Pakistan’s ISI from the Inside


Assad Durrani.jpgThe best places to meet the world’s most interesting national security and foreign policy personalities are no longer Washington or London or Paris.  Rather, highest on the list are Beijing, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha.

Many years ago, I met Lt. General Asad Durrani in Beijing thanks to a conference organized by Australia’s Monash University.  We have been acquainted and communicating since. I remember arriving late to the conference and rushing in as the brash, younger-than-I-am-now upstart and sitting down at one of the lunch tables of ten.  I quickly met everyone and heard that Durrani was a general from Pakistan.  That’s all I knew. 

I asked him quickly not having known that he was essentially Pakistan’s Karla, or George Smiley, depending on your perspective, “Do you think President Musharraf really doesn’t control the ISI?”  Several faces went white at the table.  A jaw dropped.  Durrani’s eyes narrowed and he slowly said, “It may be in General Musharraf’s interests to pretend he has little control over the ISI.”  This is pure Durrani — layers, meaningful, informed, and no one’s flack.  

Then I realized looking at bios that he was the former chief of the ISI — and our accidental bluntness and candor has glued us together since.

Tonight, General Durrani sent me an essay he wrote, with very light editing by me.  These are his words, his insights into how Pakistan sees the Taliban and Afghanistan — as well as its competition with the US in the region.

I have permission to post the entire essay which I am doing.  I think that those interested in understanding the other side of the complex and stressed US-Pakistan relationship need to read a bit about the history of the ISI in the words of one of their own.

When I last met General Durrani at a conference organized by Al Jazeera in Doha, he said to me:

Steve, it is very hard for me to overstate to you the enthusiasm for which Pakistan’s generals have for the Taliban.

Durrani is not a booster for the Taliban; he is a hard core realist — and his view is that Pakistan’s generals prize the Taliban for its ability to give them “strategic depth”.  Whether you agree or not, his assessments are very much worth reading in full.

So, the rest from Lt. General and former ISI Chief Assad Durrani:

by Lt. General Asad Durrani

When Smashing Lists, a relatively unknown website, declared
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, the best of its kind,
it gladdened my heart but also had me worried.

Soon after the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan, I met
an old colleague, a Special Forces officer recently inducted in the ISI.
He whispered in my ears: “we have decided to support the Afghan
resistance”. Understandably. With the “archenemy”
India in the East and now not a very friendly
Soviet Union on our Western borders,
Pakistan had fallen between “nutcrackers”.

We therefore had to take our chances to rollback the
occupation; but did we have any against a ‘superpower’, and the only one
in the region at that? Soon after the Soviet
withdrawal, as the Director General of Military Intelligence, I was
assigned to a team constituted to review
Pakistan‘s Afghan Policy. That, followed by a stint in the ISI, provided the answer. 

Afghan tradition of resisting foreign invaders was indeed the sine qua
for this gamble to succeed. American support took two years in
coming but when it arrived, US support was one of the decisive factors.
The ISI’s role — essentially logistical in that it channelled all aid
and helped organise the resistance- turned out to be pivotal. In the
process, from a small time player that undertook to punch above its
weight, rubbing shoulders with the best in the game, the Americans,
catapulted the Agency into the big league.  Unsurprisingly, the ISI became a matter
of great concern not only for its foes.

Cooperation amongst secret services, even within the country, is not the norm. It took a 9/11 for the
US to create a
halfway-coordinating mechanism. Between the CIA and the ISI, however, communication and coordination worked out well as long as the Soviets were in
Afghanistan. The
shared objective — defeat of the occupation forces — was one reason;
respect for each other’s turf, the more important other.

CIA hardly ever
questioned how its Pakistani counterpart dispensed with the resources
provided for the Jihad or for that matter how it was conducted. And the
ISI never asked if the American providers were
over invoicing the ordnance or undermining the Saudi contribution. 
It did not mean that they trusted each other.

