An Exceptional Secret Service


Lt Gen ® Asad Durrani, former Head of the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency

When “Smashing Lists”, a relatively unknown website till then, declared Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, the best of its kind, it gladdened my heart but also had me worried.

Soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I met an old colleague, a Special Forces officer recently inducted in the ISI. He whispered in my ear, ‘We have decided to support the Afghan resistance.’ Understandably. With the “arch enemy” India in the East and now not a very friendly Soviet Union on our Western borders, Pakistan had been placed in a ‘nutcracker’. We therefore had to take our chances to roll back the occupation. But did we have any chances against a ‘superpower’, and the only one in the region at that? Soon after the Soviet withdrawal, as the Director General of Military Intelligence, I was assigned to a team constituted to review Pakistan’s Afghan Policy. That, followed by a stint in the ISI, provided the answer. 

The Afghan tradition of resisting foreign invaders was indeed the sine qua non for this gambol to succeed. American support took two years in coming but when it did, this was one of the decisive factors. The ISI’s role -- essentially logistical, in that it channelled all aid and helped organise the resistance -- turned out to be pivotal. In the process, from a small time player that undertook to punch above its weight, rubbing shoulders with the best in the game catapulted the Agency into the big league and unsurprisingly, a matter of great concern not only for its foes.

Cooperation amongst secret services, even within a country, is not the norm. It took a 9/11 for the US to create a halfway coordinating mechanism. Between the CIA and the ISI, however, it worked out well as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan. The shared objective -- defeat of the occupation forces -- was one reason; respect for each other’s turf, was the more important one. The CIA hardly ever questioned how its Pakistani counterpart dispensed with the resources provided for the Jihad or for that matter how it was conducted. And the ISI never asked if the American providers were over-invoicing the ordnance or undermining the Saudi contribution.  It did not mean that they trusted each other.

The differences surfaced as soon as the Soviets withdrew. To start with, some of the key ISI operatives were vilified, allegedly for having favoured the more radical of the Afghan groups. The charge that the Agency was infested with rogue elements is thus an old one. Twice it led, under American pressure, to major purges in its rank and file. If it ever led to changes in policy is another matter to be dealt with a little later. In the early 1990s, we in the ISI understood this shift in American attitude as a big-brother’s desire to establish hegemony, but more crucially, now the Soviet Union after its withdrawal from Afghanistan had ceased to exist, it was to cut this upstart service to size.

The CIA was clearly at odds with our declared objective to help the Mujahedeen lead the new dispensation in Kabul, especially if individuals like Hikmatyar were to play an important part in it. And the US was indeed unhappy with Pakistan’s efforts to seek Iran’s cooperation after the Islamic Republic had made peace with Iraq. But what seemed to have caused the most anguish amongst our American friends were the prospects of an increasingly confident ISI, vain enough to throw spanners in the work of the sole surviving superpower. These apprehensions were not entirely ill-founded as the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 was soon to show.

Sometimes in 1992, General Scowcroft, a former national security advisor to the US President, reportedly conceded that the ISI’s assessment of Saddam’s forces was closer to the mark than their own, which was highly exaggerated. Now, if anyone else in the business was to broadcast its account every time the CIA “sexed-up” a threat to suit American objectives (next time on Iraq’s WMD holding for example), some pre-emption was obviously in order.  

Soon thereafter the ISI was cleansed of the old guard, most of them ostensibly for their infatuation with the “Jihadists” in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It must have served a few careers but when it came to taking decisions and making policies, the new guard had no choice but to put its shoulder behind the Taliban bandwagon. The militia was now, like it or not, the only group with a chance of reunifying the war-torn country; the inviolable and in principle the only condition for Pakistan’s support for the ‘endgame’, with no ideological or geopolitical caveats.

Initially the Americans and the Saudis too had wooed Mullah Omer, though for a different reason: their interest in a pipeline that was to pass through territory under Taliban control. Whether Pakistan should have ceased all support when this militant regime rejected its advice -- on accommodating the Northern Alliance or sparing the Bamiyan Statues, for example -- remains a moot point. After all, post 9/11 the Taliban did agree to our request to extradite Osama bin Laden, albeit to a third country. That was rejected by the US for reasons not for me to second-guess.   

The ISI was thereafter subjected to another purge in the hope that the refurbished setup would put its heart and soul behind the new decree: chase anyone resisting the American military operations in Afghanistan all the way to hell. That came to millions on both sides of the Pak-Afghan borders and who likely to be around long after the US troops had gone home, with some of them turning their guns inwards, as one must have noticed. Under the circumstances, neither the ISI nor other organs of the state had any will to operate against groups primarily primed to fight ‘foreign occupation’. If they also had the right to do so, or how this intrusion was otherwise to be defined, can be discussed ad-infinitum. Pakistan in the meantime has to fight a number of running battles.

So, this time around as well, it is not any ‘rogue elements’ in the ISI but the complexity of the crisis that necessitates selective use of force, essentially against the ‘rogue groups’, some of them undoubtedly planted or supported by forces inimical to our past and present policies. (Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know a bit more about the ‘counter-terrorism pursuit teams’.) If our political and military leadership also had the gumption to support the war against the NATO forces, in the belief that some of the present turmoil in the area would not recede as long as the world’s most powerful alliance was still around, does not seem very likely. If, however, a few rebels in the ISI had in fact undertaken this mission, they may be punching above their weight, once again.  

Indeed, the ISI suffers from many ailments, most of them a corollary of its being predominantly a military organisation, and of the Army’s exceptional role in Pakistani politics. But that is of no great relevance to this piece which is basically about the Agency’s role in the so-called ‘war on terror’,a euphemism for the war raging in the AfPak Region.

Epilogue: I do not know what all the ISI knew about Bin Laden’s whereabouts before he was reportedly killed, or when the Pakistani leadership was informed about the US operation on that fateful night. But the fact that we denied all knowledge or cooperation, even though the military and the police cordons were in place at the time of the raid, our helicopters were hovering over the area, and the Army Chief was in his command post at midnight, explains the Country’s dilemma. If its leadership was to choose between inability to defend national borders and complicity with the US to hunt down one person who defied the mightiest of the worldly powers, it would rather concede incompetence.  

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©Jules Stewart 2010