February issue 2009

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

The Mumbai attacks have, once again, drawn international attention towards the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Many around the world believe that this organisation is behind many of the terrorist attacks taking place all over the world. While some have referred to it as a rogue institution, others view it as a highly professional organisation. The ISI shot into the limelight following 9/11. It was accused of having connections with the Taliban and other militant outfits. Domestically, the organisation was under attack for keeping tabs on politicians and even ordinary people. It is, indeed, one of the most feared outfits in the country.

The ISI drew fresh attention even before the Mumbai attacks, when the new government tried to change its command-and-control mechanism by bringing it under the ministry of interior, a decision which was reversed within 24 hours. This, in turn, further strengthened the perception that the organisation was more powerful than one had imagined. Many a Pakistani and foreigner would like to unearth the mystery known as the ISI. Who controls it? What kind of human resources does it have? What is the financial and operational power of the ISI? And finally, is it as powerful as it is stated to be?

Technically speaking, the ISI is a tri-service organisation meant to collect strategic intelligence for the armed forces and conduct counter-intelligence operations as well. Its role is different from that of the other three military intelligence organisations, namely the Military Intelligence (MI) which serves only the army, Air Intelligence (AI) and Naval Intelligence (NI). These three organisations are supposed to gather tactical intelligence for their respective services. Although the ISI was established after 1947, its political role was initiated by General Ayub Khan and further expanded during the five-year-rule of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. This was done through a notification that was never withdrawn and has not come to an end, despite claims made by the present Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, regarding the end of the ISI’s political role.

Operationally, the intelligence agency was never strictly under civilian control, despite the fact that the prime minister appoints the head of the ISI and its director-general is supposed to report to the head of the government. The organisation’s power was built gradually due to three reasons. First, its political role allowed it greater power internally. Keeping an eye on political parties, politicians and other citizens gave it a role in political policymaking and in determining policy direction. This role was never withdrawn (the reason that the foreign minister claimed that the ISI’s political role was wound up is not because the role was withdrawn, but because the organisation was not tasked by the present government to spy on its opponents).

Second, the end of the Bhutto government in 1977 dovetailed into the military takeover by General Zia-ul-Haq, who used the organisation for political and military purposes. During the period between 1977-88, Zia-ul-Haq destroyed all institutional mechanisms that were created by the Bhutto government for the command and control of the military. The enhanced power of the ISI was a critical part of the political strengthening of the armed forces in this gap, created due to the aforementioned breakdown of control structures.

Third, the ISI’s involvement in the first Afghan war during the 1980s gave the intelligence agency further power. It had total control over establishing contact with the various Afghan warlords and in dispersing financial and other resources. This was also the period during which the ISI gained organisational strength and built a reputation for itself.

The first effort to curtail the organisation’s power was during Benazir Bhutto’s first government, when the prime minister appointed Kallu, a retired army general, as the DG ISI who replaced General Hamid Gul. However, the plan did not work. Reportedly, Kallu was denied information by his own organisation. Clearly, the retired general had returned to active service but was not in sync with the rest of the military. Kallu’s experience also helps emphasise the point that retired personnel do not have any relevance for the organisation, unless they are to be used for a particular end. The military and its serving officers have a greater say in using the retired personnel rather than the other way around. General Khwaja Ziauddin met a similar fate. Despite the fact that he was the head of the ISI and now claims to have observed the movement of the 111 brigade, months before the actual October 1999 Musharraf coup, he failed to see that the entire army could be manipulated by a handful of officers supporting Musharraf. Apparently, Generals Aziz Khan, Shahid Aziz, Mehmud Ahmed, and a few other officers including the (late) Maj. General Amir Faisal Alavi were part of the 1999 coup plan. Even General Usmani, who later changed sides, had sent a congratulatory note with a cake to General Ziauddin Butt after the latter was appointed as the army chief by Nawaz Sharif.

The above-cited anecdotal evidence raises questions about who actually controls the ISI. Considering that there is very little information available on the intelligence agency, this is an extremely difficult line of inquiry. However, the power definitely does not reside with the prime minister. The army chief, who plays a key role in selecting the head of the organisation, has greater clout as far as the ISI’s command and control is concerned. The army chief’s influence is due to the greater political significance of his service and also because the bulk of the military personnel deputed to the ISI are from the army. The DG ISI is always an army general and is not taken from the other two services. But there are two opinions about the organisation’s human resources. First, a lot of personnel are from the army. These are officers who serve in the organisation for a select period and then return to their parent organisation. Second, the bulk of the manpower is civilian. These are either retired military personnel or civilians inducted from the market. Apparently, a civilian employee had risen to a grade-21 position during the end of the 1990s. These are possibly the people who are keepers of the institutional memory of the organisation.

This is not to argue that the ISI is a rogue institution. In fact, it is a sub-organisation of the military which is primarily influenced by the army chief. In fact, sources claim that the senior management of the army and the ISI takes 70% of the decisions with 30% left for the local area commanders who are only authorised to take tactical decisions. So, if General Mehmud, as many argue, tried to warn Mullah Omar about American plans after 9/11, it was not necessarily because the general was operating independently. He was possibly implementing the strategic policy whereby the Taliban and some of the militant organisations were considered as assets rather than a liability. It was later that the policy regarding the Taliban started to change due to a shift in the perception of the army’s top brass.

Over the years, the ISI has expanded from a federal and provincial structure to the level of districts as well. As far as the power of the army chief is concerned, he has the option of using both the ISI and the MI. For instance, it has been argued that General Aslam Beg gave a lot of tasks to the MI as well. In fact, after 9/11, certain roles circulated between the ISI and the MI. Such an interchange of roles also gives rise to friction and competition between the two intelligence agencies. Apparently, the MI gained greater significance, especially during Musharraf’s last days in service, because the organisation’s head was related to the army chief and could bypass the military protocol through his direct links with Musharraf. The present army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who was the head of the ISI then, chose not to raise the issue despite the fact that being the DG ISI, he was meant to have greater access to the service chief than the DG MI.

Similar stories will only surface when there is a neutral examination of the intelligence agency. Musharraf, it is also claimed, had done some restructuring of the intelligence agencies. For instance, the ISI was responsible for coordinating activities while the MI was tasked with carrying out the operation against Nawab Akbar Bugti, which eventually led to his death. Such views underscore the larger argument that the army controls the ISI and the service chief has a major role to play in the agency’s strategic decision-making. So, when Ziauddin Butt said that each army chief brings his own style to the organisation, he is partly right because a lot depends on the service chief rather than the head of the ISI alone.

The argument regarding the army chief’s control of the ISI also raises questions about the claim that the militant outfits are encouraged by rogue elements of the intelligence agency. During his last years as the service chief, Musharraf had tried to encourage the idea that the militants were being helped by former ISI chiefs such as Hamid Gul. The former ISI chief certainly has connections with the Taliban and other militants outfits, but it would be unfair to overestimate his influence, or that of any other retired military officer. Given that the military is like any bureaucratic institution where those in command of decisions try to establish their own legacy rather than follow that of their predecessors, the ISI and the MI follow a more structured policy on militancy rather than just follow a former general.

One of the reasons for the ISI’s power lies in its financial autonomy. To date, there is no clear assessment of what the agency spends annually. Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, who is also one of the former ISI chiefs, once claimed that the government spends on the organisation as much as it would in purchasing a fighter aircraft. This means an annual budget of US$25-35 million that is part of the budget listed as ‘Inter-Services Organisations’ in the overall breakdown of annual defence spending revealed this year to the parliament. However, this approximate figure does not speak of the real estate forcibly acquired by the agency or its off-budget financing through many types of barons. One source claimed that the different business mafias and even the drug barons were some of the undisclosed sources of funding for the ISI. In any case, the American CIA and the ISI had tapped into drug smuggling during the first Afghan war to raise funds for many covert operations. In fact, during an interview, Nawaz Sharif once claimed that General Beg had approached him to authorise a drug-smuggling operation to finance a secret project. One wonders if Sharif would ever talk about this now. But more interesting is the about-turn of many in Pakistan regarding their opinion of the ISI.

Since the mounting US pressure to curtail the power of the intelligence agency, there are many who have now begun to consider the ISI as the saviour of national sovereignty and integrity. The question is, is this because such analysts and media people believe in its organisational integrity or is it due to the fear of the ISI? Not to mention the fact that over the past so many years the ISI has made critical inroads in the world of the media. Incidentally, buying off the media is not an anomaly. The tradition of paying journalists, politicians or significant members of the civil society is an old technique. It is just that the tool has now been perfected.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter