Published August 21, 2008

Why Fuss about ISI?


 ISI is not subordinated to the will of any outside intelligence agency howsoever friendly that agency may have been.

To claim that there is a concerted campaign by certain individuals who do what they please without any checks and balances is not justified.

Governments of all shades and hues have exploited ISI for their own purposes.

Of late Pakistan has been the favorite whipping boy of the US media. It has been in the eye of the storm for more than a year now. If the theme was the grossly exaggerated and largely imaginary threat to the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear assets in the last quarter of 2007, it has now metamorphosed into the role of 'devious ISI' and its alleged mischief mongering not only in the Pakistani neighborhood, but within the country itself with the chorus of Pakistan needs to do more in the war against terror providing the background noise all along.

he controversy surrounding the ISI came into sharp focus on the eve of the Pakistani Prime Minister's recent visit to the US as a consequence of the clumsy and ill conceived attempt to bring the ISI under greater political control and the ensuing confusion of withdrawal of the notification before even the ink had dried on it. Many observers have attributed this hasty action to the desire of Pakistani leadership to appease the American leadership by appearing to respond to the growing US complaints against the ISI. 

The question, then, is what has suddenly gone wrong with the ISI which had intimately worked with the CIA during the 1980s to push back the Soviet invaders from Afghanistan and had been a vital source of intelligence for the CIA in the post 9/11 operations in Afghanistan and had to its credit the apprehension and handing over of hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives to the American authorities.

Firstly, during the course of the past few years Indian intelligence presence has vastly expanded in Afghanistan and Pakistani complaints about hostile activities of Indian intelligence operatives working through the newly established Indian Consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad and other locations in the proximity of Pakistani border have been reverberating for some time now.

The relations between the Karzai government and its Pakistani neighbor have also been less than cordial and its defense and intelligence establishment is dominated by the formerly Northern Alliance whose hostility towards Pakistan is no secret. With these hostile sources of intelligence feeding into the US intelligence, it is no wonder that suspicions about the role of ISI have grown over time.

 Secondly, while the level of violence in Iraq has of late gone down substantially the reverse has been the case in Afghanistan with the number of US and NATO casualties rising by the day. The expanding sway of Taliban in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan and the growing ferocity of their operations and instances of Taliban occupying and holding on to the whole districts for weeks is embarrassing for the ISAF in Afghanistan.

 In such circumstances the natural tendency is to look for scapegoats  and ISI happened to be the target over which the vendettas of the Afghans, Indians and the US intelligence converged. Keeping in mind the example of Iraq where Iran was the bogey and blamed for anything and everything that went wrong in Iraq but when the going got better in Iraq no one is talking of Iran now. 


Pakistan is unfortunately now being blamed for all that afflicts Afghanistan today. The only thing for which Pakistan is yet to be blamed is the astronomical growth of poppy cultivation and narco-trafficking in Afghanistan.


Now let us have a look at some of the usual allegations against ISI. 


The most common accusation pinned against the ISI has been that some of its elements who supported the Afghan Jihad and then the Taliban movement are still pursuing the same agenda. Nothing can be farther from truth due to the fact that ISI personnel are also mortals and those serving during the 80s have long retired.


Moreover, ISI is not a permanent assignment for officers from the three services who are deputed to ISI for a period of 2-3 years and only in exceptional cases serve for prolonged tenures of 5-6 years. It is therefore hard to imagine that those serving in the ISI  in the 1980s and 1990s are still serving there.


The second most common allegation is that there are certain rogue elements within the organization which are pursuing their own personal agendas. While in a large organization where operatives in the field have a degree of initiative, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that there can be occasions where some individual or individuals would overstep their mandate for which a professional and disciplined organization is bound to take corrective actions and make the individuals accountable but to claim that there is a concerted campaign by certain individuals who do what they please without any checks and balances is not justified.   

 Finally, ISI is a Pakistani asset whose prime responsibility is to defend the national security interests within the parameters laid down by the Pakistani government and it certainly is not subordinated to the will of any outside intelligence agency howsoever friendly that agency may have been.


While it can be rightly expected to be responsive to the requests of friendly countries in terms of sharing of intelligence and providing assistance it cannot and should not be expected to take orders from anyone but the Pakistani authorities. 

 It is also a fallacy to ascribe super human attributes and capabilities to the ISI because it has its limitations in terms of resources: financial as well as technical.  

Domestically, in the past, the role of ISI 's political wing has been a source of controversy. Unfortunately, governments of all shades and hues have exploited it for their own purposes. If the government intends to improve the civilian oversight of the ISI it could take a closer look at the US system and create Intelligence subcommittees of the Senate and National Assemblies, comprising people with requisite security clearances to hold in-camera briefings on sensitive intelligence issues.  

Whatever changes are to be made ought to be thoroughly and dispassionately deliberated based on the realities and not perceptions and purposely created misperceptions since the issue involves extremely sensitive and vital national security interests.   

 Brigadier General Naeem Salik is a visiting scholar at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has served in National Command Authority from 1998 to 2005 and has been one of the pioneers of the National Command Authority. National Command Authority is believed to be the heart of Pakistani nuclear establishment.