Differences, however, surfaced as soon as the Soviets withdrew. To start with,
some of the key ISI operatives were vilified, allegedly for having
favored the more radical of the Afghan groups. The charge
that the Agency was infested with rogue elements is thus an old one.
Twice these vilification campaigns led, under American pressure, to major purges of ISI’s rank and
file. If these episodes ever led to changes in policy is another matter.  In the early 1990s,
we in the ISI understood this shift in American attitude as a
big-brother’s desire to establish hegemony, but more crucially — now that
the Soviet Union after its withdrawal from Afghanistan had ceased to
exist — to cut this upstart service to size.

The CIA was clearly at odds with our declared objective to help the Mujahedeen lead the new dispensation in
Kabul, especially if individuals like Hikmatyar were to play an important part in it. And the
US was indeed unhappy with
Pakistan‘s efforts to seek Iran‘s cooperation after the Islamic Republic had made peace with
Iraq. But what
seemed to have caused the most anguish amongst our American friends were
the prospects of an increasingly confident ISI, vain enough to throw
spanners in the work of the sole surviving superpower.

These apprehensions were not entirely ill-founded as the Iraq-Kuwait
crisis of 1990-91 was soon to show.

Sometimes in 1992, General Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to
US Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush,
reportedly conceded that the ISI’s assessment of Saddam’s forces was
closer to the mark than their own, which highly exaggerated Saddam’s capacity. Now, if
anyone else in the business too was to broadcast
its account every time the CIA “sexed-up” a threat to suit American
objectives (next time on Iraq’s
WMD holding for example), some pre-emption was obviously in order.  

Soon thereafter the ISI was cleansed of the old guard, most of them ostensibly for their infatuation with the “Jihadists” in
Afghanistan and Kashmir. These purges must have served a few careers but when it came to taking decisions
and making policies, the new guard had no choice but to put
its shoulder behind the Taliban bandwagon. The Militia was now, like it
or not, the only group with a chance to reunify the war torn country;
the inviolable and in principle the only condition for
Pakistan‘s support for the “endgame”, with no ideological or geo-political caveats.

the Americans and the Saudis too had wooed Mullah Omar, though for a
different reason: their interest in a pipeline that was to pass through
territories under the Taliban control. If
Pakistan should have ceased all support when this militant regime rejected its advice — on accommodating the
Northern Alliance or
sparing the Bamyan Statues, for example — remains a moot point.

all, post 9/11 the Taliban did agree to our request to extradite Osama
bin Laden, albeit to a third country. That was
rejected by the
US for reasons not for me to second-guess.   

was thereafter subjected to another purge in the hope that the
refurbished setup would put its heart and soul behind the new decree:
‘chase anyone resisting the American military operations
Afghanistan all the way to hell’. That came to millions on both sides of the Pak-Afghan borders; likely to be around long after the
US troops had gone
home, with some of them turning their guns inwards as one must have
noticed. Under the circumstances, neither the ISI nor other organs of
the state had any will to operate against groups
primarily primed to fight “foreign occupation”. If they also had the
right to do so, or how this intrusion was otherwise to be defined, can
be discussed ad-infinitum.
Pakistan in the meantime has to fight a number of running battles.

So, this
time around as well, it is not any “rogue elements” in the ISI but the
complexity of the crisis that necessitates selective use of force;
essentially against the “rogue groups”, some of
them undoubtedly planted or supported by forces inimical to our past
and present policies. (Thanks to the Wikileaks, we now know a bit more
about the “counter-terrorism pursuit teams”.)

If our political and
military leadership also had the gumption to support
the war against the NATO forces — in the belief that some of the present
turmoil in the area would not recede as long as the world’s most
powerful alliance was still around — does not seem very likely. If,
however, a few rebels in the ISI had in fact undertaken
this mission, they may be punching above their weight, once again.  

the ISI suffers from many ailments, most of them a corollary of its
being predominantly a military organisation and of the Army’s
exceptional role in Pakistani politics. But that is of
no great relevance to this piece which is basically about the Agency’s
role in the so-called “war on terror”; a euphemism for the war raging in
the AfPak Region.

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. 

The most important takeaway from this fascinating snapshot of the ISI, the Taliban, and Pakistan’s view of America and its strategic choices is that Pakistan will never be a predictable puppet of US interests.

— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons


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