Unravelling the ISI

Print edition : February 03, 2017

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Former ISI chief Hamid Gul addressing students of an Islamic religious school in 2001. Kiessling considers him the most hardline of all ISI chiefs. A file photograph. Photo: AP/SHABBIR HUSSAIN IMAM

Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (left) and ISI chief Gen. Mehmood (second from right), after a ceremony on August 14, 2001, to mark the country’s 54th Independence Day in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

A laudable account of the evolution of Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agency and its expanding role in the country’s internal and external affairs.

PAKISTAN'S Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is considered one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. But not much has been written about the ISI and its functioning and set-up, and it is difficult to get inside the spectrum of a spy agency and extract enough details to make a book. On the face of it, getting to know the functioning of the ISI seems to be a “dangerous task” given the fact that it has been portrayed dismally, particularly when it comes to India versus Pakistan. But in this book, the German scholar Hein G. Kiessling has taken up the assiduous task of going into the roots of the agency. Faith, Unity, Discipline is the outcome of hard work done by the author to bring to the public domain all the facets of the agency, including its role within and outside Pakistan.

For many people, who view it from at a distance, the ISI is a “state within a state” and that expression merited a book on the subject. Surprisingly, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has not fiddled much with it in spite of the fact that Washington and Islamabad have had to work closely, especially after 9/11. The book points to Major General Robert Cawthorne, the then Deputy Chief of Staff in the Pakistan Army, as the one who established the ISI in 1947-48 in the wake of the India-Pakistan war. For years, according to the author, the agency remained underdeveloped and obscure and rose in stature only in the 1970s during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule.

The current popular perception that the ISI has carved out a much larger space in the political-security set-up of the country and that it controls the politics of Pakistan is a direct result of Bhutto’s acts of creating a space for the agency and also allowing a political wing in it to keep an eye on politics. The author describes how Bhutto gave wings to the agency, upgraded the position of the ISI head to a three-star general, increased its budget substantially and installed the internal security wing. But it let him down when the crucial political-military conflict unfolded later. The ISI, as the author details, flourished under General Zia ul-Haq, spread itself out in the political domain and also acquired a new dimension that was in line with the Islamic character dominating Pakistan’s politics then.

The ISI came into full bloom in 1979 after it aligned with the CIA and the Afghan mujahideen to fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It assumed the lead role in shaping Pakistan’s Afghan policy and implementing it in actual terms. Control of arms that came with the help of the U.S. soon saw the agency evolving as a virtual establishment. As the author points out, both politicians and military generals used the ISI to fend off their own troubles from time to time, and in doing so ended up giving full legitimacy to the agency. It is well known that politicians have been crying themselves hoarse over the ISI’s role but think nothing of using it to serve their own ends. The head of the ISI is always chosen by the Prime Minister and the President whenever a democratic government is in power. The author points out that in some cases the politicians overruled the generals in choosing the ISI chief.

There are some interesting accounts about the tussle within the ISI and the showdown over the selection of the agency’s heads. The ISI chiefs appointed by political leaders did not last long and also faced incarceration. Lt Gen. Shamsur Rehman Kallu was appointed ISI chief by Benazir Bhutto but was not effective. Lt Gen. Ziauddin Khawaja, who was Nawaz Sharif’s appointee, did not find favour with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He was sent packing after Nawaz Sharif’s coup against Musharraf failed. Buying peace with the Army has always been on top of the agenda of the politicians who ruled the country. For instance, in 1992, when Army Chief Asif Nawaz Janjua launched an operation in Sindh, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s support for it was half-hearted because he feared the clean-up would help the Pakistan Peoples’ Party gain power. This worsened the relations between the Prime Minister and the Army Chief. Sharif tried to broker peace with Asif Nawaz and sent a BMW car as a gift but it was returned.

Kiessling lived in Pakistan from 1989 to 2002. This helped him develop a close relationship with the ISI hierarchy and the top leadership of Pakistan’s polity and military. His long exposure and close professional interactions with the players who mattered have been put to good use in the book. He profiles all the ISI chiefs, right from the British Major General to Lt Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, who was replaced after Gen. Qamar Bajwa took over as the Army Chief. He characterises all of them with special focus on their approach towards India and the U.S. However, he describes Hamid Gul as the most hard-line chief of the agency with his extremist views dominating his conduct.

He also gives insight into how Javed Ashraf Qazi, Asad Durrani, Mahmood Ahmed and Ehsan ul Haq worked and also became “controversial” for varied reasons.

Kiessling devotes much of his book to the ISI’s evolution as a powerful agency after the Afghanistan war and its expanding role in Pakistan’s internal and external affairs. Engagement with Mullah Omar, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the love-hate relationship between the U.S. and the ISI are some important areas that make the book an interesting read. A deeper understanding of the book vis-a-vis U.S.-Pakistan relations reveals that the ISI has hardly “surrendered” before the CIA and at times has even made its functioning difficult, despite the fact that the ISI became a potent agency only thanks to U.S. largesse.