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Faith Unity Discipline: An Incomplete Picture Of Pakistan’s ISI

August 6, 2011

Pakistani General Ahmed Shuja Pasha

Pictured above is current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen conversing with Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha (holding a baton). Between the two, it’s General Pasha who’s the person of interest. He’s the current head of the ISI and late last month he went to China. That’s hardly two weeks since another high ranking Pakistani officer, General Waheed Arshad, also visited and had the good fortune to elicit an offer of advanced J-10 fighters.

When the current war in Afghanistan finally draws to a viable close, those with the gumption for a reflective history of the conflict must not ignore the ISI’s invisible hand. Better known as Inter-Services Intelligence, the spy arm of the Pakistani military establishment has come a long way since it first rose to some prominence organizing the Mujahideen resistance against the Soviets.

If the fallout from the assassination of Osama bin Laden and continuing turmoil in Pakistan’s tribal areas are any indicator, the ISI must have its hands full. Not only is the agency receiving flak from home and abroad, but they’re still grappling with internal problems they helped create.

But there is a certain sureness among even the most casual observers of the AfPak Wars that the ISI are somehow the biggest stakeholders in the region. After all, whatever the term ‘strategic depth’ means to the Pakistani generals, the very tools to accomplish such an ill-defined goal with regards to the Afghan theatre are the ISI themselves. But who are they?

The following are a series of snippets taken from various  sources who’ve weighed in on the ISI through historical accounts and attempts at discerning its doctrine. The whole point is to best portray the most compulsive force in Central Asian geopolitics today.

According to the ISI’s official website, they are:

… one of the best and very well organized, top ranking intelligence agency in the world. This organization is working under a predefined constitutional and legal frame work and who’s GD (Director General/Head – Lt. Gen) is completely answerable in front of the Head of the state and some times and in some cases in front of the Chief of the Army Staff.

[Note: The official bio ends with the appointment of Lieutenant General Pasha in 2001.]

This sentiment is shared by a former ISI man himself, Lieutenant General Assad Durani, who wrote an illuminating essay for The Atlantic in July. One of the most telling parts is:

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. 

Of course, such antiseptic and subtle wordage does make it clear that when on their own turf, the ISI have more cunning in their little finger than anyone else. As for the big question: Did they harbor bin Laden? While most are inclined to answer ‘yes’ let history set the record straight.

Here is a rare description of what passes for the ISI’s main headquarters, from the Guardian’s Declan Walsh:

The answer may lie inside the ISI’s headquarters in Abpara, on the edge of Islamabad. The entrance, beside a private hospital, is suitably discreet: no sign, just a plainclothes officer packing a pistol who direct visitors through a chicane of barriers, soldiers and sniffer dogs. But inside, past the smooth electric gates, lies a neatly tended cluster of adobe buildings separated by smooth lawns and tinkling fountains that resembles a well-funded private university. Cars purr up to the entrance of the central building, a modern structure with a round, echoing lobby. On the top floor sits the chief spy: the director general Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a grey-haired 59-year-old three-star general. One American counterpart describes him as “brilliant and extremely intelligent . . . Thoughtful, pensive and extremely well read; if he was in the US military he would be a very successful officer.”

Wikipedia also has an extensive profile of the ISI that covers much of its operational history. It presents a fair record of missteps (the 1965 and 1971 wars with India), successes with the Mujahideen and later the Taliban, plus the sheer audacity to parlay the strategic designs of a world power in contemporary times.

Another glaring facet of the ISI is how it purged Islamists from its ranks on several occasions under US pressure. Judging by the current state of affairs in the AfPak Wars, whether such moves worked effectively is another matter. While a considerable amount of information is available through simple Google research, a definitive volume on the ISI must be written. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind a willing audience is eager for such a book/ebook. (Even better if it were distributed a s a free download.)

Whether the ISI manages to stay relevant until the next big Central Asian war remains to be seen, but ever since they first linked with the CIA it seems the organization has become more and more resilient.

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