The ISI continues to diligently serve as Pakistan’s first line of defence, much to the displeasure of many countries.
The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the premier intelligence service of Pakistan and is operationally responsible for providing critical national security and intelligence assessment to the government. The armed forces of Pakistan faced baptism under fire as they were plunged into war with India over Kashmir in 1947-48. The fledgling nation not only lacked the wherewithal of military hardware but also the critical requisite intelligence to support and coordinate its operations. The two new intelligence agencies which were established soon after creation of Pakistan, the Intelligence Bureau and the Military Intelligence, failed to meet the expectations of intelligence-sharing during the Kashmir conflict. This paved the way for the establishment of the ISI, which was the brainchild of British Army officer, Major General Robert Cawthome, then Deputy Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army.
The ISI was founded on a solid footing to collect, collate and disseminate operational intelligence to the three services but, unfortunately, the military government of General Ayub Khan also tasked the ISI with monitoring of opposition politicians and sustaining military rule in Pakistan. Subsequent rulers continued to seek a political role for the ISI. During 1965, the ISI failed to provide early warning to the government regarding India’s assault on Lahore and Sialkot. Subsequently, the ISI was reorganized to fulfill its operational role more diligently but it also continued its pursuit of collecting information on politicians. During the 1971 Pakistan-India War, the ISI was again found wanting, failing to pre-warn the government of the Indian aggression that led to the severance of Pakistan’s eastern wing and 93,000 of Pakistanis being taken POW. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reduced his reliance on the ISI after taking up the mantle of power and paid the price when his handpicked Army Chief, General Zia-ul-Haq
toppled his government through a coup d’état.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 provided the ISI its calling. Aligning itself with the U.S. to check the Soviet onslaught, the ISI played a central role along with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in organizing the Afghan resistance. Afghans and other volunteers from a number of Muslim countries including Pakistan and the Arab world were organized and trained in the art of guerrilla warfare. They were inculcated with the spirit of Jihad and launched into Afghanistan to indulge in hit-and-run operations, which ultimately routed the Soviets, forcing them to retreat. During this period, the ISI was the main conduit for the recruitment of the Mujahedin and distribution of funds and arms and ammunition, including Kalashnikovs, Stinger shoulder-mounted surface-toair missiles and anti-tank munitions. Indeed, the ISI made important friends with the Afghan Mujahedin and the Al-Qaeda, which took its roots then, having been established by Osama bin Laden (OBL) to combat the Soviets.
After the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the U.S. and CIA also withdrew, patting themselves on the back for having vanquished the Soviets. Armed with sophisticated weapons and their pockets laden with U.S. dollars, the Afghan war lords and even the Arab jihadists were in no mood to lay down their arms and return to plowing their fields. Unfortunately, the power vacuum created in Afghanistan led to a decadelong internecine war. Some Arab jihadists returned to their homeland but quite a few stayed behind, along with the Uzbeks and Chechens, who had burnt their boats. Having tasted blood, they wanted to continue fighting. Pakistan, which had borne the brunt of the Soviet invasion, was to face the after-effects of more chaos, mayhem and bloodshed.
It was again the ISI, Pakistan’s first line of defence that used its goodwill with the Afghans to stem the rot. The Taliban were launched, who gained control of a major part of Afghanistan and although their rule was marred by authoritarianism and orthodox decrees, relative peace prevailed. The Taliban provided sanctuary to the Al-Qaeda but had to pay dearly for their hospitality when their guests, who had their own agenda, attacked western targets. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the August 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam and the October 2000 brazen broadside against a U.S. warship, the USS Cole, were precursors to the 9/11 dastardly episode. It reflected badly on both the CIA and ISI that they failed to catch wind of the assault.
Post 9/11, the ISI and CIA again became bedfellows. the ISI tried to reason with the Taliban to give up OBL, the head of Al-Qaeda, who had claimed responsibility for the attack and taken refuge in Afghanistan. Taliban reluctance to hand over OBL brought the might of the international forces and led them to attack Afghanistan. Pakistan did not have any option but to ditch the Taliban and cast its lot with the international forces. It goes to the credit of the ISI that its intelligencesharing with the CIA resulted in the apprehension of hundreds of AlQaeda operatives, including Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, Sheikh Omar Saeed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Faraj Farj al-Liby and numerous others.
Regrettably, when the Taliban regrouped after their initial defeat at the hands of the international forces, a trust deficit developed between the ISI and CIA. The US government accused the ISI of playing a double game, supporting the US as well as backing the Taliban. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth since the guns of Al-Qaeda and Taliban were also turned on Pakistan and, in the last decade, more than 50,000 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist attacks. The Raymond Davis fiasco, the covert but successful elimination of OBL by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 1, 2011 and the attack on Salalah – a Pakistani checkpost at the Afghan border – brought Pak-U.S. relations to their lowest ebb. CIA chief Leon Panetta even accused the ISI of being either incompetent as it remained oblivious to OBL’s presence in Abbottabad for over five years or being complicit in providing him a safe haven. The government of Pakistan appointed the Abbottabad Commission to investigate the affair. After inquisition, the Commission absolved the ISI of complicity but found it culpable of negligence.
The fact is that the ISI has suffered setbacks as well as enjoyed crowning glory but the U.S. and India are wary of it and accuse the premium agency of many wrongs. They paint it in a bad light to demoralize its force and reduce the confidence of the Pakistani nation in its first line of defense. In a report by the Defence Academy, a British Ministry of Defense think tank, brazen accusations were hurled at the ISI in 2006, calling for its dismantling. Authors like Steve Coll, in his book Ghost Wars, a history of the CIA and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan since 1979, claims of links between the ISI, the Taliban, OBL, and other Islamic militants operating from Afghanistan. The fact is that all intelligence agencies maintain links with terror groups but this does not necessarily mean that they support them. the ISI has performed remarkably under hostile conditions and is an asset for Pakistan. It has been brought under the National Intelligence Directorate under the reformed National CounterTerrorism Authority and is poised to serve the nation more diligently.