Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Pakistani Intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has recently come under the spotlight by virtue of its involvement in activities both within- and outside of- Pakistan that are controversial, eliciting dialogue locally, regionally and internationally. From one side there are accusations that Pakistani Intelligence is the military, financial, and moral support behind the Taliban movement, which enabled the former to control most of Afghanistan’s territory before the coalition forces removed the Taliban from power after the September 11 attacks. Among the accusations now is that is that a large number of ISI members still continue to support Taliban elements in an attempt to regain their control of southern Afghanistan. From another side, there are allegations that the ISI is the backbone that supports Islamic activists in Kashmir, India to launch attacks against its targets in India – thus emerged the suspicions of Islamabad’s involvement in any bomb attacks that occurs in India. Critics of the ISI say that when the agency worked closely with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that it resembled an “obscure agency” and an “invisible government” that is likely to play an important role in shaping or terminating the Pakistani government, as well as in secretive political negotiations, and the making or breaking of agreements.
The ISI has been the center of international attention since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1979 when the agency started funding and supporting the Afghan- Arab fighters against the Soviet occupation. However, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf forced the ISI to completely reverse its policy regarding Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. And yet the link between Pakistani Intelligence and extremist organizations, in addition to the ISI’s external escapades still exist within the agency despite the current rhetoric that it plays an effective role in the war against terrorism on an international level, and that it helps the western democratic systems in confronting terrorism that is related to the fundamentalist Islamic movements in Asia.
According to the former head of the ISI’s Afghanistan section, Brigadier Mohamed Youssef, during the confrontation between the Taliban and Soviet forces, the Pakistani Intelligence aided Afghani fighters in their attacks in Central Asia, which was controlled by the Soviet Union – at the request of William Casey, then the director of the CIA. In 1987, three groups from the ISI crossed the Amu Darya region into the Soviet-controlled central Asia and conducted provocative military maneuvers close to the border. The first group fired missiles on to an airport in Uzbekistan; the second group, comprised of 20 members launched grenades, which they carried on their shoulders, in raids as directed by the ISI on the road situated at the border. Together, both groups managed to destroy a number of Soviet vehicles. The third group targeted a factory that was located 10 miles into Soviet land using highly explosive 107mm caliber missiles. Pakistani officials recount that the Soviet issued serious threats to Islamabad via their ambassador after the attacks and requested that the Pakistani government withdraw its groups from Central Asia. This was all happening at the time when Afghani warlord Qalb al Din Hikmetyar was in Pakistan receiving financial support from the ISI. However the Intelligence agency was quick to change its client with rise of the Taliban militia, which it started to give logistical and military support when the former launched its campaign to force a centralized rule on all of Afghanistan. Under the influence of the ISI, the Pakistani government started permitting the provision of the Taliban with spare parts for weapons and military equipment, and fuel with trade concessions so as to help it confront another fierce warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had started to show anti-Pakistani inclinations in contrast to maintaining friendly relations with India. The justification given by the government and the ISI was that this assistance would bring the Taliban closer to Pakistan at the beginning of their confrontation with Massoud, which took place between 1995-96.
Analysts agree that that the ISI and some circles in the Pakistani government played a major role in the Taliban’s victories against other warlords. And yet representatives from the ISI have strongly rejected the idea that they were responsible for establishing the Taliban. In a statement, former Director-General of the ISI General Hamid Gul said, “It is wrong to attribute the creation of the Taliban to the ISI. It was a reaction to the situation of Afghanistan at the time. The ISI began, with US assistance, [to quell the situation] because everyone wanted to end the conflict between the warring Afghani factions.”
But circumstances have changed as Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said in an interview with Asharq Al Awsat, adding, “We do not favor anyone above another in Afghanistan. We have made this clear to all the involved parties. The past is history and we want to develop strong relations with all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan.”
