss, Rahmatullah Nabi, was forced out in December after launching an unprecedented public tirade against Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for visiting Islamabad.
It is unlikely that with the departure of Mr Nabi the NDS has been purged of its ultra-hawkish elements that are implacably opposed to improving ties with Pakistan. But try both sides must and it is a welcome sign that Mr Andrabi has travelled to Pakistan to meet his counterpart and discuss intelligence matters alongside American and Chinese representatives.
What is also encouraging is that the ISI-NDS meeting appears to be part of a broader strategy of high-level engagement,
military-to-military, civilian-to-civilian and leader-to-leader. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif have both personally invested time and effort in stabilising the Pak-Afghan relationship and nudging the reconciliation process forward.
Meanwhile, the DGMOs of Pakistan and Afghanistan appear to be trying to work out a new framework for cross-border management. Yet, whatever the breakthroughs at the political level or arrangements forged at the operational one, it will ultimately come down to the ISI and NDS being able to work together — certainly to not work against each other.
Intelligence agencies the world over do cooperate, and even at the nadir of the CIA-ISI relationship some years ago, it was clear that cooperation was continuing where mutual interests were at stake. Drone strikes against Al Qaeda and some TTP targets, for example, did not cease.
Where, though, is the middle ground for the ISI and NDS? Non-interference is the obvious ideal, but it is difficult to implement. There is also a tendency to be in denial of reality.
For all its hostility towards the Afghan Taliban, the NDS serves a government that is seeking political reconciliation with the insurgents. On this side, for all the anger at anti-Pakistan sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan, is the ISI really creating the space necessary for the civilian law-enforcement and intelligence apparatuses to fight terror when terror seeks to strike inside Pakistan, from Afghanistan, Fata or the four provinces?
Critically, a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process would redefine the nature of the Pak-Afghan relationship and the primacy that the ISI enjoys here in Pakistan when it comes to Afghan policy.
Is that profound, though much-needed, institutional change something that the ISI, and the army leadership, is willing to accept?
The questions are manifold, but the answers remain elusive.
The strike by the PIA workers has proved crippling. Further escalation carries grave risks of turning the affair into a larger trade union issue, as other unions voice support for the disgruntled employees, and political parties make plans to capitalise on the moment.
The government must refrain from threatening the unions with dismissals and other legal action since an increase in tensions will only exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile, the unions must realise that bringing PIA operations to a standstill is untenable for all parties — for the employees, the airline, and the passengers.
There have been many flight disruptions and several people have been left stranded. In this context, it is a relief to know that there has been someeffort on the part of the government to approach the union leadership; while at the time of writing the situation was still uncertain, what is clear is that the matter must be resolved as quickly as possible for the airline to resume operations – and then move on to the larger issues.
An earlier meeting between some senior ministers ought to have discussed ways of de-escalating matters rather than exploring options to proceed against PIA employees. It is understandable that the government wants to take strong and decisive action in a matter that has dogged successive governments for years, and pushed the national airline to the brink of financial collapse.
But aggressive words can do more damage under the circumstances and efforts to seek a less disruptive way forward should not be abandoned. It was an attempt to get tough with the unions that led to the deaths of two protesters and galvanised the strike in the first place, and resulted in the government losing the moral high ground. Now the government should not give the affair the appearance of a showdown.
This would be compounding error with folly. As part of a larger initiative, the government should extend the leaders of the strike an invitation to come to Islamabad for talks to comprehensively sort out the issue. Talks should focus on ending the current impasse even as they address the workers’ grievances.
While it is obvious that the national airline is in need of dire reform, it is also important that the government handle the matter in a sensitive manner, without attempting to ride roughshod over the unions that claim to work for the employees’ rights.
THE launch of the Pakistan Super League in the UAE this week is being hailed as the dawn of a new era for national cricket. The ambitious, cash-rich T20 league, that will be played over three weeks in Dubai and Sharjah with five teams participating, is the realisation of a cherished dream for the Pakistan Cricket Board after the idea was shelved twice owing to logistical problems and security concerns. Inspired by the Indian Premier League, the PSL will provide a rare opportunity for scores of local youngsters to rub shoulders with international stars such as Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen and Kumar Sangakkara. According to the experts, the 24-day competition will do well if it achieves its main objectives, which is grooming Pakistan’s players for a more competitive environment besides sending out a positive image of the country internationally.
However, critics have correctly warned that any expectations of the league dramatically improving the national team’s performance may be misplaced since the fast-paced culture of the T20 format is primarily meant to entertain and enthral crowds all around. Pakistan, after having lost seven limited-overs series on the trot during the past 18 months, is placed among the bottom three in the current ICC rankings; remedial measures are desperately needed. While PSL promises to be monetarily rewarding for the PCB, the players and franchises, it is unlikely to redress the key problems afflicting Pakistani cricketers such as their inherent fickle-mindedness, inadequate techniques and their inability to take pressure in crunch games. Besides, by holding the league on foreign soil, the PCB is not giving an ideal message to cricketing nations around the world that have been reluctant to send their team to Pakistan since 2009. Almost all the other contemporary T20 leagues are being hosted by their home countries including India, Australia, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and it is imperative that the government and PCB take measures for making conditions conducive for the Super League to be staged at home next time.