Understanding the Pakistani ISI’s Games

This is a guest post by Amjad Khan

Ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the military in general and it’s most powerful intelligence agency in particular, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has sought to monopolise power, wealth and public opinion. The ISI has gradually grown in influence through the years and manipulated public fears of an Indian takeover in order secure funding, support and prestige. It has consistently sought to undermine civilian administrations and democratic initiatives, with those opposing it within Pakistan having often paid the price with their lives.

Very early on in the history of Pakistan, the military realised that religious fanatics can be used as cannon fodder and make cost-effectives proxies. This was first discovered when conservative Pashtun tribesman helped Pakistan in the wars against India. Since then, the ISI has cultivated militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to undermine the emergence of a stable and representative government in Afghanistan. They have also used militant groups to attack India and supported militant separatist factions within India.

When Pakistan declared independence in 1947, one of the few countries to not recognise it at the UN was Afghanistan. The Afghan’s were upset with where the border between the two countries had been drawn, i.e. along the Durrand line which cut right through Pashtun heartlands. They felt that these territories belonged to them and some even supported the idea of creating a Pashtunistan, incorporating the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Subsequently, Afghanistan developed a close relationship with India, a relationship that was viewed as very threatening by Pakistan.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the ISI felt that they now had an opportunity to invite international assistance in order to bolster their own capabilities whilst funding religious and secular militant groups to fight the Soviets. They also viewed this period as an opportunity to create an Afghanistan that would serve their interests and provide strategic depth to Pakistan in case of an Indian attack. Fortunately for the ISI, this came at a time when the military had staged yet another coup and replaced Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto, a long time critic of the ISI, with the dictator and religious zealot Zia ul Haq.

Throughout the 1980s, the ISI forged very close operational, and some cases ideological, links with a range of militant groups in the region, including Arab fighters who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Western military aid and weaponry poured in, and the ISI bolstered its power and influence in Pakistan whilst simultaneously undermining democratic initiatives. Many senior military figures become very wealthy, lived in special protected areas and exerted huge influence behind the scenes. This phenomenon has been extensively documented in a book called Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy by Ayesha Siddiqa, who is a former Pakistani civil servant who has been subject to much harassment since the publication of this work.

Once the Soviets had left Afghanistan in 1989, the country descended in chaos and civil war as rival warlords fought each other for power. The ISI, fearing the emergence of another hostile civilian government, used their established relationship with religious militant groups and Saudi largesse to create an ultra-conservative movement called the Taliban. The Taliban, largely through assistance from the ISI, very quickly swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996 and established a barbaric regime that was only recognised by Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. During this time, Pakistan also attracted US sanctions due to its nuclear weapons programme.

After the 911 attacks in late 2001, Pakistan, enjoying yet another period of military rule, was offered a stark choice by the US. ‘You are either with us or against us’ was the message from Washington. This meant abandoning old allies and allowing for the creation of a stable but potentially hostile Afghanistan or attracting further international condemnation and isolation. At this crucial stage the Pakistani military establishment began to play the double game that is has been playing ever since. Overtly support ISAF efforts to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda but in practise seek to frustrate ISAF in the region and hope for an eventual withdrawal. In the meantime, benefit from US aid and the lifting of sanctions whilst continuing to empower conservative religious elements and undermining secular forces.

Such an approach requires a degree of skill and political nuance that most military intelligence units in the world lack. But the ISI is no ordinary military intelligence unit. It has been deeply involved in politics from the very beginning, it has access to data and resources which no other body in the country does and it is deeply involved with the media and seeks to control the flow of information. In the meantime, the military continues to exaggerate the threat from India and seeks to drag the war on terror on in order to eat up a large portion of Pakistan’s budget and get its hands on aid flowing into the country. This way, the military can continue investing in military hardware and infrastructure; acquire luxurious properties for its retirees whilst simultaneously supporting compliant Jihadist groups and undermining democracy. This helps explain, their opposition to the Kerry-Lugar bill which sought to give the civilian administration greater control.

Furthermore, Pakistan has a very large and ever increasing stockpile of nuclear weapons which, at the current growth rate, is set to surpass Britain and India to become the fifth largest in the world. This is a country where the GDP per capita is $2400.00 and 40% of the population live below the poverty line.

Much of what has been discussed thus far has been an open secret for quite a while. It has, however, been bought into sharper focus with the US military operation that killed bin Laden, who was obviously being sheltered by elements within the ISI. It is clear from his geographic location and living arrangements, i.e. no internal security, that he had a military support network and that would be consistent with ISI strategy. But Pakistan would argue that it has been a frontline state in the war against terror and lost countless number of lives. I have no doubt that the current civilian administration, weak and incompetent as it is, is genuine in its struggle against terrorism, but they don’t control the country and never have done. Furthermore, much of the military operations that have taken place have been against rogue Jihadist elements such as the Tareek-e-Taliban (TTP) who are seeking to overthrow the Pakistani state. Pakistan has yet to move decisively against the Afghan Taliban and senior al-Qaeda figures operating in its borders. In fact, according to a report published last year by the London Schools of Economics (LSE), which was based on author Simon Waldman speaking to Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan, the ISI is providing funding, training and sanctuary to the Taliban insurgency on a scale much larger than previously thought.

Cliché has it may sound; the only solution to Pakistan’s problems is democracy. By that I don’t mean having elections every now and then, but democratic culture needs to take root and democratic institutions needs to develop. Yes the current democratic process is flawed and current political parties are run in an undemocratic manner, but democratisation is difficult and it takes time. Civil society groups need to work with democratic parties political parties in order to counter the military/Islamist nexus whilst the media and judiciary must become more balanced, fair and less politicised. This is possible but only if the power of the military and ISI is understood and undermined by all those who wish to see change in Pakistan.

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