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Pakistan Attempts To Rein-In Spy Agency

This story was written by CBS News' Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.
Pakistan's decision to shut down the political wing of the country's powerful intelligence service was a step in the right direction, but critics say it won't be enough to stem the heavy-handed influence of the military in a nation where the government itself lacks power.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed Sunday the move to shut down the political arm of the Inter Services Intelligence, or ISI. It was the latest effort by Pakistan's eight-month-old government to consolidate its own power and shore up its reputation amongst a skeptical public and an array of potent political players.

The move was a direct attempt to curb the influence of the ISI on the country's politics. The spy agency has been linked by many observers and foreign officials to terrorist groups and operations; primarily the Taliban. Due largely to Western nation's desire for intelligence gathered within Pakistan, most officials will only criticize the ISI privately.

The ISI was established in the 1940s to report foreign threats to Pakistan to the country's leaders, but it is now widely viewed as a powerful political entity in itself - effectively an un-elected government within the government.

Pakistani politicians have long accused the ISI of manipulating individual lawmakers and political parties to see that the agency's policies, including the alleged support of terrorist organizations, are protected and carried forward.

But critics warn that shutting down the ISI's direct line of influence into politics will not necessarily prevent future involvement by the military. Not, at least, until the government manages to improve its own position by responding to Pakistan's myriad domestic woes.

Once-chief of the powerful army, Gen. (Retired) Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign his post as president in August under pressure from members of the parliament and the newly elected Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The new president, Asif Ali Zardari, now faces an increasingly vocal public outcry as domestic inflation nears 25 percent - the highest ever seen in the south Asian country.

The institutions of the government; the courts, law enforcement, education, etc., are at their weakest levels in years. On top of it all, anger over U.S. missile strikes against alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan is building, and despite repeated condemnation by the country's leaders, the strikes continue. Pakistanis are frustrated and have very little faith in their political leadership.

"If you seriously believe that a breakdown of democracy will not occur in spite of a weak government and increasing uncertainty, you are sadly mistaken," warned Tariq Azim, a former minister in Musharraf's government who is now an opposition leader.

"The government really needs to take charge of Pakistan in a more meaningful way and improve the overall outlook," Azim told CBS News, adding that "curbing one institution doesn't do the trick."

Western diplomats in Islamabad said it was vital to curb the ISI's influence to send out the message that Pakistan is moving toward greater democracy, but broadly agreed with Azim's assessment.

"The problem is essentially that of weak political institutions. As long as Pakistan's civilian rulers do not deal with that issue, they remain in danger of a breakdown, said one Western diplomat, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "In the event of a major political crisis, do you seriously think the military will remain on the fringe because the political wing of the ISI has been shut down?"

On the streets of Islamabad, signs of public scepticism were obvious.

"Why should I care if the ISI remains a political player or not?" asked Saleem Khan, a taxi driver in the capital city. "What I need is enough food, shelter and a good education for my kids."

"Right now, my issues remain unresolved, so how can I be impressed or not impressed by what the government has done (with the ISI)?"

By Farhan Bokhari