The ISI of Pakistan


Faith, Unity, Discipline
THE ISI OF PAKISTAN By Hein G. Kiessling
Harper Collins Publishers, 2016.

Professor Kiessling, a German political scientist and historian, author of the book under review, lived for 13 years (1989-2002) in Pakistan, including four years in Quetta, to study Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI was established by Major General Robert Cawthrone, the then deputy chief of staff in Pakistan’s army, as an intelligence gathering agency in 1948, as a result of Pakistan’s failure in its first war (1947-48) against India. However, unlike India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) established in 1968, ISI has played and continues to play a role in domestic politics, in addition to external gathering of intelligence.

The hydra-headed monster
The first decade of the ISI was without much significance. It was, however, involved in planning and executing “Operation Gibraltar” during the military rule of Ayub Khan that we Indians know as Pakistan’s second war, in 1965. It was based on the anticipation of an internal “rebellion against Indian rule” in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). It was “initially rejected” by Ayub Khan who had then observed: “All I asked them was to keep the situation in Kashmir under review. They can’t force a campaign of military action on the government”. Though, finally in July 1965, it did take place, but failed completely.

The debacle of the secession of the East Pakistan after the Bangladesh War of 1971 was another big failure of the ISI. On the other hand, the author says it was a great victory for the R&AW. But the ISI came into limelight after the Soviet Union’s (SU) Afghan invasion in 1979. The author quotes Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski’s memo to President Carter: “We now have the opportunity to give the USSR their Vietnam War”. Thus, Pakistan’s ISI collaboration with the American CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in driving out the SU from Afghanistan, in a sense laid the foundation for its ultimate disintegration. Gorbachev in 1985 decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The CIA provided funds, weapons and training to Mujahideen fighters. The author quotes American sources to the effect that “the US cash flow exceeds those for all other covert actions.” Pakistan also never before had it so good. The author says, “15-40 percent of the weapons intended for the Mujahideen never left Pakistan”, while 30 or more percent of the “assistance were stolen on the transportation routes which run through Pakistan”.

What makes one qualified for the post of ISI Director? Based on his interviews with former directors, the author says: Director is “different from other military men, reference being made to his intelligence, conceptual and analytical ability as well as his zest for action.” Major General Hamid Gul was appointed to the post during the time of military dictator, Zia-ul-Haque; then onwards, the position began to get more and more attention, within and outside the country.

For want of space, let me mention only two more recent issues of global interest, to discuss ISI’s involvement. First, the Mumbai cross-sea terror attack of 26/11, and second, the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Unfortunately, anyone who has followed the Mumbai attack of 26/11 does not get any more authentic information than what is already in the public domain. He confirms the known fact that ISI and army were fully informed of the plans in advance. He discounts the idea that there is “an ISI within the ISI”, as an idea created by the ISI itself to increase its power of deniability.

Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan for quite some years and as the author says: “Only a minority believed that both services knew nothing”, about Osama living in Abbottabad till his killing by the US on 2 May 2011. Osama was in all probability, protected by a small unit of ISI, just like it had protected Mullah Omar till his death in 2013. ISI might have thought of doing the same with Osama. But, the author says, the planners “underestimated the will of the Americans to retaliate for 9/11…”


Dr. P.M. Kamath

Dr. P.M. Kamath, formerly, Professor of Politics, University of Bombay, is currently, Hon. Director of VPM’s Centre for International Studies (Regd.), affiliated to Mumbai University. He is an Adjunct Professor in Department of Geopolitics and International Relations. While teaching in the University, he guided a Ph. D dissertation on Terrorism as an instrument of Foreign Policy and an M. Phil thesis on Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis.