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Mainstream, VOL LV No 25 New Delhi June 10, 2017

Anatomy of the ISI: Providing Insights into its Valuable Pitfalls, Failures and Success Stories

Saturday 10 June 2017



by Ahmad Zaboor

Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G. Kiesling; Harpercollins India; 2016; pages: 307.

Writing about the intelligence agency is the most uphill task given their secretive protocols and apprehensions of infiltration jeopardising their working. But Hein G. Kiesling has taken up the most daunting job of writing about the Pakistan intelligence agency—better known as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI was established in 1948 and is generally described as the consequence of the first Pakistan-India war over Kashmir in 1947 when there were supposedly substantial reconnaissance gaps on the Pakistani side.

However, its creation is not only the result of the Kashmir war but also the outcome of the British political interest in the post-colonial region of South Asia. Its founding father is considered to be Walter Joseph Cawthorne, who served as its head from January to June 1948. Since that period there has always been an Army professional heading the ISI as its Director and until the end of the 1950s, the tenure of the ISI head had been two years, being modest in size and its field of activity was manageable. During Cawthrone‘s tenure, civilian personnel from the former Indian Intelligence Bureau were also working in it, including military, but civilians formed the backbone of the ISI in its early years.

The initial tasks of the new agency were intelligence collection outside Pakistan’s border in India and planning, coordination of the Pakistan Military Attaché for foreign postings. It was posted under the Ministry of Defence but reported to the head of the government; however, the Army Chief decided what information from the ISI was to be passed on to the political leadership.

Under the Ayub Khan regime a covert action division was created in the ISI; that was supposedly involved during the 1960s in supporting militant groups in North-East India and it was during his period that the ISI was involved in the internal political intelligence, and those kept under observation were indivi-duals, parties, universities, and the Press. However, he personally relied on Military Intelligence as the ISI had failed to locate the coup plot made by six naval officers.

The disaster of the 1965 war with India was thought to be the failure of the ISI. As it involved too much in gathering internal intelligence leaving the external front vulnerable and most of the contacts of the ISI in India and Kashmir had gone dry during the war.

The ISI began to strengthen its ties with the secessionist Sikhs in India, which finally culminated in the visit of Daljit Singh Chauhan to Pakistan in 1971. Ayub Khan refused to increase the budget for the ISI and finally thwarted any plan to infiltrate the local administration. During the 1971 war, ISI agents were implicated in betraying Bengali academics and journalists and infiltrating the Awami League. By the end of the era of Yahya Khan, its main field of activity entailed collection of external information, coordination of secret work of all the three armed chiefs, monitoring own military cadre, observation of foreigners in Pakistan, media, political parties, diplomatic activities abroad, execution of secret operations.

In 1975 the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the ISI to set up an internal political cell. Although it functioned in the Foreign Minister’s office during Ayub Khan’s regime, it quickly expanded. The ISI was involved in Bhutto’s fate after his overthrow as it applied pressure on witnesses and judges. It was a low-profile organisation with a strict professional mandate, but its role began to grow after the removal of Ayub Khan.

The development of the nuclear armament starting with the procurement of military wherewithals from abroad burgeoned the role of the ISI. Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto created the Federal Security Agency as a rival to the ISI and relied more on it, it was soon finished off by the end of his regime. Z.A Bhutto democratised the ISI and restored the confidence of the ISI after it was punctured in the 1971 war and he did this by upgrading the position of the ISI head to that of a three-star General and increased its budget substantially.

As far back as in the 1960s, undivided Pakistan had provided weapons for the Naga fighters and Dhaka became an important station for these activities. Z.A Bhutto had supported the Khalistan idea in every forum and that deepened under Zia-ul-Haq. Terrorist training camps were set up in Karachi and Lahore. The ISI ran its own foreign policy throughout the 1990s. It was under Zia, because of himself being a leader without a power-base, that the ISI was used to control opponents. The fallout of this preposterous policy was that the ISI developed its own political agenda and its personnel gained power and prestige. The Afghan war enabled them to develop into a regional albatross with activities and goals not supervised or coordinated by any authority.

It is often believed that the ISI, pursuing its own agenda, was alleged to be out of control, undermining official policy and maligning the government’s reputation, while hindering the democratic development of the country. All these are facts but with substantial exaggeration. It would be misleading to believe that the ISI is a state within state given its clout to influence and control the domestic and foreign policy of Pakistan. This view, writes the author, is far from the truth; the truth is that it is strictly led and managed and it contains no groups that pursue independent agendas.

During the tenure of Assad Durrani, the ISI became fully involved in various operations like in Afghanistan, Kashmir and the Line of Control became porous for the insurgents. In October 1990, the ISI organised a convoy of 40,000 trucks carrying rockets from Peshawar to Kabul intended for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar against the pro-Soviet regime of Najibulldah, but the plan was not carried out given the high casualty figures anticipated from rocket attacks.

After the 9 /11 attacks there was close cooperation between the CIA and ISI in the hunt for the Al-Qaeda. The ISI tracked down terrorists and handed them over to the CIA, receiving good bounties. The ISI provided the coordinates of the target and the CIA operated the drones, which reinforced their cooperation. Whenever there is murder, killing or major terrorist attack in the region, even if is no proof or connection to the ISI is revealed, suspicions of its involvement remains. The cooperation between the CIA and ISI runs mainly through the counter-terrorism wing; however, there is no interface between the MI and the ISI.

Well, an attempt was made by the PPP Government of 2008 for political control of the ISI. The attempt to subordinate the ISI to the Ministry of the Interior by decree was blocked by the General Headquarters (GHQ). Since the service collects information ranging from politics, economy, diplomacy to industry, it reveals that it functions outside the military framework, and its current name is misleading. It makes a case for the appointment of civilian experts as the head of the service. This would have a wholesome impact on the quality of its work.

The book provides little information on the role of the ISI in the Kashmir uprising in 1989. Given the uphill task that the author had taken to write about it, this can be overlooked. The noteworthy point is that it provides insight into the valuable pitfalls, failures and success stories of the ISI.

The reviewer is a Lecturer in Political Science. He can be contacted at e-mail ahmadzaboor[at]

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