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A Force To Be Reckoned With

In the past, Pakistan's clandestine ISI has operated with almost complete autonomy. While it retains its cloak of secrecy, the service is now focused strictly on more reputable pursuits.

The Pakistan Directorate General of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is a secret service. Its budget, manning, deployment, aims and objectives are not available to the public - or even to senior bureaucrats, politicians and military officers of the country. It is accountable to the Chief of the Army Staff and, through him, to the government.

Chief of the Army Staff General Waheed (and his predecessor, who died prematurely of natural causes), achieved control over the ISI, which, during the years of the Afghan conflict, was almost a law unto itself.

With the support of the CIA and other Western intelligence elements, the Directorate assisted the Mujahideen to fight against the former USSR and the Kabul Government. There were few holds barred in the ISI's aid to the fighters within Afghanistan, and the organization grew and prospered. Funds were abundant, and so was equipment.

Some of the most sophisticated materiel of the time was given to the ISI for monitoring Soviet electronic emissions. Satellite imagery, with better resolution than provided to Kabul and Delhi by the former USSR, came regularly into the ISI HQ. USAF aircraft landing in darkness in Pershawar and Rawalpindi were unloaded by ISI personnel under the knowing eyes of the CIA, which much later was to regret its failure to record the numbers of Stinger missiles.

Yet in the 1980s the ISI was also being used, by the then President Zia, in an internal security role.

At this time the organization was expanded. With funds provided by several foreign intelligence services it was able to move into wider areas, both within and outside Pakistan. Blind eyes were turned to its more imaginative operations in the interests of defeating the Soviets.

In the 1980s the ISI's main objectives were the confounding of the former USSR in Afghanistan, normal counter-intelligence, gathering of information on regional countries by covert means, neutralization of political opponents in Pakistan and abroad, acquiring "assets" - agents in mainly India - and operations designed to embarrass India as much as possible, preferably publicly.

A number of successes were achieved. The major counter-intelligence targets were former Soviet Bloc agencies and the Indian equivalent, the 'Research and Analysis Wing' (RAW), India's efficient (if on occasions bureaucratically mismanaged) secret intelligence service.

The RAW remains a priority of the ISI, but during the Zia years the concentration on internal affairs reduced the effectiveness of operations against that threat. Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party along with other opposition political groups were subjected to harassment and worse during the period.

After Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, in Pakistan's first democratic elections in decades, she appointed a retired general, Kalloo, as head of the ISI, to replace Lt Gen Hameed Gul, a hard-line professional. (Gen Gul went on to successfully command an armoured corps, but continued to involve himself in affairs that were not his prerogative. He fell foul of a later chief of army staff and then resigned.

When Ms Bhutto's government was dismissed by the President, her ISI Director General was forced out as well.

His replacement was Asad Durrani, a former army intelligence chief. A professional intelligence officer, highly respected in European capitals, he began the cleansing of the ISI to rid it of the doctrinaire element. In this he was forceful and successful but a new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, attempting to placate his more extreme religious elements, appointed Javed Nasir in his place. This was against the wishes of the then Chief of the Army Staff, who was overseas at the time and vexed to learn of the appointment.

Nasir continued support for the Hekmatyar faction in Afghanistan, manifestly a lost cause. He led prayers at the Pakistan/Afghan border at a time when peace seemed within the grasp of men of goodwill, in which number many would say Hekmatyar is decidedly excluded. Consequently, Nasir had to go.

The present Director General is Lt Gen Javed Ashraf, another professional intelligence officer. The least accessible of all Director Generals in the last six years despite his pleasant personality, he is a devoted family man with few interests outside his profession. He keeps himself to himself and is intent, with the complete support of the Chief of the Army Staff, in having the ISI remain outside Pakistan's internal politics.

The ISI has always operated in a robust manner. Page One; Paragraph One of instructions for defence attaches proceeding en Poste contains the following advice: "Do not become sexually involved in your host country; you are a prime target."

In 1990, for example, there was a case of a married Indian Navy officer, serving in Islamabad in 1990, who went to a Pakistani Navy parade in Karachi and met a female Pakistani major. During the next year their liaison became closer. The denouncement came when ISI showed him the videos. He refused to co-operate and confessed to his high commissioner. On his instant return to Delhi he was dismissed from the service.

In this case the ISI had failed (in recruitment if not in embarrassing India), but there have been some modest successes over the years with other attaches and diplomats, both within Pakistan and overseas.

The present Chief of Army Staff is intent that the ISI should not be involved in politics inside the country. It conducts operations against foreign services, gathering information about and actively confounding possible external security threats, but on no account is the ISI now concerned with Pakistan's internal politics.

Kashmir was another matter. Towards the end of the tenure of Javed Nasir he admitted there had been three camps within Pakistan providing training to Kashmiri guerrillas to fight the Indian Army in 'Indian-occupied' Kashmir (that part of Kashmir is under Indian control following UN resolutions that have not been repealed or altered). The ISI, under Nasir's direction and that of some of his predecessors, had been involved in supporting the guerrillas, but the assistance was ended because of pressure from the US and other governments and distaste on the part of the then Chief of Army Staff.

The present Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff does not countenance anything other than Pakistani 'popular' support for the Kashmiris, which is, understandably, widespread. There is no question of his allowing the current ISI Director General to engage in covert operations in support of Kashmiri separatists. Replacement of about 40 senior and middle-ranking ISI officers who were involved in such operations is evidence of the ISI being brought back on the rails of relatively conventional intelligence activities.

The ISI is an effective organization that has a good reputation in the world intelligence community. It is co-operating with other reputable services (especially concerning drug-smuggling), and even with former foes such as Russia (the present Director General visited Moscow in March last year).

For as long as control of the organization remains firmly in the hands of the apolitical military leadership, the ISI will continue to be a force to be reckoned with - without the previous stigma of being used as an agency involved in pursuit of political enemies by whatever government might use it for such ends.