October 10, 2006 at 12:45 am (Afghanistan, History, India, Islam, Islamism, Military, Pakistan, South Asia, The United States, The West, US Government, War)

The ISI — Inter-Services Intelligence — is one of the most notorious entities in Pakistani politics and infrastructure. It is perhaps one of the most powerful entities in Pakistan. Thoroughly military, it has had a hand in many issues. As paranoid as some Pakistanis may be about the CIA or Mossad, they ought to be as paranoid (if not more) about the ISI.

To be fair, the ISI has changed a lot from its creation. It was created in 1948; its powers were first expanded by Field Marshal Ayyub Khan (military ruler from 1958 to 1969); its powers were expanded even more, evolving slowly to become thereafter the potent and unruly force it often proves to be, under General Zia-ul-Haq (military ruler from 1978 to 1988). (Lots of 8s!)

The duty of the ISI is to coordinate intelligence, train spies, and provide security. Thanks to the expansion of its powers, it also watches political parties, supports Islamist terrorism, and even carries out terrorist attacks (directly or by proxy).

The problem is that the ISI can no longer be controlled. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pakistani military government tried to purge it of all who would still support the Taliban. But this has not worked out. Various elements within the ISI have even plotted the assassination of Musharraf because of his efforts to stop support for Islamist terrorism and to rein in the ISI – several of these plots have been foiled. Short of conducting a major and bloody purge, the ISI will remain at odds with any non-Islamist government. (The ISI supports Islamism even if key members do not, as the role of Naseerullah Babar, a secularist who was responsible for the creation of the Taliban to rule Afghanistan under an Islamist regime, demonstrates.) To have such a powerful, well-financed, well-armed, and dedicated entity to act on its own initiative rather than acting under the guidance of the government in power — and especially acting on its own initiative against the government in power — is quite dangerous indeed.

It is no surprise, then, that the ISI continues to support the Taliban. One must also be aware that the ISI in involved in a large number of anti-Indian operations. Practically every entity vexing India, from militant political parties to separatist movements to religious terrorists, are supported by the ISI. As such, the ISI does not carry out attacks directly against India, or any other target except for a number of domestic operations, but does so through others.

The ISI will prove to be a major thorn in the Pakistani government’s side, present and future, Islamist or not. The Pakistani government, and even Pakistani people, recognize that stability and harmony only lead to Pakistan’s own progress. This progress not only has to do with Pakistan’s international prestige but also support for its economy from abroad. If India and Pakistan, for example, were to have open and free relations, including trade and tourism, it could only be a good thing. But the ISI does not want good relations. Good relations means decreasing support for and involvement with terrorism, which in turn decreases the ISI’s relevance. The ISI would rather take out a Pakistani regime than become irrelevant or tied down. As such, the ISI’s continued support for foreign (and some relevant domestic) terrorist entities strains relations not only between Pakistan and other states but also relations between various entities within the government and within the military.

For example, Pakistan and India recently announced that they would set up a joint entity to deal with terrorism. How will this entity deal with support from terrorism by an entity of the Pakistani military?

But what is Pakistan to do? If the government cracks down on the ISI, the ISI will fight back. It would be a very bloody and tumultuous effort, and there’s no way to tell even if such an effort would be worth it, there’s no way to tell if the Pakistani government can win. A civil war among civilian entities is quite disastrous; a civil war between military factions would be downright catastrophic.

In this case, the Pakistani government is doomed either way. If it doesn’t try to rein in the ISI, it will justly receive international condemnation and even face dire consequences. The United States, for example, will not permit Pakistan to allow its military to support anti-American Islamist terrorism. (This has been made clear by a number of ambiguous (for diplomatic purposes) and clear threats lately.) On the other hand, the Pakistani government can’t rein in the ISI, and even if it tries it will only draw the ISI’s ire (which could be violently unpleasant) or simply fail. It is also quite embarrassing to pledge cooperation and then be exposed as attacking the very people it pledged to help. Although to be fair, one cannot lump cooperation-supporting elements and strife-supporting elements into one category; the cooperation-supporting government should be considered separately from strife-supporting elements within the military. Of course, even making such a distinction really doesn’t help anyone: in either case, Pakistan is unable to control its agencies.

But, to a degree, Pakistan needs the ISI. As the ISI is in charge of counterintelligence, it protects Pakistan from foreign intelligence agents and operations. How would Pakistan protect itself internally from foreign threats if the ISI were to be dismantled? As no other entity is so involved, developed, and crucial in this aspect of national security, there would be no one to take over were the ISI to be dismantled.

Furthermore, the ISI’s counterterrorism operations are crucial for the national security of The United States and The United Kingdom. The anti-American airlines plot recently foiled in England was thanks to the help and cooperation of the ISI, as reluctant as I am to admit it. If the ISI were to be dismantled, how would Pakistan, The United States, The United Kingdom, and Afghanistan cooperate against terrorism and terrorist plots? The ISI is probably the best positioned of all the world’s intelligence agencies to know about what is going on in the Islamist terrorist world.

Unless the ISI’s Islamist nature is eradicted and unless the ISI’s focus is reoriented, the ISI will remain a threat for Pakistan, for the Pakistani government, and for other states. It just may be that push will come to shove as The United States, Afghanistan, and India put their feet down collectively and force Pakistan to dismantle the ISI’s involvement with and support for anything considered as a foreign entity (including Pakistani-based terrorist organizations operating in other areas, such as Kashmir). But I doubt such an event will come to pass. In any case, the future cannot in any way be foreseen in this part of the world. No one knows what tomorrow will bring.



  1. Hiren said,

    Interesting write up. I read somewhere that the Pakistani Army does not want peace between India and Pakistan becasue then, its importance shall diminish. It has become a vested interest.

    In India, the word ISI stands for Indian Standard Institute. Both ISIs have high standards but the variance in causes could not have been greater.

  2. ekawaaz said,

    Very nice post, ISI is creating more problme for Pakistan itself than for any other country. They are helping and training Talibans, they should dismental for the sake of peace in south asia and even in Pakistan. They are more than any one reponsible in ethnic cleansing in Pakistan, terrorsim in India. They already started proxy war game with India, they are training talibans to fight against Nato forces in Afghanistan. If Pakistan really want peace and better furture for its own citizen they should dismental thsi organisation.

  3. ekawaaz said,


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