Superficially Inside Pakistan’s ISI

By: Khalid Hashmani

A panel discussion on the topic of “Inside Pakistan’s ISI” was jointly organized by the Middle East Institute (MEI) (headed by The Middle East Institute is headed by former US Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain) and the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The seminar was held in Washington D.C. on June 13, 2011. The discussion was moderated by Walter Andersen (Director, South Asia Studies Program at SAIS) and panelists included Karen DeYoung (National Security Correspondent, Washington Post), Aturo Munoz (Senior Political Scientist at Rand Corporation), and Shuja Nawaz (Director of the South Asia Center at Atlantic Council). The attendance at the discussion was overwhelming with many standing at the back of the large SAIS’s Kenny Auditorium. Although audience appeared to be facilitated by some of the information presented by the panelists, many of the details were not new. Shuja Nawaz warned that the information being presented at the seminar should be taken with a grain of salt as none of the panelists have really have much inside track on what goes inside the ISI. Karen DeYoung qualified her presentation by saying that she is no expert on ISI as her interaction with ISI has been mainly “transactional” in nature.

Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the largest intelligence organ of Pakistan and plays a critical role both in military and civilian affairs of Pakistan. It is sometimes called a “state within a state” because it is said that not even top military and civilian leaders know the complete picture of ISI operations. In an attempt to formulate an easy-to-follow narrative of the seminar, this article organizes information presented at the seminar into simple topics and adds some relevant clarifications.

Background to ISI Formation

Among the three major intelligence organizations in Pakistan, ISI is by far the largest. It was created soon after Pakistan’s independence from Britain as the intelligence gathering arm of Pakistan’s military in 1948. Other two intelligence organizations are Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Military Intelligence (MI). Shuja Nawaz said that the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the first ruler of Pakistan who engaged ISI in the political affairs of Pakistan. Bhutto used ISI to keep tabs on his opponents and use ISI provided information to his advantage. However, most Pakistanis know that it was General Ayub Khan (who later gave himself the title of Field Marshal) who expanded the role of ISI and MI to include political intelligence and use ISI collected information to blackmail political opponents. Aturo Munoz informed that it was a British officer advised the Pakistan to organize ISI to be a powerful domestic and foreign spy agency like some other countries. That British officer was Major General R. Cawthome and was Deputy Chief of Staff of Pakistan Army from 1950 to 1959. Aturo Munoz quickly added that mandate and breadth of ISI became significantly larger during the regime of Zial-ul Haq, a military dictator who ruled Pakistan for more than eleven years from 1977 to 1988, as much of the aid and arms provided by the USA and Saudi Arabia was channeled through ISI to the Mujahidin forces fighting Soviet military in Afghanistan.

Organization and Leadership of ISI

The official name of ISI is the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence and from its inception, it is headed by a 3-star General from Pakistan Army. Officers and the staff are recruited from all three services, other paramilitary and civilian departments. The agency is headed by a Director General to whom several Deputy Director Generals (Major Generals) report each heading a Wing. There are six wings overseeing various internal, external, and analysis and foreign Relations areas. Each provincial section of ISI is headed by a Brigadier. The “Internal Wing” focuses on domestic, counter-intelligence, and internal political matters. Answering a question, a panelist said that there is a significant turnover of staff in ISI as many soldiers want to complete their term in ISI and return back to their military units. A question was asked about the budget of ISI and the answer by a panelist was that such information is not known publically just as very few persons know about the actual budget of CIA.

ISI and Pakistan Military

Karen DeYoung said “ISI is not related to military but it is military”. She added that ISI leaders, officers and managers are mostly military personnel. This is also attested by the fact that in 2008, the Prime Minister of Pakistan issued an order to move ISI under the civilian Ministry of Interior Affairs. The Prime Minister had to quickly revoke his order after a call from the Army General Head Quarters (GHQ). For a successful career growth in Pakistan military, service in ISI is considered a must. Some of the core commanders have spent a part of their career in ISI. Karen DeYoung also mentioned that what is puzzling is that no one including CIA and/or US Government officials know what boundaries exist between ISI and senior military leaders. Karen also told a story that her sources tell her that monitoring of the telephone conversations of General Kiyani (Chief of Staff) and General Pasha (head of ISI) in the aftermath of killing of Osama bin Laden showed that at minimum they were acting to be surprised that they did not know that Osama was hiding in Abbotabad. After the US operation in Abbotabad, Pakistan military is coming under acute scrutiny by people of Pakistan. General Kiyani was recently booed at a town-hall style meeting of some military men. Such booing of the senior most official has never happened before. Nawaz Sharif is giving highly critical speeches of military and media has been openly questioning the competence of military and ISI. The military has in turn started a Public Relations campaign to rebuild its image and re-establish its reputation as the ultimate savior of Pakistan. The recent announcement by General Kiyani asking the US to divert some of the aid money destined for military to civilians was a part of that campaign. General Kiyani is making political speeches. It seems that attempts are being made to make the civilian government as the main villain and portray military once again as the “savior” of nation.

ISI and Taliban

Aturo said that ISI has a closer relationship with Taliban which was created and nourished by it. However, they have largely cooperated with CIA on Al-Qaida. This may be due to the fact that ISI does not perceive Taliban to be a dangerous for Pakistan but sees Al-Qaida to be a threat to Pakistan. Never the less, this thinking is slowly changing as Taliban has increased terrorist attacks in Pakistan and has even targeted Pakistani military personnel and their families. A lot of people believe that Taliban is a covert operation of ISI, but some evidence shows that at least some Taliban units operate fairly independently. Some say that ISI has tried to shape Taliban but Taliban itself would dispute this claim. There is a lot of evidence that there exists substantial cooperation between ISI and Taliban, particularly in the areas of intelligence sharing, training, and advice on strategic and operational matters. Some of this evidence was uncovered in the investigations of bombing of Indian embassy in Afghanistan. It is hard to believe that very large operations are being conducted without the knowledge or approval of senior ISI officials. A panelist said that when Musharraf signed a friendship treaty with India, many ISI units were let go and some of these may have acting as rogue elements. In the question-answer session, a question was raised about the transformation of Pathan Taliban and emergence of Punjabi Taliban.

ISI and Pakistani Interests

Shuja Nawaz stated that both civilian and military rulers have used ISI to maintain their hold. Sometimes they have even asked ISI for help in elections to engineer results or malign their political opponents. Shuja also believes that ISI has been far more successful in collecting information outside of Pakistan than internally within Pakistan. He remarked that “Pakistan is a huge country and it cannot be expected to know all information within the country”. He further added that it appears that ISI has become less effective and that at least some parts of it are neither taking instructions from Chief of Staff nor from civilian leaders. He added that the present weak civilian government has ceded control in many areas to military. In defending ISI, he said that Military Intelligence (MI) is more active and has more powerful role in Baluchistan and that ISI’s criticism on Baluchistan is not warranted. In answering a question about recent killing of several Sindhi nationalist leaders in the Sindh province, he denied that there is any evidence that ISI had carried out those killings. He added that civilian government has not encouraged intelligence sharing by its 19 civilian intelligence agencies with ISI. Shuja continued that ISI has no legal authority to arrest anyone. This is increasing legal problems for ISI and creating conflicts between judiciary and military. Aturo said that the reason as to why ISI alone or partners with Taliban to conduct operations against India is that Pakistan feels that any expansion in Indian influence in Afghanistan directly threatens Pakistani interests. ISI wants to protect what it perceives to be its turf where Indians are increasing their influence. A question was also raised about who determines in Pakistan as to what are the Pakistani interests? And why few ISI and military officials should be able to decide Pakistan’s national interests in the presence of duly elected Parliament? As usual Shuja Nawaz came to rescue of the Pakistani establishment by saying that was because civilian government is reluctant to make hard decisions.

ISI and CIA Relationship

Karen DeYoung said that it quite obvious that CIA is quite frustrated and do not know how trust worthy is the information provided by ISI. CIA also feels disappointed that important information provided to Pakistani military ends up being leaked to other parties. She recited the recent case of sharing of intelligence about two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) making factories being operated from two schools in the tribal areas with Pakistan as a trust-building exercise. This information was leaked from Pakistani side to Taliban and Al-Qaida as by the time Pakistani Army arrived on the scene, the factories were closed and all personnel gone ( Most analysts agree that the relationship between ISI and CIA is both cooperative and competitive. This is not much different from how intelligence agencies from even friendly countries operate sometimes even spying on each other. Nevertheless, no one is sure if the mystery of who knew what about Osama’s presence in Abbotabad will ever be solved. Aturo Munoz was of the view that the contradictions between Pakistani and the US interests are sometimes obvious as cooperation has led to capture of many terrorists with the help of ISI and yet the question as to how is it possible that ISI did not know that Osama was living in one of the most protected areas is quite legitimate.

Pakistani and the US Interests

The panelists were of the view that there is now general acceptance of the rational that India does not want to conquer Pakistan. No one in India in his right mind would like to have additional 185 million angry people to further complicate the governance in India. However, many in Pakistani leadership are genuinely convinced that India wants to keep Pakistan weak so that it will not threaten India now or in future. Some in Pakistan hang on to the aspiration that Pakistan has a great potential to be a regional power in Central Asia. A stronger Afghanistan is also perceived as a hostile neighbor and a development that sandwiches Pakistan between two hostile countries. This makes Pakistan feel threatened from both East and West. Pakistan also fears that sooner or later the US will leave this area and they will be on their own to protect their interests and therefore are not willing to bring about major changes in their security and military infrastructure. In an answer to a question, a panelist said that the US would like to help Pakistan and India to resolve their issues. However, he added that India does not welcome any US mediation and calls it a meddling in the affairs of India and Pakistan.

Reforming ISI

Walter Andersen said that the key issue is whether ISI will be reformed. He felt that General Pasha is genuinely interested in reforming ISI to eliminate any real or imaginary doubts that ISI is a rogue agency. Walter also added that it is to be seen how these reforms will impact relationship between ISI and CIA. General Pasha is a personal friend of General Kiyani, who was brought from outside to improve ISI. Some are arguing that at minimum, Pakistan has lost control of some ISI units as some evidence is indicating that at least some terrorist plots were planned inside the ISI offices.

Karen mentioned that there is now a fairly sophisticated and well organized “Intelligence core” in Pakistan Army. She attended one of their briefings and found the people there to be very knowledgeable and sophisticated even accurately articulating about what were the US interests in the area.

The need for reforming ISI is becoming imminent as a member of audience asked the question whether ISI be held responsible for actions by some of the rogue elements within its ranks. The answer by one of the panelists showed the urgency of reform because if Pakistan appears not to be taking action against those rogue elements then it is logical to conclude that Pakistan would be held responsible for such actions. A member from the audience raised the question as to why the whole country be held responsible when many of these major decisions are being carried out without the consent and knowledge of people and their elected representatives. A panelists said that the legal and police services in Pakistan are weak and therefore some “rogue” elements are getting away with their crimes.

About Author: Mr. Khalid Hashmani is a Washington DC-based veteran human rights activist. He is the founding President of Sindhi Association of North America (SANA) and a Coordinator of Sindhi Excellence Team (SET) that participates in advocacy activities on behalf of rural Sindhis.

Courtesy: Sindhi e-lists/ e-groups, June 19, 2011.

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