The ISI had a significant political influence in Pakistan during the ‘90s whereby Pakistani diplomats agreed to a decision issued by the ISI to recognize the Taliban regime in the spring of 1997. Nawaz Sharif, the presiding Prime Minister of Pakistan during the aforementioned resolution, only found out about it after reading the newspapers the next morning. Years of support for the Taliban are the reason behind the encounters with al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden’s aides. This association would cost the ISI a lot later, and it was responsible for casting a shadow over the Pakistani Intelligence despite its participation in the international coalition against terrorism.
Former Director-General Mahmoud [Ahmad] of the ISI went on a visit to Washington to meet with senior American officials after the September attacks in 2001. He was also the one to lead two Pakistani delegations to Kandahar in an attempt to persuade the Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US before the latter launched its attack on Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. Shortly preceding the American attack, President Musharraf removed General Mahmoud and replaced him with the more moderate General Ehsan-ul-Haq, as the former had close ties with the Taliban – which stood in the way of capturing bin Laden. But capturing bin Laden, or the failure to do so is not the reason behind the September 11th attacks. The ISI had presented the US with a plan to arrest al Qaeda’s leader, or to kill him in a raid led by special security forces. The head of the ISI [Director-General Mahmoud], who went on an official visit to Washington in December 1998 formally submitted the plan to the American administration.
The plan mandated training a team to form a secret squad to be selected from the Pakistani unit with the purpose of ensnaring bin Laden and ‘putting him on trial’ as the Americans had said. Presented to the United States Special Operations Command, it proposed state-of-the-art means of communication and military equipment and the joint training of a team by the ISI in cooperation with the CIA. Aside from the fact that the Americans have always been wary of the Pakistani Intelligence agency, they also believed that it was infiltrated with Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers to the point where they didn’t believe that it formed a solid basis to execute a joint training operation between the two intelligence agencies. Those same fears were also the reason behind President Musharraf’s suspension of the special forces after took over in 1999. He also ordered a restructuring of the Pakistani intelligence in 2002 after Pakistan was subject to increasing international pressure following reports on the links between members of the ISI and activist extremist organizations in the region. What was more blatant was the decision to ban the Kashmiri and Afghani units in the intelligence. Some officials were forced into retirement while others returned to the army. Experts estimated that these steps could significantly reduce the impact of the ISI.
Following the 9/11 attacks there was a cleansing within the intelligence agency ridding it of all those who did not second General Musharraf’s view regarding the Taliban and al Qaeda. And yet there remained questions about the extent of central control exercised over the ISI notwithstanding the fact that General Musharraf, as the leader of the army, should be able to control the agency, which is part of the army structure that bows to its authority.
The mission to capture al Qaeda’s leader remained unaccomplished because most of the Americans who were busy on the joint training of the special forces unit later were of the opinion that if the Pakistanis really wanted to help the CIA to capture bin Laden all they needed to do was to inform them where he was hiding and that there was no need for the team they had started to train. And yet there was another shadow looming over the ISI, namely, its support of Islamic extremists in Kashmir, which sought to separate from India to become an autonomous state, or join Pakistan. The ISI employed methods it had learned and practiced for years in Afghanistan to operations it was executing in the region, especially in Kashmir. It integrated local and foreign extremists to fight together against the Indian army. The ISI was implicated in secretly supporting the Kashmiri fighters in their struggle against the Indian authorities.
Reports indicated that Operation Tupac combined three parties within a framework and included a plan of action to take over Kashmir by means of a war that was initiated by the presiding President at the time Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. During the ‘90s, there were at least six major extremist organizations and several smaller ones operating in Kashmir, the estimated force of which was five to ten thousand armed men. The strongest pro-Pakistani group operating in Kashmir is the Hizbul Mujahideen. Another major power is Harkat-ul-Ansar, which reports indicate includes a large number of non-Kashmiri members. Other organizations include al-Umr, al-Barq, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which are mainly comprised of fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of these extremists have been trained in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which led Indian authorities to accuse the ISI of managing training camps for fundamentalists near the Bangladeshi borders in the late ‘90s. Indian authorities claimed that the ISI was responsible for training members of the various separatist groups from the north-eastern states in Bangladesh.
