Un­com­mon Soldiers

The ISI continues to dili­gently serve as Pak­istan’s first line of de­fence, much to the dis­plea­sure of many coun­tries.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. M. Hali The writer is a prac­tis­ing jour­nal­ist. He con­trib­utes to the print me­dia and pro­duces doc­u­men­taries.

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.

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