Pakistans ISI: A Kingdom Within a Kingdom?

Pakistan is one of the indispensable allies of the United States in the war on terror, especially in the current struggle against Taliban and other extremist movements in Central Asia. But the American relationship with Pakistan has remained precarious, partly because of the shadowy activities of Pakistans main intelligence service the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). According to Sean Winchell, until the Pakistani general and the President Pervez Musharraf took the organization under control, “the ISI has been a kingdom within a kingdom, answerable to neither the army nor Pakistans President.”

But the ISI always remained closer to — and more dependant — on the Army than on the civilian government. Pakistani leaders with close military ties have greatly increased the ISI mandate, increasing its power and influence within and outside Pakistan. Taking control of the ISI activities therefore will remain a great challenge for the civilian government in the foreseeable future.

The fact that the ISI has become such a powerful force in Pakistan can be explained by understanding its historical development. Pakistans loss of its wars to India in 1948, 1965, and 1971 were catalyzing moments for the future role of the ISI in Pakistani politics. Pakistan lost all three wars and the intelligence services were held partly responsible. The Pakistani leaders, especially the Army Chieff of Staff General Ayub Khan, who seized power in a coup in 1958, increased the ISI power and responsibilities to both consolidate political power within Pakistan and compensate for the losses to India by undermining the latter through sabotage and intelligence activities. Khans seizure of power added “a new political dimension to the ISIs responsibilities,” since now the ISI was to help the military leaders who distrusted civilian rule.”

The nature of the ISI has also been shaped by the influence of foreign intelligence agencies. It was initially modeled on the Iranian secret police SAVAK and in the 1960s and 1970s began to cooperate with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a coordinated effort to undermine the government of Indira Gandhi who was leaning more and more toward the Soviet Union.

During its early development, the ISI also received training from the French intelligence service the SDECE. But the tight cooperation between the ISI and the CIA began after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The CIA not only poured the ISI with money to train its cadre and channel the money to the Afghan mujahedeen, but also turned a blind eye to ISIs intelligence collection of nuclear technology in Europe and the smuggling of heroine and opium to finance its domestic and foreign activities.

As a result of these historical developments, the ISI became a “state within a state,” trusted with enormous power in terms of intelligence data, expertise, money, resources, and the responsibility to protect Pakistans national security. Most of the ISI membership also came from the Army and the military leaders such as General Zia Ul-Haq increased the fundamentalist element with the ISI staff. As a result, the ISI has distrusted civilian governments such as those of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, assassinating close relatives of civilian rulers and intimidating them. According to Hassan Abbas of Harvards Kennedy School of Governance, the ISI is supposed to be accountable to the Prime Minister as codified in the Constitution, but “its loyalties and interests lie” with the Army.

Due to ISI close ties to the Army, civilian governments of Bhutto and Sharif were unable to take control of the organizations activities. It was an Army man, General Musharraf, who was able to curb the ISI activities in the post-9/11 era. Musharraf was able to do so due to pressure from the United States and also due to the fact that he was a military leader. Musharraf realized that the only way to survive.

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