Movements within the ISI that support the Kashmiri fighters who seek independence from India are widely accepted in Pakistani society. Analysts believe that even within the ranks of the Pakistani army and intelligence there is very strong support for the Kashmiri cause. According to Suhail Nasser, a Pakistani journalist based in Islamabad, “The Taliban was supporting a small Pashtun group in Pakistan, but the situation is completely different from Kashmir which receives full support from the Pakistani Intelligence.” The Indian apprehension of the ISI runs deep to the point that some refer to it as the ‘ISI-phobia’ and it is a fear that manifests amongst the Indian politicians and media, surpassing the political and security issues to a terrorism that knows no borders. There exist allegations that the ISI is involved in spreading the plague virus in the Indian state of Rajasthan, and that it has plans to spread the AIDS virus into the ranks of the Indian armed forces. Indian authorities now contend that they have undisputable evidence regarding the ISI’s involvement in the explosions in Mumbai, which they will present in a meeting between senior diplomats from both countries, which will be held later this month. MK Narayanan, the Indian national security advisor, commented on the ISI’s involvement in the bombings saying, “I would hesitate to say that we have incriminating evidence, but we have good evidence. We have links and confessions and quite a large number of detainees.”
Other serious accusations leveled at the ISI include that it turns a blind eye on the activities of fundamentalists within Pakistan to the point that no terrorist operation can take place regardless of its location without finding a link connecting it back to Pakistan, whether on a funding, teaching or training level, or involving Pakistanis or others who had visited the country. An example is the 7/7 bombings in London after which Britain called for the dismantling and restructuring of the British Intelligence.
A report issued by the British Ministry of Defense said that the United States and the United Kingdom cannot begin to change the tide of terrorist operations without being able identify the real enemies, which would enable them to implement a more just vision. It required Pakistan to end its military rule and to dismantle its intelligence and replace it with a substitute. Musharraf emphatically rejected this and said, “I totally, 200 percent reject it. I reject it from anybody – British Ministry of Defense or anyone who tells me to dismantle ISI.” He pointed out that the west would lose the battle against terrorism and extremism without the help of the ISI. He added that Pakistani Intelligence provides crucial and accurate information to the west in its battle against terrorism. He added that the “ISI is a disciplined force, breaking the back of al Qaeda. Getting 680 people would not have been possible if our ISI was not doing an excellent job.” He cited the example of the ISI providing the British authorities with precise information which led them to foil a massive mid-air terrorist attack to blow up a US-bound aircraft by British residents of Pakistani origin last August. The ISI’s participation during the 2002 electoral campaign is known in Pakistan. Intelligence officials appeared as key players behind the scenes in selecting nominees who supported the government.
Politicians worldwide have claimed to have been visited by the ISI and other government officials both of whom tried to persuade them to join the organization led by Azzam, which is backed by the government, and in some cases some were threatened to be accused with corruption charges in the future if they did not comply. The ISI’s participation in internal politics dates back to when General Ayyub Khan was in power in the 1950s, who was also the one behind expanding the agency’s role to protect Pakistani interests and monitoring the oppositional politicians while promoting military rule in Pakistan. Critics of the ISI accuse the agency as being the mentor behind the electoral victory that Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) achieved. The United Action Front, which embodies six religious parties, joined the Pakistani parliament in large numbers for the first time in Pakistani history. Critics claim that the religious parties were favored over the secular political forces such as Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nawaz Sharif.
Specializing in security issues, Journalist Suheil Nasser said, “Known links between the ISI and the MMA are often cited as an example of the enduring support of extremist religious organizations that operate in the region.”
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal continues to have close relations with the Taliban – which is yet another reason to fear.